My wife, Kristen, has two great sayings related to speaking up. The first one, “Use your words,” is what she often says to the young autistic children she works with as a speech therapist. Short and simple, the directive offers no alternative; the child must say what they need, rather than point with a grunt, kick their legs, or throw a fit. If the child is nonverbal, they may use sign language or an augmentative communication device, but the expectation of expression remains the same. The absence of any option makes the command concrete, straightforward, and effective.
Adults who seek her counsel as a peer and life coach, particularly those in tricky relationships, receive a modified instruction: “Let it out, or let it go.” Here she is offering an alternative to expressing one’s feelings or concerns: letting go. Those capable of deciding what’s best for themselves now have two options, but the directive is still compact enough to be effective: You can tell the other person what’s bothering you, or you can drop it and move on. She offers no accommodation for brooding, sulking, or pitching a passive-aggressive fit.
To improve communication between ourselves over the past few years, I have been employing a combination of both using my words and learning to let go. Both options have their advantages, and both can be surprisingly challenging. My nature is to brood and sulk, assuming all the while that the person on the receiving end of this man-tantrum would take note of my distress, then take immediate and tireless action to make me happy. (What could go wrong with such a sure-fire strategy?) I’d cultivated those “skills” over three decades by the time I decided to start learning a better method of communicating, just a few years ago. If, for example, I would come downstairs for breakfast to discover that we had cereal but no milk, my instincts were such that I would stomp around the kitchen, holding an empty bowl and rolling my eyes, hoping that Kristen would pick up on my frustration and somehow, perhaps magically, summon eight ounces of milk out of thin air. But when we decided that we needed to communicate more effectively, Kristen no longer allowed that to happen. “Use your words,” she would suggest, playfully, reminding me that a tantrum doesn’t yield results.
In the early stages of learning to communicate, back when I was forcing a new habit of expression, I would actually say precisely what was on my mind, while Kristen patiently listened: “We’re out of $%*@#! milk. That’s bull-#$@!. What the #!@* am I supposed to eat?” Within a few months, I’d learned to say it more calmly: “I always eat cereal for breakfast, but we’re out of milk and I’m annoyed.” By the same time the following year, I was able to get to the core of the matter more quickly, and was able to express my concerns sincerely—all this, while Kristen continued to listen with patience: “You know, I grew up in a house where my mom took care of all the grocery shopping, and we just always had stuff on-hand. We were never out of milk. I know that I’m the only person in the house who uses dairy milk, I know that you do almost all of the grocery shopping in spite of the fact that it’s not your job to do so, and honestly, I’m annoyed at myself for forgetting to buy milk, and I secretly wish that someone else would just take care of my responsibilities for me, like when I was a kid. Because that was awesome.” To which Kristen responded with nothing more than a knowing nod. It didn't put milk in my bowl, but it felt better to express myself than to carry around the anger and frustration for the rest of the week. (Yes, week.)
Nowadays, I’m working on the option of letting things go. For me and my obsessive mind, this is often the more difficult option. My brain doesn’t let go of anything, except for Kristen’s repeated requests to stop hanging my socks over the side of the sofa when I go to bed—the one super-obnoxious habit of mine for which I don’t have a perfectly valid explanation. But letting go and moving on is every bit as necessary and beneficial as saying what’s on your mind, especially when it comes to relationships.
It’s worth mentioning that Letting Go is not about suppressing one’s feelings. Quite the contrary. Letting Go involves acknowledging what you’re feeling, deliberately choosing not to indulge the internal monologue those feelings may inspire, and deciding to move on to the next moment of your day unencumbered by those feelings. For some people, like Kristen, this comes rather naturally. Other people, like me, have to work on it, the same way a violinist must dutifully hone his technique.
In practice, Letting Go looks like this (continuing the milk example): I reach for an empty jug of milk in the fridge. My brain whispers, “Son of a . . .,” but before I allow it to start ruminating, I remind myself of the options: I can say something to Kristen, or I can shake my head in disbelief and then move on. Evaluating both options, I see that there are no words, there is no amount of whining, that could suddenly fill my jug of milk. If I want milk, I will have to buy some at the store. I know it, Kristen knows it, so why say anything? My only remaining option is to let go, and so I do. “That sucks,” I say to myself, and then I move on. For, the sooner I let go, the sooner I can return to a happier state.
Or, more realistically, the sooner I move on, the sooner I can hydrate my cereal with orange juice, giving me something new to complain about.