Gabriella Nissan, Psy.D.
Why We Speak Up, and Why We Often Don’t
Expressing our thoughts, feelings, and opinions is an essential aspect of human communication. It allows us to convey our ideas, share our experiences, and connect with others on a deeper level. However, many people struggle with the fear of speaking up, which can lead to missed opportunities, misunderstandings, and a general feeling of being unheard. Fears to speak up may stem from concerns about being wrong, fears of rejection, and discomfort with the possibility of inciting conflict.
From an evolutionary perspective, the fear of being negatively judged or rejected by others is quite adaptive. This is because being perceived in a negative light by another, especially the ingroup, poses a threat to survival. Evolutionarily, outgroup individuals have more difficulty securing food, shelter, and safety, as compared to those accepted by cohesive groups.
While being accepted and judged favorably is evolutionarily adaptive, excessive fear of judgment can have profound impacts on our personal and professional lives. Unfortunately, the fear of being rejected by others seems to have intensified in recent years. Fears of negative judgment have likely been exacerbated by increased social media use and the associated desire for acceptance, as well as widespread cancel culture, which refers to the tendency to verbally attack, criticize, and reject something or someone that one disagrees with.
Cancel culture has become more widespread in recent years, particularly among younger individuals, with 55% of individuals between the age of 18-34 participating in the "cancellation" of a company or individual. While it is important that society holds individuals and organizations accountable for their actions, dismissing anything or anyone that we disagree with leads to people choosing to stay silent in situations where their perspectives and opinions are important.
There are many situations in which choosing to stay silent can be more detrimental than being "canceled" or otherwise put down or invalidated. For example, failing to voice an unpopular opinion, but one which is consistent with your values can result in a lack of meaning or feeling disconnected from what's important. Or, failing to advocate for individuals in need due to fear of social blowback might result in someone being harmed. Failing to advocate for yourself for fear of being labeled in a condescending manner (e.g. 'Karen', 'boomer', gen-zer) might mean your needs will not be met.
Given the widespread nature of cancel culture and fears of being judged or dismissed, it’s important to foster an environment that accommodates for individual differences. In order to do so, we must create openness toward the parts of our experiences that are uncomfortable. After all, while differences in perspectives, ideas, values, and opinions, may lead to discomfort, they can also serve as opportunities for growth.