I thank God my sister didn’t mince words when she spotted the ugly moles on my back. I was trying on wedding gowns and gazing at my reflection in the mirror when she spied the abnormally big and multi-colored spots on my back. “Those moles are ugly. You need to do something about them.” Then she told me to haul myself into a dermatologist and get those ugly things cut of pronto. One of those ugly spots just happened to be melanoma, the deadly type of skin cancer that grows fast. And, according to the biopsy, the mole had been growing a long time—which meant I am really good at ignoring things, even when they are itchy, painful and have formed a crusty, ugly scab.
I am not proud of how long I can ignore unpleasant things and put off what needs to be done. But I am forever grateful to my sister for speaking up. Because of her, I am alive today. I walked away from the experience with a four-inch scar on my back and the peace of mind of knowing that the cancer hadn’t spread to the surrounding lymph nodes. I was one of the lucky ones.
I can think of many other times when the courage to speak up is vital. That’s why I am making a New Year’s resolution to say what needs to be said, especially when it’s difficult. I used to be someone who prided myself on always being polite and easy-going. I thought that it was my duty as someone who was born in the Midwest to be as friendly as the girl next door.
To me, that meant holding my tongue, even when I saw my college friend getting obsessed with her boyfriend and spending all of her waking and sleeping hours with him, to the detriment of her studies and her other friends. When her freshman year was over and we had grown miles apart, she cried out with a pleading tone in her voice, “Why didn’t you talk some sense into me?” She complained about wasting an entire school year on a guy who was no good for her. I didn’t have a good answer to give her. The truth is, I was too chicken to tell her the truth. Who needs that kind of friend? It’s no wonder our friendship didn’t survive past freshman year.
I don’t know why it’s so hard for me to say blunt words. I have been on the receiving end of them many times and have walked away stronger and with some benefit. One of the most memorable experiences was the time an older and wiser church friend looked at me sternly and said, “You don’t have to keep baking that Amish friendship bread!” I had been baking it religiously and sharing it with her and other friends like a chain letter, thinking I couldn’t break the cycle. Her words forced me to look in the mirror and examine what that bread was doing to my hips. Because of harsh words, I stopped making the bread, started exercising, and went back to healthy eating.
Yet when it came time to talk to the man standing in front of me at the grocery store, I just couldn’t do it. He had a giant mole on the back of his bald head, and it had every one of the warning signs of a melanoma. Larger than a pencil eraser? Check. Irregular borders? Check. Multi-colored? Check. Crusty scab? Check. The line moved tediously slow and I almost worked up the courage a couple of times to say, “You need to get that mole checked by a dermatologist.” It was on the tip of my tongue. I wanted to spit it out. In the end, it was his turn to pay for his groceries, and I stood there berating myself for being such a coward.
Why is it so hard for me to say what needs to be said? Psychologists argue that women often feel extra pressure to be polite and friendly so they won’t step on anyone’s toes or come across as rude, meddling or pompous. Yet, not all women feel and act this way, as evidenced by my friends who had the courage to tell it to me like it is.
Here are five reasons psychologists give that I, and other women, may want to speak up more:
1. Speaking up and saying things in a direct manner will make you appear more confident, credible, and trustworthy. People will know you don’t sugar coat the truth and they’ll respect you more. You may even get a raise at work.
2. Saying what you really believe is better for your emotional and mental health, and reduces stress and anxiety. Keeping feelings and thoughts bottled up for a long time can also lead to resentment and anger, damaging your relationships.
3. Your unique experience has value. You may see things from a different perspective that could bring clarity and light to the situation, helping everyone make a more informed decision.
4. Other people may agree with you but be afraid to speak up. If you speak up, they may have the courage to do so also, and your collective opinions are more likely to bring about change.
5. Anxiety and stress from not speaking up can lead to health problems over time. Tension headaches, insomnia, acid reflux, and ulcers are all linked to chronic stress. And stress can be greatly reduced when you get in the habit of saying what you really think.
I do believe that politeness and good manners are important. Yet there are many times when the truth is more important. So, in 2020 I am making the resolution to speak up more and tell it like it really is. I am going to need lots of practice but, fortunately, I have lots of friends and family members who will make good guinea pigs. And, who knows? I may even be brave enough to approach a stranger in the grocery line next time.