I was nearly 20 years old before I found my voice. I don’t mean that in a metaphorical way, but in a literal sense. It was a typical night out for me at that age. I had been out on the dance floor for hours when I decided I needed some water.
As I was standing a the bar waiting for it, I heard a voice to my left say, “Let me buy you a drink.” I looked up to see a tall, decent-looking, older (to me at the time) fellow. I thanked him but explained that I had to drive home that night, so no booze for me. He seemed a bit put out by this, but nodded his head and that was that, or so I thought.
I don’t really recall the exact series of events of what happened next, but I remember him following me around the club for the rest of the night. Trying to talk to me, grabbing at my arms—and at one point, even trying to touch my hair.
I was beside myself. I didn’t know what to do to get him to leave me alone. I had asked politely, but he had not listened. Yet he had not done anything “wrong,” like grabbing my butt or something, so I didn’t want to get him into trouble by asking the bouncers to kick him out. And my friends, all drunk and/or high, were no help either.
Finally, it dawned on me I might have to be “rude.” Meaning I might have to put aside politeness in order to get him to go away. The next time I turned around and the guy was standing right there, in my personal space, I opened my mouth to tell him to get lost… but nothing came out.
It was like my voice was literally stuck in the middle of my throat—as though it was a tangible thing I was choking on.
It was like my voice was literally stuck in the middle of my throat—as though it was a tangible thing I was choking on. I knew what I wanted to say, but I could not get the words to exit my mouth. I had no idea why I couldn’t physically talk. I felt so overwhelmed and helpless, and I started to cry.
Finally, I felt something break loose. Break free. I started yelling at him as loudly as I could to get away from me, to leave me alone… to F*CK OFF!
At that point, it clearly looked like a fight was about to happen, and the bouncers intervened. I got kicked out of the club that night, but I knew that from then on, I would never have trouble finding my voice.
Years later, I was talking about this incident with a friend—sharing creepy guy “war stories,” as women tend to do. And she asked me a very simple yet fundamental question: Why had I had such trouble speaking up? Why had I been effectively struck mute, if only temporarily?
I didn’t know the answer. It had never happened to me before that point, so it wasn’t like I suffered from some kind of speech impediment. I was also what my friends and family affectionately called a “talker.” A Chatty Cathy.
Yet as I pondered the question, I realized there were some deeper reasons behind why I had not immediately or easily been able to speak up for myself that night in the bar. And it had to do with everything I was raised to be.
The Problem With Growing Up “Nice”
I grew up in a nice, safe middle-class suburb. My parents were good parents, loving and attentive. I was the type of girl teachers wrote glowing words about in report cards, saying I was “a pleasure to have in class.” I was also a competitive swimmer who woke up at 5:30 a.m. six days a week in order to get in an hour’s practice in before school—and I rushed home to do my homework before I had to go to practice again in the early evening. I did not have much time to get into any trouble.
I was a good kid, basically. My parents, who only wanted the best for me, had taught me how to behave. I did as I was told. I listened to my teachers and coaches. I was polite and compliant. I did not talk back or make a fuss.
Instead, I learned how to smile even when I was angry or sad. Negative emotions like anger were usually met with strong disapproval. Over and over, I got the message (in both indirect and direct ways) that I was only truly lovable and worthwhile as long as behaved the way the most important adults in my life expected me to behave.
Over and over, I got the message I was only truly lovable and worthwhile as long as I behaved the way the adults in my life expected me to behave.
I was raised to be a Nice Girl, in other words. And as such, I knew the Nice Girl rules. Not that I had to remind myself of them—by the time I was 7 or 8, it was like breathing. Natural. I wasn’t acting that way because it was expected of me—I behaved that way because after so many years of playing by the rules, that was who I was. Rules like: Be polite and nice, even if someone is being mean or rude to you. Think of others first. Be helpful and courteous and considerate of people’s feelings. Don’t ever make a scene. Sit nicely, don’t be too loud. No one likes a needy, shrill, and demanding girl or woman. Watch your tone.
And I admit there is a good side to being raised in this way. I learned the social niceties that allowed me to function quite well in a lot of different circles. But there is a dark side to it, like losing your voice right when you need it the most.
When you learn to put other’s needs before your own most of the time, you do not learn what your own needs are. And if you do not know what you need and want, it is very hard to assert yourself and your boundaries. When you learn that being pleasant, compliant, and accommodating is paramount, you never really learn how to speak up.
When you raise girls to be Nice, you cannot turn around and expect them to shed years of expectations and training and morph into people who are able to fight for themselves. You cannot take away their voice and then expect them to be the one to scream “fire” at the first sign of smoke in a theater.
Now I know what you are thinking: I clearly just have issues. My experience does not match yours—you were raised to speak up for yourself. Or your sister was. Your whole family is full of badass bitches, so how dare I insult your grandma that way by implying she has a victim mentality. How dare I imply women and girls have a victim mentality like that in general.
But I know this about myself: I am as typical and ordinary as they come. So I know I am far from being the only one who lost her voice in that way.
And with effort and lots of introspection, I was able to regain it. But it took years of work. It was not easy, and I doubt that many of my fellow Nice Girls are able to get it back while still in their youth—the time when they need it the most (i.e., the time when folks with ill intent try to take advantage of their tendencies toward compliance and accommodation). So this piece is really just my way of speaking on their behalf. On my own younger self’s behalf.
Girls: Find your voice, speak up. Do not let them tell you that Nice Girls don’t talk like that. You do not always need to be polite or think about everyone else’s feelings above your own. The rules are often not in your favor—you do not always have to come last. Your voice matters more than you know, so speak loudly and carry a big stick.