Today I Didn’t Stand Up for Myself

Today I didn’t stand up for myself. I was in a meeting, a professional meeting, when a woman made a derogatory comment about someone in my ethnic group. She was expressing disapproval of a program he had given (I wasn’t there and never met the man in question) and said, as though it explained his disappointing performance, “ well, he is ______” after all. I sat there in stunned silence and didn’t say anything. She didn’t know that I am of that group. We are a very small minority in these parts and I don’t look the part. And so I pass. Indeed, when I do identify myself, I often hear, “wow, I’ve never met anyone like you before.” It’s a strange feeling, being a bit of a museum piece. But what I want to look at is why I didn’t say anything.I’m sure that the colleague in question meant no harm.I suspect she may not even have known that what she said might have been experienced as offensive.

The question in my mind is not why she said what she said, but why didn’t I say anything? The obvious answer would be that I was afraid of being somehow rejected by the group, but I don’t think that is it – the group while worthwhile is not that big a part of my life. I think some part of it had to do with an almost archetypal fear – the experiences engrained in all of our tribal memories of past times and places where our ancestors were killed or persecuted just for being who they were .I suspect that almost everyone has this experience in their family tree, and this historical fear – even paranoia – persists long after the actual physical danger is past, carried down through the generations, passed on from mother to son and father to daughter, “be careful, be cautious, always know your escape route, don’t make waves.”

I suspect some part of it has to do with my socialization as a girl/woman in this culture. Even though “I’ve come a long way baby”, I still shy away from conflict, and find myself hesitant to speak up in unknown groups or strange situations. It’s not rational, but the hesitation is there. “Don’t be too loud, don’t be too aggressive, don’t be too pushy – be a Lady.”  Mostly, I suspect it harkens back to my own issues with visibility. Messages from childhood that said not to make waves, not to be too much. While I long to be seen, I also fear being seen, and to have taken on this older, more established woman who I didn’t know well would have felt like I was cannonballing into the deep end of the pool. And at that moment I didn’t trust myself to swim. And so I was silent. And I feel shame that I did not speak up. Because to do so would have been to speak up not just for myself, or other members of my group, but to speak up for all peoples who are stereotyped and therefore diminished. It is an irony that this happened the day after January 20 – the day dedicated to honoring a man who stood up for his people against tyranny and paid the ultimate price. I do not have Martin Luther King’s courage, but I aspire to grow into risking showing up and speaking up just a little bit more. If this topic intrigues you, you may want to journal or dialogue about it .Below are two dialogues you could do with a partner or friend or that you could use as a springboard to do some writing for yourself to explore your experiences around your ethnic or religious heritage, and your feelings about speaking up and taking risks. 

Exploring Our Heritage

This dialogue came out of an experience I had when a colleague said a disparaging remark about my ethnic heritage (she didn’t know I belonged to this particular group). As I struggled with the feelings that came up for me (resentment, anger, shame, helplessness, sadness), I realized that this is probably a universal experience, and that all of us carry mixed histories and mixed feelings regarding the labels we wear. And we all wear so many: male, female, Black, Hispanic, Native, Asian,White, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, liberal, conservative, wealthy, poor, blue collar, while collar, disabled, gifted, autistic, hyperactive,- well the list goes on. Most of us carry more than one. Sometimes they are a cherished heritage and culture, sometimes they are a terrible burden.This is the first of several dialogues to help you explore the impact brought by these many aspects of who we are.

 As you may know, one part of who I am is (or one part of my heritage is) that I am

What I learned about being ____________ when I was a child was…

My parents attitude towards our heritage/culture/religion was ____________________

And what that was like for me was _______________________

As a child what I felt about being ____________ was……

What was hard about it was

What was good about it was

Now as an adult what I value about being ______________ is

And what is difficult about it is _________________

One way I would like to change or grow around my identity is ___________________

And the support I would like from you is _________________and I know this might be difficult.

Thank you for listening.


Taking Risks

Risks come in all sizes and shapes.Some are as small as driving to a new section of town, or saying I’m sorry.Others are huge – quitting a job, performing in front of an audience, taking financial risks.We tend to approach risk- taking in different ways, depending on our personalities, our culture and our upbringing. We learn about fear and safety and choices as children, and often model ourselves after our parents.It is not unusual for different members of a couple to have very different styles when it comes to taking risks.This can be a wonderful source of energy and excitement in a relationship, as long as it doesn’t turn into a source of will struggle.The trick is to approach the discussion and difference with curiosity rather than digging into the conflict. This Dialogue will help you explore your reactions to risk taking and what it means to you. As I think about taking risks what I feel inside is

The kind of risks I am most comfortable taking are

The kind of risks I really avoid are

What I learned about risk taking as a child was

What’s hard for me about taking risks is

And what I like about taking risks is

A risk I would like to think about taking is

Thank you for listening.

Posted by Laura

Laura Marshall, LCSW, is the founder and director of the Sagebrush Center for Relationship Therapy. Her experience spans thirty years of supporting couples and individuals to create healthy and meaningful lives and relationships. She is also adjunct faculty for the New Mexico Highlands School of Social Work. She lives with her husband Steve and five sons in Farmington, New Mexico.

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