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Speaking Up When it’s Hard

I get it. Some conversations just feel too hard, so you think, “I’ll do it later.” Or you think, “Maybe the other person will just guess what I’m feeling and I won’t have to say it.” Or, “It’ll just take care of itself.”

But time passes, and no one’s read your mind, and it’s getting worse, or it’s beginning to fester. So now’s your moment.1) Identify the problem.

I know, this might sound simple, but sometimes we’re having strong feelings and we haven’t taken the time ourselves to figure out where they’re coming from. IT feels easier to suppress, or pretend it’s all okay, or act out feelings in other ways, or using alcohol or drugs to avoid.

So look within yourself. You can’t speak up effectively if you don’t know what’s really happening. Your emotions are a cue; they’re giving you information.

2) Be honest about your role in the problem.

The other person is more likely to listen and take responsibility if you’re doing the same. And generally, you do have a role in the dynamic.

The exception to this is if you’re being physically or emotionally abused. You don’t bear responsibility for that; only the abuser does.

But in other situations, think dynamically. What that means is, chart the cycle: You do this, he or she does this, then you do this…Typically, the moves are predictable. We play the same roles again and again.

3) Practice non-accusatory language.

Yes, I’m talking about “I” statements: “I think,” “I feel,” “I’d like”, etc. Focus on your own experience, and how to express it in a way that acknowledges your roles (see #2.)

You might want to start with a letter so that you can revise again and again, taking out all the language that would inspire defensiveness in the other person. Think of this letter as the starting point, a way to invite further discussion.

Anticipate what your partner may say back so that you’re not caught off-guard, and so that you can manage your emotions in order to stay engaged. Preparation will make you less likely to become overly triggered.

4) Practice self-compassion and self-worth.

You can’t really do the rest of this if you don’t, on some level, believe that you deserve it. A certain amount of entitlement is actually very useful in life, and in assertiveness.

And I say “practice” self-compassion and self-worth because for a lot of people, those things don’t come naturally. They’re learned behaviors. Talking to yourself like you would a cherished friend or family member is a good start. But it’s only a start. It’s a daily practice.

Notice when you’re being unkind to yourself, when you’re accepting less than you’d want for a loved one, and do your best to counter that. Cultivating a comforting and loving internal voice is one of the best things we can do for ourselves, and for our relationships.


Photo by HowardLake

Speaking Up When it’s Hard

Holly Brown, LMFT

Holly Brown is a marriage and family therapist in the San Francisco Bay area. She has a private practice in Alameda ( ). She is also a novelist ( Her latest is HOW FAR SHE'S COME, a workplace thriller which received a starred review from Publisher's Weekly: "This provocative tale will resonate with many in the era of the #MeToo movement."

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APA Reference
Brown, H. (2017). Speaking Up When it’s Hard. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 9, 2020, from


Last updated: 17 Feb 2017
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