I Struggle with Shutting Up

I have a mouth on me. And I don’t mean I curse like a sailor: I will give you a good reading without using any profanity. Why? Because sometimes I just don’t care and I can’t control what comes out of my mouth. It takes extreme effort on my part to hold back when I want to say more.

A few months ago, I was having a late breakfast date with one of my best gal pals. She is a boss chick, which makes it hard to get on her schedule—so when we do meet, we have lots to catch up on. Over our breakfast-turned-lunch, I told her about something that had happened a few months prior that really affected me. I was invited to present at a youth conference, and during my workshop I was supremely disrespected by some other folks who were also presenters at the conference. Long story short, the other presenters had very few in attendance at their workshops (one had only about three people), and mine was packed (a crowd of somewhere over sixty—I had sixty printed handouts and ran out, so who really knows how many there were!). The other presenters got up to have words when I was almost done and basically tried to take over my workshop. One of them had seen my presentation, and proceeded to mention some things I was going to discuss as if they were her thoughts. I was completely caught off guard and had never experienced something so discourteous. But being mindful of my audience, I decided to keep my mouth shut. I decided—instead of getting reckless with my words—I’d go to the two people who were over the event to explain to them how disrespected I felt, how I wasn’t there to be treated like that, and how I wouldn’t return if that was how things were going to be. I was level-headed, calm and direct. We had a constructive conversation and they apologized immensely to me for what had happened. We all left happy that we had spoken.

My. Friend. Was. SHOOK.

Let me tell you a little about my background: When I was in college, I had one of those classic assignments in my Interpersonal Communication course where I was to ask a certain number of family and friends to pick a word to describe me. This particular friend chose the word “pugnacious.” If you don’t know, that word means quick to anger, eager to argue… basically always ready to pop off. Yes, it was pretty accurate. But I mean, I didn’t just chew everyone’s heads off just because. It was only when someone did something to me that I would get wild with my words. The problem was, I started to realize I was falling out with a lot of people. I had to start carefully considering my words, because my mouth was compromising a good number of my interpersonal relationships.

My mom always told me it wasn’t what I did, but what I said that would get me in trouble—and that problem has haunted me my entire life. I have to make a conscious effort to bite my tongue when I want to go off, because I have no natural in-between. Either I’m an angel, or I’m your worst nightmare. So in this instance of being disrespected, while I wanted to burn the whole place down with my words, I had to swallow my pride. I had a lot at stake. For one, I was an invited guest who was supposed to conduct myself as a positive role model for the youth at the conference, and if I were to lose it, everything I said before that moment would be forgotten. I’d forever be remembered as that one girl who verbally beat up everyone. I had literally just encouraged the kids and teens to not allow the words or actions of others to affect their behavior and I would’ve been going completely against my own advice. And my lifestyle should be revealed in my actions, not in just what I say. For two, I wanted to be invited back, but under different circumstances. I wanted to address my issues with the people who invited me, and work with them to ensure change for the next conference. For three, if you lie down with dogs you get fleas, and I didn’t want to get a single bite. I had to prove to myself that I didn’t have to be the one to always roll my neck and take off my earrings at the first sign of trouble. And for four, I’M SO TIRED OF HAVING TO APOLOGIZE FOR MY BEHAVIOR OR WORDS. And this takes me back to my conversation with my friend.

When my friend told me how proud she was that I didn’t pop off, I said to her, “Girl, I’m so tired of having to go back and apologize to people!” I want to be the one who receives the apology every once in a while! Because baby, let me tell you, when I do go there, I don’t fight fair. I’m the type to rattle off nonsense. I tell you that your kids are ugly, your mama did a poor job of raising you, your family doesn’t love you, and everything about you is a disaster. And nothing about any of that is okay to say to another person, especially if it has nothing to do with the issue at hand. I have such a hard time being the victim! I always want to lose it on someone I feel is attacking me. And I always go one step too far. Always. I remember once, my older sister told me I was so extreme. And what did I say in return? I stopped, looked at her and replied, “I almost just punched you in the throat.” HA!! That was proof. I realized sometimes I can keep my mouth shut and allow others to marinate in what they have told me. Be the victim in a conversation sometimes, and let people apologize to me for their actions instead of just getting even—because it never stops at even.

So this is what I have learned: I have control over what comes out of my mouth. When I want to say some colorful words, I take a deep breath first and release the anger or rage I’m feeling at the moment, which helps me be more level-headed with my response. Taking just one second to think over what I’m going to say makes a world of difference. I have to take additional time to respond in some situations, because finding a middle ground with my reply—speaking assertively and yet remaining constructive and helpful—is not natural for me. I consider whether what I have to say is actually productive, or if it will cause more conflict. I remind myself that words have so much impact; I don’t want to intentionally hurt anyone if I can avoid it because I know what it feels like to be hurt or disrespected. I’m an adult, and I have to be accountable for my actions and words. I could really damage significant relationships just because I have to have the last word. Insults and petty behavior is played out. Arguing is dangerously exhausting and the associated stress is bad for my health. My ego isn’t that big that I can’t take an “L” sometimes. I determine how I deliver my message, and I can say the same thing a hundred ways and get a different response every time. And most importantly, I can only apologize so often before people just don’t take me seriously or avoid me all together.

I am who I am, and I don’t want to change that—but having a sense of self-awareness is invaluable. And the excuse “I just gotta be me” doesn’t cut it in every situation in life and there are times we all have to be flexible and just shut up.

But I also must remember that sometimes I have to show my fangs to remind people I still have them—even if I don’t use them. 🙂