How To Speak Up For Yourself When You Don’t Know How

Have you ever found yourself completely frozen in a moment where you want to speak up for yourself? And later, you think of all the things you could have said? There’s actually a scientific explanation as to why this happens.

When we are faced with an immediate threat, our human nervous system becomes dysregulated. The immediate threat we’re facing could simply be our boss speaking firmly to us about missing a deadline. But evolutionarily speaking, this event will register similarly in our nervous system as a saber-toothed tiger baring its teeth at us.

Now, this nervous system dysregulation can go a couple of ways, according to Dr. Stephen Porges, author of The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). In all cases, when we face a threat, we’ll first go into fight or flight mode. Our heart will start to beat quickly, our sweat glands will activate, and our field of vision will narrow.

If the threat is severe or lasts for a long period of time, we may even get knocked further down what researcher Deb Dana calls the “autonomic ladder” to a frozen or collapsed state.[1]

In either case, whether we’re in fight/flight or freeze/collapse, our brain has very little access to the ability to engage in coherent communication. This is because we’re consumed with ensuring our safety.

Here’s something important to know: these states of dysregulation are not a bad thing. In fact, they evolved to help us survive. But when we’re worried about our survival, we can’t speak up for ourselves easily.

Ensure Your Safety First

Knowing everything we just discussed, first of all, please forgive yourself if moments are going by where you’re not speaking up for yourself. Ask yourself: was I just trying to survive or stay safe at that moment?

If the answer is yes, then no wonder if you may have found yourself placating or frozen instead of speaking up. You are forgiven. What’s more? congrats! You have a well-functioning human nervous system.

To speak our truth, we need to feel safe. So, the reality is that if you don’t currently feel safe with that boss—or that friend, spouse, family member, etc.—you’re gonna have a darn hard time speaking up for yourself at the moment.

Here are two pieces of good news, though:

  1. The best way to practice this skill, especially at the beginning, is after the fact.
  2. The more you practice these skills, the more you’ll be able to use them at the moment as time goes on.

So, go get somewhere safe you can practice, and dive in and learn how to speak up for yourself.

The Voice Body Connection Process

As a voice and movement coach, I have been teaching voice and somatic practices for over a decade, and I’ve been studying them for essentially my whole life (this is embodied research, after all). To help you speak your truth in any situation, I’m going to introduce you to what I call the “Voice Body Connection process.”

Over the years, I created this process by synthesizing knowledge and methods from theatre and singing pedagogy, communication theory, speech science, yoga practice and philosophy, psychology, and especially Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen’s work Body-Mind Centering.

Here’s what to do: bring your mind to a specific moment that you want to understand more deeply. It can be this moment right now or a moment that you remember from the past. (If it’s from the past, imagine the following questions in the past tense.)

Step 1: Sensation

What is the strongest sensation I feel in my body right now?

We start with this crucial first question. After all, as Bessel van der Kolk’s research teaches us, our bodies keep the score.[2] Before you can speak up for yourself, you need to know what you’re actually feeling. And to understand what you feel, start with your body.

Example: “Right now, my heart is beating really quickly.”

Be sure to keep your answer body-focused!

Step 2: Stimulus

What do I think is the stimulus that led me to feel this sensation?

This is likely a very simple statement about what happened. You should just keep it simple. Otherwise, you might get lost on a thought train.

Example: “And I think it’s because my boss just lectured me about missing the deadline.”

Step 3: Emotions

What are my emotions about noticing all of this?

The next step is to tap into your emotions. If you’re not sure how you’re feeling, here are some basic emotions: anger, fear, sadness, happiness, arousal, disgust, and tenderness. Keep in mind that it’s totally reasonable to be experiencing a range of emotions, and you can include them all.

Example: “This makes me feel angry and afraid.”

Step 4: Desires

Do I have any desires related to everything I just noticed?

Next, you can discern any desires that might be coming from all of this. Sometimes, surface-level desires are covering up deeper ones. So, if you’re confused, keep in mind that human desire tends to boil down to the need for safety, comfort, love, and growth.

Example: “And what I really want is some support to get all my work done and to know that I still have my job.”

Step 5: Presence

The transition to help you feel comfortable releasing your voice

Part of the reason we don’t speak up for ourselves the moment something is happening is that we’re not really present. This is essentially another way of saying that our nervous system is not regulated. If thinking through all of this has gotten you agitated in any way again, take a few moments to breathe.

One of the best ways to be sure that you are present is to blink your eyes and focus on the colors, shapes, and textures of the world around you. As you get better and better, you’ll be able to do this process quickly at the moment!

Step 6: Expression

Sharing your voice

The amazing thing about everything you’ve done so far is that they have allowed you to build a script for yourself! If we put the example all together as written above, it currently reads:

“Right now, my heart is beating really quickly and I think it’s because my boss just lectured me about missing the deadline. This makes me feel angry and afraid, and what I really want is some support to get all my work done and to know that I still have my job.”

Now, you’re not necessarily going to say exactly that to your boss—not all of it is necessary. But maybe, what you say to your boss later in the week is something like:

“Hey, when you spoke to me earlier about missing the deadline, I felt upset. I want to let you know that I had too much work on my plate to get it done, and I need some more support if I’m going to meet the existing deadlines. I want to excel at this job so you and I both feel secure.

Pretty great right? And it’s super clean, too. You’re not getting mad at your boss for their outburst. You’re simply speaking your truth.

Step 7: Communication

A real conversation

After you’ve expressed yourself, it’s important to leave space to see the impact you’ve had on the person or people with whom you’re communicating. This is when the real conversation starts and when speaking up for yourself starts to really pay off.

Keep in mind that this process we just went through might continue ad infinitum. You may constantly need to return to your bodily sensations to know what you feel and want to say next. Do this so that you stay grounded in speaking from your own experience—speaking up for yourself—and not in speaking for anyone else.

How This Will Change your life

You may notice that when we use the word “feelings” in the English language, we could be referring to several things: our bodily sensations, our thoughts, our emotions, and even our desires.

The Voice Body Connection process takes apart these different aspects of our feelings so that we can be clear with them. When we use this process to practice getting safe and clarifying our feelings, we will get better and better at speaking up for ourselves. The more you practice this process, the more you will know what to say in the kindest, most effective way.

More Tips on How to Speak Up for Yourself

Featured photo credit: Melany Rochester via


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