Thursday, April 27, 2017

Finding Your Voice

It was folded and stashed in a small storage box with other relics from my years in parochial school.

It was a sixth grade essay I had written, completing the sentence "When I Grow Up..."


When I grow up, I'm going to cry.

This won't be because my life is sad but because I will be free to express myself and all my emotions in a way I can't today.

My father won't let us cry or express opinions at home. He spanked us for crying when we were babies. We soon learned to keep still. My father is not an evil or unloving man. He simply doesn't seem to be able to admit that emotions are part of all our lives, no matter how young or old we are, and that it's harmful to suppress them. He wants wind-up dolls, little robots, not children. I think he knows he is making a mistake in raising us this way, but is too proud to admit that he is wrong. I feel he loves me as much as he is able, but I still must live up to a standard of perfection I can never meet. I feel sad for my father and for me.

When I grow up, everything will be different. I will not be too proud to admit when I am wrong. I will love my children enough to let them be themselves.

Most of all, I will experience the whole range of my feelings. I will dance for joy on a sun-kissed beach. I will tell people I love just how much I care, not because they meet any expectations of mine, but because they are themselves. I will weep with sadness or simply from the fullness of living my own life completely and honestly as a loving, deeply feeling person. 

Glancing at the unmarked paper, I remembered: my teacher, Sister Mary Clara, didn't give me a grade or credit for this essay because "You didn't follow the assignment." She handed it back to me scornfully with the admonishment "Next time do it right. Say what you're supposed to say."

What I was supposed to say was that I would grow up to be a good Catholic wife and mother or, better still, a nun.

All our lives, there are so many obstacles to finding our authentic voices. There are teachers who want only the expected, canned reply. There are adults who think children should be seen and not heard. Or who correct children who have expressed a strong emotion with the admonition: "You don't really feel that way, do you?" Well, yes. At that moment the child does. I'll never forget the letter I got from a mother when I was working at 'TEEN Magazine and had written an article about communicating with parents. She told me that she had suffered a lot as a child when she was told that her angry feelings were wrong. She said that she had raised her children to speak their minds without punishment, even if it meant saying "I hate you, Mommy!" in a moment of anger. She told me that she had found that hearing all her children's feelings calmly led to resolution, closeness and understanding.

But, all too often, we were not allowed to express our feelings while growing up. It was not okay to speak one's mind, to express an original thought, to diverge too severely from what was considered acceptable.

Sometimes restrictions ease with age. Frankness that might have been shocking earlier on is amusing now. I find that younger people smile indulgently when I use a swear word, express a frank political opinion or make an off-color comment. Of course, this may be because I'm childless. A friend from my college days, visiting California with her teenage grandkids in tow some years ago, suddenly reverted to her own teenage self when she saw me, squealing and rushing toward me with open arms. Her grandchildren cringed in the background, glancing around at other restaurant patrons, and groaning "Oh, Grandma...please...."

So in many phases of our lives, we adapt and quiet our voices.

We learn to speak or write to a specific audience. This adaptation is useful and necessary at times. But, personally, there can be something lost in the process: an opportunity to share our authentic selves.

My parents decided to keep all of my letters from college. There is a big binder for my Northwestern undergraduate years and a smaller one for my fraught time in graduate school there. The other day, I came across that smaller binder and read the letters for the first time in nearly 50 years.

 I was aghast at what I found -- or, rather, what I didn't find.

My mother had said that she was keeping the letters so that I could look back and have these memories close at hand if, sometime in the future I wanted to write a book about these years. What I read in those letters were not my authentic memories. Those are still fresh in my mind, or at least fresh enough to know that what I wrote my parents was not the full story about my life and my experiences.

I left out the most important discoveries and feelings of that tumultuous time --  like what it meant to me to have a friendship with Judge Edith Sampson, an African American woman who rose from an impoverished childhood to become the first black female judge in Illinois and the first black U.S. delegate to the U.N. I met her on my fall quarter assignment to the Chicago courts beat in my graduate reporting class. Somehow a friendship bloomed between this brilliant, accomplished, larger than life woman and one shy, uncertain student journalist. Judge Sampson was so wise, so funny, so compassionate, so outspoken. Whether in her chambers, in the courtroom or at home, she was very much herself. She became a wonderful mentor and friend who coached me through cooking my first Thanksgiving dinner that year and taught me the joy of living with vitality and authenticity.

How could I not have told my parents about Edith Sampson?

But there was so much I left out of my letters.

I left out the true extent of my heartbreak over the man I loved. He cared for me as a friend, but someone else had won his heart and they were getting married soon. Unrequited love notwithstanding, I felt even greater sorrow over the possible loss of his treasured friendship.

 I told them that I had gone to see "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" with my Asian-American friend Jeanne and our mutual friend Marie. I told my parents that Tracy and Hepburn were excellent. What I didn't say was that Jeanne got angry and walked out of the movie twenty minutes in, cooling her heels in the lobby and eating popcorn while Marie and I stayed to the end. She told us afterwards that she was angry that a minority person -- in this case, a black man played by Sidney Poitier -- had to be a world-famous surgeon to be even marginally acceptable to his young white fiancee's parents. Marie and I listened as she talked with anger and sorrow about the racism that she observed and experienced on a daily basis. I'll never forget that day or the lesson my beloved, now lifelong, friend taught me.

I recently shared my feelings of disappointment over my grad school letters home with Tim, whose friendship I had so feared losing all those years ago, but who has remained a loving, lifelong friend. "My parents saved all my letters from college, too," he said. "And I knew there was a reason I've never looked at them all these years. I know, without reading them, that they are all on the surface."

Of course, there are times when we can't be totally authentic. There are times when we tailor our remarks to a specific audience of one or many. There are things you don't say to avoid hurting or worrying others.

But for those times when you want or need to speak your mind and all the times in between when you want to be more in touch with your true feelings and true self, how can you hone your authentic voice?

1. Keep a journal:  Keeping a journal is great practice in saying exactly what you think. It may be forever private or simply a warm-up for voicing your feelings and opinions more openly.

2. Let your voice shine through in social media: This could be via Facebook or Twitter or through your own blog.

Some people find tremendous freedom and a spirit of community by sharing feelings -- whether love of animals or political views, personal development or delight over children and grandchildren -- on Facebook or Twitter. And blogging can be a creative outlet where you determine the subject, the tone and the direction of your narrative without interference.

As a professional writer, I never take this for granted. This blog has been an incredible help in giving me the confidence to be myself in a way that was never really possible when I was writing for national magazines and had to please an editor whose point of view might have been quite different from my own. (I still shudder when I think of the editor who exhorted me to "write a funny article about verbal abuse.")

3. Treasure friendships that allow authenticity.  We have all kinds of friendships -- childhood, professional, shared interest focused, warm but distant -- but our best friends encourage and celebrate authenticity. You know who they are. You can put your feet up and dish. You can feel comfortable in their presence even if you don't look or feel your best. You can say things you wouldn't dare say to most others -- feeling free to air your less optimistic as well as hopeful feelings. You can whine and bitch and brag and dream, knowing that your friend loves you as you are -- just as you love him or her.

4. Notice how you feel:  How do you feel when you bite your tongue and keep silent when you really want so much to speak up? How do you feel when you speak your mind in a way others can hear -- not with malice, but from your heart? When you can express yourself in this way, you may have feelings of growing confidence... and comfort within.

I have seen benefits of channeling my authentic voice even when I write on assignment these days. I recently finished writing a book about parent and adult child conflict and estrangement.  WE DON'T TALK ANYMORE will be published by Sourcebooks in October. When she finished reading the manuscript, my editor, Anna Michels, remarked that she loved my "supportive, reasonable, optimistic voice throughout that makes the book both tender and practical."

Yes. She found it: the voice I have always known and valued within. My essence, my authentic voice, is, indeed, both tender and practical.

Finding one's voice can be one of the rewards of age, finding confidence in life experience. It can be empowering and reassuring, an emotional salve for all those times in years past when you needed to be quiet, to stifle yourself, to withstand the criticisms of those who didn't understand or care to know the real you.

So much living and feeling has gone on in my life since Sister Mary Clara refused to accept my essay on growing up all those years ago. I have danced on sun-kissed beaches and have told family and friends how much I cherish them for the unique individuals they are. I have cried in sorrow and in the fullness of being.  And I have loved that I've grown up.


  1. Oh Dr. Kathy, What a wonderful post. I always look forward to your authentic views of life and retirement. You are so wise and honest about sharing your experience and wisdom. Thank you for such a genuine post today! Debbie

    1. Thanks so much for your kind words, Debbie! I'm really glad you like the blog!

  2. There are good reasons parents told us that, "Children are to be seen and not heard," or "You'll break your arm, patting yourself on the back." If people came to realize that maybe they wouldn't be so resentful of their parents. From those "accidental lessons," we might have learned to think before we speak and not say any stupid thing as young people currently do.

    I find it hard to believe that a young person would reproach grandma for expressing herself since young people shoot their own mouths off about any and everything. Maybe only on electronic media rather than having actual conversations anymore.

    If only the current president had been told that as a child instead of being indulged, we wouldn't be in such a precarious position in the world now.

    1. Thanks so much for your comments, Anonymous! You raise some good and interesting points.

      When I talk about letting children feel their feelings and find their voice, I don't mean that parents should never set limits or call out rude and inappropriate behavior. If a child says something in anger to a parent, there is a balance between punishing the child for behavior that started the altercation and punishing him or her for expressing anger. The mother who wrote to tell me that she allowed her kids to express anger, sometimes even to say "I hate you, Mommey!" still was firm with them about rules of behavior as in "You can hate me all you want, but you still can't do this..." I remember Carol Burnett once talking about her difficulties during her daughter Carrie's tumultuous adolescence and saying to her "I love you enough to let you hate me" as she drew a line in the sand. Allowing kids to discover their feelings and their voice doesn't mean allowing them to rule the roost or to grow up like savages. There are limits and most parents are very clear on what these are though keeping the balance between reasonable expectations and free expression can be a challenge for sure.

      My friend's grandchildren did cringe and moan -- partly in jest, I think -- over her greeting of me but they were very polite subsequently.

      There are many factors that can create a narcissistic individual. It goes much deeper than being indulged, though that can be part of it. I think that parents need to celebrate a child's success with him while maintaining real world expectations and observations. I remember winning the "Best Actress" award in a state acting competition when I was sixteen. My mother was delighted for me and even my father smiled at the news. But after a little celebration, my mother reminded me that I still needed to do the dishes and take out the trash that night. And though I got a lot of praise from teachers in high school about my writing, my beloved Aunt Molly, who was a professional writer, let me bask in the praise only to a certain extent before reminding me that I still had a lot to learn -- and she was absolutely right.

      So I don't think we should discourage kids from being proud of their achievements, but, at the same time, it's important not to exaggerate them. A young person may be a terrific athlete, for example, and his or her parents may be proud. But it doesn't do him any good to hear overblown praise about being the best ever, incredibly great, up there with the champions of all time. It's enough to say "You did a great job today! Good for you!" And then remind him of his homework or chores.

  3. Wow, what a beautiful post. I LOVED what you wrote as a sixth grader and was blown away by your insight as such a young child. Then was rather shocked by the teacher's response, but I guess that was a different time period and she could not see the wisdom in what you wrote. However, what a beautiful segway into this topic. This subject hit home and it was so therapeutic to read your encouragement to be more open. I'm naturally a very open and verbal person, but over the years in little ways I've stopped sharing, and it is much more painful that way. From not wanting to tell my classmates at seminary - and some relatives - that I was becoming an agnostic, to not wanting to share when I went on birth control after changing our mind many times about having a baby, to now most recently being mostly silent around my liberal/progressive friends about politics, I hold back because I fear judgement but worse being cut off in a friendship. In the latest case, being most current, I do feel such a deep pain at not being able to be authentic. Being a good listener, I know how many of them feel and the assumptions that are made about people who think conservatively, and it pains me to know that they might label me "that way". But your article has encouraged me to try anyway, because the cost of being inauthentic with people that you love and care deeply about is just too great. I will try to "share" this burden and let them take on some of the mental work of being more open minded, too. Thank-you very much for this, and again, wow am I impressed by your insights as a 6th grader.

  4. Thanks so much! I think some of my early insights were hard-won and, at that age, expressed myself much more openly on paper than I did in speaking with others. (I was very shy.) You brought up an interesting point: how open dare we be with friends when this country is so politically divided? That's a tough one. Sometimes silence is best. I have several friends who are deeply conservative and, while I'm on the other end of the spectrum, I respect their views even when I disagree. With my closest female friend, a very staunch Republican, I don't talk politics nor does she. We talk about everything else in the world and sometimes mention our distress over the hatred and divisions we see, but in this one area, we tread lightly. I love her dearly and don't want to hurt her in any way and she feels the same. We know each other's feelings and opinions politically and agree to disagree. My other best friend -- a man -- shares my political views as does my brother, so I can always have a rant-fest or serious discussion of politics with one of them. I think these days one has to be careful and selective, sad to say. My dear conservative friend has a lot of stress in her life at the moment -- her husband is in hospice, finances are a worry, etc. -- so she really doesn't need my contribution to her stress load. I just want to comfort and reassure her. So I choose to be 90% open and that feels okay for now.

  5. Dear Kathy, last Sunday I posted for the first time in almost two years. And this week, I have visited blogs written by friends like you whom I met through their postings.

    This particular posting on finding our authentic self really fits were I find myself right now--caught between trying to control all the details of my life and the still voice within in that I am struggling so hard to hear. (I'm reminded of Simon and Garfunkel's "Sounds of Silence.") The voice of intuition, which I've silenced for so long.

    Thank you for your honesty iin this posting of yours. When I read your 6th grade essay, I was astounded at the wisdom you had as a young child. You must have been only 11 or 12 and yet you saw with such clarity the damage your father was doing to himself and to his relationship with you and with his family.

    I am so grateful to the Universe that you "grew up" and have used that hard-won wisdom to help all the readers and clients who have known you and who have grown stronger because of your tenderness and compassion and great good sense. Thank you. Peace.

    1. Thanks so much for your kind comments, Dee! I'm so delighted to see you up and posting and reading again! I'll visit your blog right away to read the latest!

  6. Oh, I hate it when I type and it goes into the comment limbo and doesn't post. So I'll try again!

    Before I read anything else below your essay my first reaction was "Holy cow! A 12-year-old kid can write that eloquently and beautifully, with the skill, insight, vocabulary and structure of a far more advance writer." I would give that essay an A for nothing more than that if I was a teacher.

    But then to have one that really, truly looked at what "When I grow up" really means. Growing up isn't a job or career or how many children you have or if you live in a big house or travel around the world. It is who you are. Deep inside. It is how well you know yourself, how you feel, act, react, make choices. Who you ARE. And you got that. You got that at the age of 12, unfortunately for sad, experiential reasons. But you had the insight to realize that it wouldn't always be that way. That you WOULD cry and feel and be YOU. Oh, what an amazing child that nun missed. Had I been the teacher not only would you have your A but you would have also been referred to the school counselor!

    All you say in this post resonates so clearly and is so well stated, as are your tips. You may remember me saying in some of my blog posts that blogging really allows you to be who you are and that when meeting fellow bloggers, I have yet to find one who isn't the authentic person they share on their blog and over time. Warts and all. And yes, when you have a friend that you can share something you would not want broadcast to the world, you are a lucky soul indeed.

    Was it Anais Nin who said "Be yourself. Everyone else is taken." Someone said that. And they were right!

    1. Thanks, Jeanie! Whoever said that was absolutely right! I think my early insights were, indeed, hard won and I processed everything in writing rather than speaking out at that stage of life. By the way, I would have sent me to the school counselor, too -- if there had been one at my parochial school. Earlier on, observing my brother's nervousness and anxiety -- related to abuse -- his first grade teacher Sister Rita asked me what was going on at home. When I told her, she embraced both Mike and me and said prayers and soothing words. I found out later that she called our mother and angrily threatened to call the police -- in an era when that just wasn't done -- if she ever found another mark on either of us. So at least one of the nuns was paying attention. Sister Rita is still a dear friend to this day. I agree that blogging allows you to be who you are. I love it! And I think it has improved my work overall as I take the risk -- real or perceived -- of bringing more authenticity to my professional work.

  7. I am just now reading this and wish I could just pick up the phone and call you so we could chat about this post. There is so much here that I barely know where to start. I read the letter you wrote as a twelve year old in 1957. Of course, I was the same age and in the same year in school. I could have written the same words as you if I'd had the confidence to say what you did, but I didn't. Not only that, but I never could have written so well at that age!

    My father was not the one who told us to put a lid on our emotions or the expression of them. My mother was. "Oh, you don't feel that way" was the constant refrain I heard. The message was: you can't own your feelings or express them. I will tell you what your feelings should be. Unbelievably, she still will say that to me sometimes!

    I also have all of my letters from college which are less than authentic also. I remember little of what I felt during those years because I don't think I felt free to feel anything yet. I also have letters into my 40s. They too seldom say what I was really going through.

    My voice has been hard won. Even now, I find myself needing to censor much of what I write.

  8. Anytime, Sally, anytime! Just send your phone number to my email -- -- and we'll talk. How enduring those parental voices are -- even as we age. Your mother is still with you and still giving you the same messages. My parents have both been dead for nearly 40 years and still my father's admonitions resonate! Those college letters are a shock, aren't they? We were so writing to the parental audience. In my case, I'm ashamed to say that I didn't tell my parents about Judge Edith Sampson or Jeanne's reaction to "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" because my father was such a racist. And I soft-pedaled my heartbreak over Tim because my father didn't want me to divert any attention from my studies and my mother thought that if a guy just wanted to be friends, he wasn't worth knowing. I wish I had had more courage and confidence then. Like you, I've had to fight hard to find my voice, but it's well worth the effort!

  9. I ALWAYS love your posts---and this post was so interesting... For me personally, I did have a good childhood most of the time. My parents were older --and treated me special (only girl and only child still left at home)... BUT---two things scarred me growing up. One was being sexually abused by a brother I loved dearly (now deceased) and having my parents not wanting to believe it or even allow me to talk about it. I certainly didn't have 'my voice' at that time... I think we all just made it disappear!!!! The other problem I had (from birth) has been my weight... I struggled with weight --and allowed it to become my 'voice'... I was insecure because of it.. I allowed it to control me. I wasn't ugly (even though plump--and later obese)--and I was semi-popular in school and even had a boyfriend...My mother didn't know how to 'fix' my weight problem --but unlike she did when dealing with my brother (ignoring that situation), she started saying things which hurt and made me just gain more weight... She meant well I'm sure and tried to shame me into losing the weight --but that certainly didn't work.

    Because of never dealing with the sexual abuse and never dealing with my weight problem --I spent many years NOT able to really be me... I hid under the weight and ignored the other problem. FINALLY--I met a minister who became a good friend. He finally encouraged me to get counseling (which I did)... WOW---did that free me? After that, I started 'loving' ME ---and finally took control of the weight. My life began after those two things happened... BUT--sadly I spent many unhappy years living and working (just existing), etc. etc. etc and never really was 'living' nor finding my true voice. I'm not a writer (obviously) --but I certainly have a story to tell... Squashing one's voice happens in many many ways ---and this was mine!!!!!! Thanks for this post... (I have another situation that I want to talk with you about --a family member--so I will email you. Thanks in advance.)


  10. Hi! Great site! Great post! I am new here and hoping you write more. Thanks for being here, Sue