(This post was written primarily for people who are socialized into traditionally submissive female gender roles in a patriarchal system, but the principles can be applied to any cultural group that has been disenfranchised by systems of inequitable power and privilege)
Can you think of a time when you were asked an uncomfortable question, and didn’t quite know how to respond at the time?
You know, when you’re asked seemingly “innocent” questions like …
So, how much do you weigh these days?
Why didn’t you have (more) children?
Are you married?
Do you think being a woman gives you an advantage in your line of work?
How old are you?
If you want to move up in this company, you will need a friend like me. Meet me for drinks after dinner tonight?
You found yourself taken aback, at a loss for words, and although you wanted to say something back, you just couldn’t find the words? You could think of a variety of snappy comebacks after the fact, but at the time, you just froze up.
You are not alone.
Millenia of cultural conditioning has left many of us afraid to speak out in various situations – speaking truth to power is so difficult. Whether you are a woman speaking up to a man, an employee speaking up to an employer, a student speaking up to a teacher or an immigrant speaking up to to a nationalist group – it is never an easy thing to do.
When we want to support meaningful cultural change, we do need new responses that move us beyond alternating between snappy but aggressive comebacks and being hijacked by our own fear and freeze responses.
The sweet spot lies somewhere between silencing and snarkiness.
It lies in being able to verbalize the authentic truths of those moments.
We train our environments to treat us how we want to be treated.
One human interaction at a time, one moment of truth at a time.
Getting better at giving others instant feedback allows them to learn what works and doesn’t work for us. Regaining our voices allows us to bring ourselves out of freeze and into self-respecting, kind and firm relationships with others, and these are the relationships that will change our world.
But, two powerful things often get in the way of our being able to do this:
A Freeze State (Biology) and our “Good Girl” Script (Conditioning)
An unexpected question or comment puts us on the spot and puts us in a freeze state.
We feel compelled to explain ourselves, justify ourselves or answer questions that we don’t actually want to be answering. We get invested in being seen and known as the nice person that we actually are… and in doing so we sometimes lose access to empowerment.
Let’s look at the dynamics of power for a moment:
When people put us on the spot by asking intrusive or insensitive questions, they claim a position of power.
They’ve turned the spotlight onto us, and if you are anything like me, you’ll feel compelled to respond. To explain. To justify yourself. You will want them to see how good, nice, harmless, sweet, well-intended, safe etc. you are.
Don’t answer the question. (I’ll tell you a little later what to do instead!)
When we are on the spot, our bodies and nervous systems get hijacked and our minds frantically want to find something to say. We lose access to choice and this freeze state robs us of our ability to speak in the moments when we need it the most.
This can happen anytime someone gets too close, raises their voice, gets a cold edgy tone in their voice, or asks an unexpectedly personal or insensitive question.
If we don’t know that this is happening, and if we don’t have tools to get ourselves out of this freeze, we can pay a high price.
The costs of getting stuck in freeze and “good girl” scripts include …
Doing things for others we don’t want to be doing
Having sex when we don’t want to
Going on dates we don’t want to be on
Getting married when we didn’t really want to
Missing opportunities we actually wanted
Going with the babysitter we didn’t like because we didn’t want to hurt someone’s feelings
Appeasing the teacher who made our skin crawl because we doubted our feelings and intuition
Being seen by others as someone we are not
Feeling incongruence between our insides and outsides
Furthermore, when we lose access to our authentic voices, the “offending person” receives no feedback and no learning, and nothing changes culturally.
So, if we want to influence others or contribute to cultural change, we need to be able to see what is happening, and speak directly to what we are seeing.
And, in order to do that, many of us first need to train ourselves out of our own habitual freeze patterns.
This leads us to two important questions:
How can we prevent freeze from taking over?
What can we do in the moment?
Here’s how to feel free to speak in difficult moments and to re-write patterns that have been active within you:
Think of a moment when you shut down, can’t speak, thinking a 1000 words a seconds. Speechless? Trapped? You say “yes,” when you wish you could say “no” and then you experience shame and self-blame afterwards.
Prepare for these situations proactively:
There are a variety of things we can do to increase our capacity to respond to questions like these in the moment. Think of it like going to the gym to prepare for the marathon:
1. Practice grounding and verbal responses during times when you are not activated so that they will come more quickly to you when you are.
2. Track your sensations and feelings: How does freeze feel? Get to know that feeling really well. Get really good at noticing and recognizing the moments that you freeze. What are those signals and bodily feelings like for you? The more you get to know them, the more you feel the freeze, the more able you will be to melt out of these freeze states. Once you know what it feels like in your body, you will notice and name the shutdown more quickly and thus prevent it from taking hold.
3. Work through past traumas with an experienced therapist so that you can metabolize, process and release stored memories and emotions that still exert implicit influence within you today.
4. Practice relaxation techniques when you are not in a freeze responses so that you can more easily draw on internal experiences of relaxation when you find yourself in freeze.
Do something new In The Moment:
Remember how I told you NOT to answer the question? Here’s what you can do instead:
Ask a question about their question.
In a gentle, curious and playful tone of voice – if you can pull that off.
Yup, that’s it. One simple powerful move: Turn the spotlight off you, and onto them, playfully (if you can manage that).
Just ask a question about their question, back.
Try to do it with as much soft, connection energy as you are able to.
Snarkiness will not be your friend for this to work. You aren’t trying to hurt someone back.
You are staying out of freeze, staying in your power, staying connected to your voice, and staying in connection with the other. But you are NOT doing this by becoming a “good girl” or getting submissive in the process.
Here are some examples of what you might say:
Did you just ask what I think you did?
Why do you ask?
Do you think this is an effective way to get what you want?
Did you mean to ask me that?
Do you realize how uncomfortable that question can make someone?
Did you notice the look on my face when you asked me that?
I wonder if you’ve considered the way a question like that could make me feel?
Do you know a question like this – given this context – can be cruel? Did you mean to be cruel or insensitive? Are you trying to hurt me?
Are you aware of how that question might sound to someone?
What are you really asking?
This is a powerful tool for breaking the freeze: turn the spotlight by asking a question about the question helps us unfreeze and get more equipped to respond and discern what is actually happening in the moment. The moment you stop yourself from actually answering the question, you break your habitual freeze responses and stay connected to your authentic voice.
The key – however – is to truly track the energy behind your words. Any of these questions could be delivered in a shaming and aggressive way. AVoid that at all costs. You are not trying to one-up anyone out of your own pain. Instead, you are trying to create space in the conversation for an examination of the process that would usually play out, disempowering one party while the other party stays unaware and desensitized to the impact they are actually having.
Ask these questions gently. Playfully, Curiously.
By moving attention off yourself, and onto the other, you’ve encouraged them to reflect upon what they are asking, you’ve created space for them to reflect upon the impact of their question, and you’ve returned the attention to them and given yourself more space.
Voila. One simple move.
When you speak your own truth, you pave the way for others who are not yet able to.
Responding unexpectedly to a person who is operating out of their own habituated behavior gives them an opportunity to engage with something unexpected. See this as a gift.
This, in turn, encourages learning, growth and self-reflection.
We create a new world every time we speak something that we or others previously couldn’t.
Especially when it’s done in a loving, gentle, curious and connecting way.
Seriously, we need so many creative and unexpected responses in our conversations, and what could be more unexpected than true, clear, direct and kind?
Let’s set a new standard for social interactions – moving beyond our freeze responses and our snarky comebacks. Let’s clarify the intentions of others directly, and not veer away or walk around what we think is being said, what might be meant, because we are afraid of misinterpreting them.
Sometimes, we stop ourselves because we don’t want to falsely accuse anyone. This just inhibits our own ability to clarify and respond to ambiguous statements. Ask people what they meant by something, and then get comfortable being gracious with them, by following up with responses like:
I am glad I misunderstood what you meant.
I am glad I clarified this, otherwise I might have misunderstood.
I am so relieved that isn’t what you meant.
Counteract your good girl/boy conditioning so that you can embrace the most powerful expression of yourself.
And trust, as I do, that your most empowered self, is also your most loving self.
And now, I’d love to hear from you:
What situations/questions cause you to shut down the most?
How do you bring yourself out of a freeze response?
What has helped you feel more empowered when you’ve felt “on the spot” and vulnerable?
Leave a comment below!
For me, it may not be a question, but a remark that diminishes me. Like "I don’t understand how you think." Or I can’t believe you don’t remember that, you were there." The implication seems to be that there is something wrong with me. Your responses can be helpful, if I’m prepared.