Sunday, July 8, 2012

Say It to the Wall

"If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all." 

We all heard that phrase some time in childhood.

It's great advice for school-yard brawls--where emotions run high and cruel words cut deep--but it's band-aid wisdom. It covers the sore, but doesn't address the underlying infection.

Being the compliant child I was, I did not question this advice. I internalized it and took it to heart. To the very letter. And it got engrained deep into my subconscious and took on a life of its own.

I also added five little words to the end of that phrase that had a crippling effect: "to anyone at any time."

In an effort to be nice, I was forbidden from saying anything unless it was kind, pleasant, heart-warming, inspiring, thankful, beautiful, or gracious. In fact, those adjectives were the very definition of nice in my mind. Therefore anything not synonymous with them were, by default, not nice.

Obviously, that means a very long list of topics was off limits.

I was doomed for failure in my efforts to be nice, because all of that holding in, censoring, and forbidding worked like an at-home science experiment where you combine vinegar and water and baking soda. The pressure built up to the point where all I could do was explode.

But even after I exploded--and not nice things escaped my lips--I still valued that classic phrase and redoubled my efforts to live back within the parameters of nice.

This was the perfect prelude to a vicious cycle. All that bottling up, exploding, bottling up, exploding led to even more not nice feelings (subsequently about myself), and I got to the point where I simply could not suppress them anymore.

This is precisely why I have worked so hard in my adult life to speak up. It's the only way to break the cycle.

Cycle-breaking also required that I throw that superficial advice away. I've replaced it with something that rings more true.

"If you don't have anything nice to say, say it to the wall."

In other words, we ALL need permission to unload.

We simply have to use wisdom about the right time and place for the unloading to occur. Our teachers were right: venting anger with high tempers and mean words over an unfair play in the middle of a kick-ball game isn't the right context. But what they forget to tell us is this: the frustration DOES need to come out.

And if we aren't deliberate about the when and the where, the frustration--or another not nice thing--will eventually come out on its own.  

"Say it to the wall" reminds me to take care of myself by creating specific moments to unload. "The wall" is the safe place where I can do this.  So if not nice words come bubbling to the surface, I hold them in until I am in a safe environment. But once I'm in that safe place--whether it's with a friend, a therapist, a support group, God or by myself--I'm learning how to let them OUT.

I don't let them all out with anyone at any time, but I'm getting better at letting them out with someone (even if that person is me) at some time.  

As I have been practicing this, I've discovered why I was so terrified to do this in the first place.

I was afraid that having feelings or thoughts that were not nice said something about who I was. Namely, I thought it meant I wasn't good.

Now I know that having not nice feelings (anything that isn't kind, pleasant, heart-warming, inspiring, thankful, beautiful, or gracious), doesn't mean that I'm bad, it just means that I'm human.

But even more than my fear of being bad was my fear that I would reinforce this badness by giving air time to my not nice parts. I thought that if I was really angry or really sad or really confused or really hurt, admitting it would cement those feelings and I would stay perpetually stuck in them, with no hope of getting out.

Of course, the opposite is true.

"The more you hide your feelings, the more they show," someone once said. "The more you deny your feelings, the more they grow."

Feelings are meant to be fluid. They are meant to pass through us. But in order for them to pass through, they have to be acknowledged, and in order to be acknowledged, they have to be felt.

Whenever I refuse to feel my feelings, I create a log jam in my emotional world.

So the answer to my problems is not "don't say anything at all." The answer is "say it to the wall." 

I have to remind myself that there's nothing wrong with my not nice feelings. I have to give myself time and space to feel the feelings, give them words, and let them pass through.

'Cause really, that's the nicest thing I can do. 

"If you don't have anything nice to say, say it to the wall."


  1. I love such an honest and healthy way to express our feellings; when you said feelings are meant to be fluid and not bottled up it spoke life to me Ang. It is so true!
    Beautiful illustrations as well!

    1. I am finding that the only way to allow my emotions to be *stay* fluid is to simply let them f.l.o.w. Simple concept, sometimes hard to apply...

  2. Well put Angie. This is where I am in my thinking over these last several years. And understand that it is not my intent to put what you shared in a negative light my friend.

    I have come to loathe (despise, reject, pull back from) "nice". I'm sure part of that is due to its association in my mind with the all compliant, "Be sweet" which in churches & families can actually silence & cover up abuse.

    That was my experience in both of those arena's. So in my staunch resolve to terminate all co-dependent behaviors (that were deeply entrenched in my life)...I become over reactionary.

    I wish that the pendulum of my life barometer would not swing so hard to one side or the other, but hover more in the mid-zone.

    But the really neat thing Angie, is that God moves us through the stages of healing in an ever forward way. For both of us, just saying the real has helped tremendously.

    Remember Lorian Gordon? I call her my, "Velveteen Rabbit" friend because she loved me real. I could say any feeling or mood or thought and I never encountered pull back or rejection from her. What a gift!

    In a similar way, I feel that you & I have been able to do that when we talk. And I love it. Thank you.

    1. Oh, friend, you aren't contradicting me at all! I 100% agree. At some point during the writing process, I wanted to qualify my desire to be "nice." I wanted to say, "I no longer aspire to be *nice*." Instead I decided to put *nice* in italics... hoping that the subtle message would come through.

      And boy do I know the pendulum swing. The pendulum HAS to swing, I am learning... it's the only way to find true center.

      Thank you for sharing so honestly. I love your input here. :)

  3. i could just squeeze you. you speak me here. past fears. current loosening of grip on earning the right to live and sinking into the freedom of already doing it. yes, there is a time for holding tongues. there is also a place for rest and honesty. we navigate these waters together, friend.

    1. Squeezing you back. ;) So glad we speak the same dialect.

  4. Angela, I think we must be twins... I call it "chronic niceness" and it's own twin sister is "people-pleasing" - a party not worth attending, as it only invites rejection.

    You know, to this day, if I have a day full of words, I still somehow feel badly... because I worry that I may have somehow said something hurtful, even unconsciously, to someone else. With an abundance of words, how can you not make mistakes. And yet, to remain silent is to err on the other side of caution.

    I guess that's just part of grace... learning to live a life of grace. Grace for ourselves and grace for others.

    I am so glad you are not as quiet anymore, for when you speak it's with both grace and seasoned wisdom! I look forward to more!!!

    1. Susan, I have had all too many of those "days full of words" that ended with me analyzing every one of those words from every direction. I recently made a commitment to myself that I wasn't going to do that anymore. My insurance? I do my best to have those days with the people who I know are safe to entrust my words to.

      It's an art, my friend. And I'm giving myself permission to scribble outside the lines.

  5. your post is uncannily appropriate for where i am in my life. like you, i grew up believing that i always had to be a "good" girl which, for me, translated into never being able to say what really lived within me. having to be compliant . always brushing off a hurt in favor of not upsetting the one who hurt me.

    as an adult, i realize that those years of stuffing have done me a huge disservice. how can you know this as a child, however? there's a reason i chose to do what i did. survival. appropriate at the time, perhaps, but no longer working.

    like you, i have trusted and safe friends i can talk with at any time about any thing. and, i have moments - a very recent one, in fact - where i completely lose it and words spill out of my mouth in anger and frustration and it scares me that such a thing lives within me...

    1. Oh, my friend, I understand the spilling out... I have been there and have wanted to take all the words back once it's over. It's one of the main reasons why I am trying to keep current with what's really bugging me and getting it out at "the wall." Because I know that if I don't, the words will come flying out on their own.

      Inevitably, as we all grow in this, there will be times when spillage happens. Extend the same grace to yourself that I have seen you so lovingly extend to people who have hurt you.