”If you see something, say something” ought not to be limited to seeing a suspicious package at the train station, the airport, or your neighborhood. It needs to be expanded to speaking up when we sense something, or witness something that may mean someone may be in jeopardy or need help. Even if we are not certain about this, yet our gut tells us something is not quite right. Something about the situation feels off, or uncomfortable.
The recent horrific story regarding the thirteen children abused and held captive by their parents, and the unfathomable number of young women sexually abused by Dr. Larry Nassar, the Olympic gymnastics team doctor, are just two examples that screamed something is wrong here! Something needs to be done! Yet even though there were people who saw something, nothing was said, nothing was done. Unfortunately, in these two situations it took the people who were being abused or victimized to come forth. Something needs to change so that these atrocities that are known by others cannot be ignored any longer.
None of Our Business
What is it that keeps some of us from saying, doing, or reporting something when we believe something is wrong, or suspect that someone may be suffering an injustice? Is it our fear, anxiety, or confusion? Is it because we do not want to get involved, or we believe that it is not our business…or is it that we do not know what to do—so we do nothing?
When people are being abused or neglected, or sexually assaulted, there is such trauma that they are not always able to speak for themselves, or reach out for help. What I am encouraging us to do is to explore within ourselves what stands in our way of saying something, or reaching out to someone who could do something, when we know or sense someone is being hurt in some way.
- Is there something in our own histories that prevent us from saying something?
- Were we told it’s not our concern and that we shouldn’t get involved?
- Did we grow up in a dysfunctional family environment and now believe that loyalty means keeping secrets?
- Were we taught that it is not okay to speak our truth or express our feelings and thoughts?
- Do we assume that someone else will speak up, or that it’s not our responsibility?
- Were we taught that if we say something we will get in trouble, so we don’t?
- Could it be that some of us were raised in alcoholic, or otherwise dysfunctional, families where what we saw or experienced was minimized, ignored, distorted, or we were punished for saying something about it?
Is it Possible That We Don’t Trust Our Own Perceptions?
Sometimes in dysfunctional families children’s perceptions are called into play. We may base our expectations of how others will treat us from our early experiences. Perhaps we have become so used to living by these unwritten rules we learned as children that we don’t question them as adults.
- As a child you may have seen Mommy drinking and addressed it, yet your Dad said, “Mom’s not drunk. She’s just sleeping.”
- Or when Daddy was yelling and we questioned why he was angry and were told, “He’s not angry, he just has a loud voice.”
When these types of untruths are told to us as children on a consistent basis, we begin to question our perception of what is truly happening. We may start to mistrust what we hear, see, experience, or perceive. We may have begun to doubt ourselves so much that we bring this lack of trusting ourselves, and not trusting our perceptions, into our adulthood. This is one factor we may need to explore to determine what stands in our way of being able to say something in a current situation.
Silent with Disbelief and Denial
Self-doubt may also kick in when we see something horrific occurring with a child because it may be reminiscent of our own trauma. Or it may be that it is so unimaginable to believe what we are suspecting that we are not able to integrate the truth so denial sets in. Denial is a defense mechanism that keeps us from experiencing the pain or horror of what may be truly happening. It protects us when we are not ready to face the reality or the truth of something, be it happening to us, or someone else. Denial of the situation doesn’t help us move through the guilt and work through these emotions.
Our behaviors and emotional responses become more a reflection of yesterday’s reality than what is happening today.Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D., Clinician & Professor
Often in our own lives it might feel difficult to confront someone when we don’t know how to address something that makes us uncomfortable. If we are challenged to speak up in our relationships with our partner, a friend, or an employer, in our own world, it is no wonder that when there is something of a larger magnitude of injustice it becomes even more difficult because we may not developed the skill, or know how to begin. Or perhaps fear or anxiety from a dynamic that occurred in the past of our own life pops up and we become paralyzed because we generalize it to the current situation.
Are Emotions of Guilt and Denial Keeping Us Stuck?
Most of us are intrinsically good. Not saying anything, or doing anything, when faced with a situation that makes us question good intentions isn’t about not being a good person, or not having a heart, or not wanting to help. It might just be some of these other things that stand in the way of our speaking up. Those who see something, but don’t say something, may still feel guilty. We must first decide if we want to move through these emotions, or do we want to stay stuck in this place? Moving through the emotions keeping us stuck can enable us to address things that don’t feel comfortable in our own world, or relationships, or to see something outside of ourselves.
Once we identify what are the emotional obstacles are, or what stands in the way of speaking up, we can begin to work through these. One person can make a difference if each of us speaks up against small injustices. Our silence and inaction can be hurtful to others and ourselves. If we start with small changes within ourselves, we may be able to help make a better tomorrow for someone else as well.
- Talking with a friend, a psychotherapist, or someone we trust can help move through some of the fear and anxiety.
- Discovering the courage to face our own fears may help us gain the confidence to reach out to someone who needs help.
We don’t have to be a hero, but only to lower the shield we may have erected around our emotions. If we feel uncertain of what to do we can simply ask, How can I help?
Let Us Help You Find Your Voice
If you struggle with emotions from events from your history that may keep you from speaking up today, talking with a trusted psychotherapist at Nassau Guidance and Counseling located on Long Island can help. Our licensed therapists have helped many people uncover what has kept them silent and rediscover their voice.