“Courage does not always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, 'I will try again tomorrow.” -Mary Anne Radmacher
In this time of significant social division in our country, giving voice to one’s story can be experienced as a political act. Giving voice to story can make beautiful research (if you’re the research-y type, check out my work in narrative inquiry here!), and can be a significant part of the any therapy process. The words and specifics of our stories matter a great deal. Lately, though, I’ve been thinking less about the content of story and more about the avenue through which our stories flow – sometimes through writing, imagery or gesture, and very often through the voice. The healing power of a narrative is as much in the expressive process – be it a roaring or a quiet or an everything-in-between kind of process – as it is in the end product.
For most people, the voice is the channel through which communication with others flows. Our voice is a thumbprint of our individual, embodied identity, impacted by physiology, personality, and family and social influences. The tone, inflections, pitch, and rhythms of our voices – and the distinct ways we each weave thoughts into words – comprise the expressive fabric of our relationship with the world. We learn to distinguish the vocal nuances of significant people; I remember as a kid recognizing my mother’s cough in a bookstore where she was a few shelves away and feeling a sense of comfort in the familiar sound. And it is easy to observe how, in this age of digital communication, misunderstandings occur in text messages and emails when the spoken voices of those involved are not heard. So much is communicated by our verbal or non-verbal sounds. I’m reminded of the college professors who knew me best and could always tell when I had a question before I even spoke based on my sharp inhale, preparing myself to speak up, and some specific furrowing of my forehead.
As we move through complex environments, sometimes we adapt our voices, with or without conscious awareness, to project a desired persona or bolster parts of ourselves we find acceptable while obscuring parts of ourselves that feel less accepted. We may soften or raise the pitch of our speaking, or use the inflection of a question even when we’re making a statement, to indicate non-threatening or adaptive intentions. We may lower our pitch or limit the tonal range to be perceived as more direct or rational. Since the voice is in large part how the outside world hears our inner world, it makes sense that when we feel vulnerable we consciously or unconsciously shift our voice based on our needs and the perceived needs of others. As with all psychological adaptations, I believe a certain amount of flexibility can be very helpful; our adaptations and defenses protect us as we move through the world, and are truly gifts of our mind, our history, and psyche. Our ability to adapt helps us survive. When we adapt or defend against our expressivity too often or too harshly, though, we block the flow of our authenticity in the world. When we don’t feel we have permission from ourselves or others to live authentically, we may feel anxious, depressed, or disconnected from ourselves and others. Therapy is an avenue for creating the internal space needed to listen to the wisdom of the adaptations that helped us survive, and to nurture the authentic voice forgotten or distorted in those survival efforts; when we dwell in this space with the witness of a therapist, the slow and deeply gratifying work of transformation unfolds.
Not only is our voice a thumbprint of our evolving individual identity, though… it also connects us to our cultural and communal identities. Gender identity, nation and region of origin, disability status, and other factors impact the evolution of our voices, and deserve to be honored as parts of the Self in therapy as they emerge. After all, our inner work is never limited to the development of the individual personality – it always flows outward into the communities with which we identify. Nurturing our authentic voice allows us to experience more fully a sense of belonging in the communal circles where we go to connect.
As we age, our voices also naturally change. I have spent time with many adults who feel sad, angry, or embarrassed about these changes and what such changes represent to them. When our voices change due to age, illness, or other impactful events, we are provided the opportunity to explore the psychological and social impact of such changes, and perhaps even to learn befriend the newness, even when it initially feels unwelcome.
Writing about the voice these last few months (see Part 1 below this entry) has pulled me into an even deeper fascination with its healing capacities. Whether your voice has been roaring or speaking in quiet tones lately, know that any authentic expression is an act of great courage that deserves to be heard!