“Integrity isn’t a morality issue; it’s an energy issue.” ~Gay Hendricks
One of the biggest questions I, and many other people I know, face as we go about our days is this: When is it worthwhile to speak our minds, and when should we keep our thoughts to ourselves?
There are usually both good reasons and bad reasons for speaking out or remaining silent, so how do we know which is which? It all comes down to our own energy, and that is something we can learn how to discern.
Integrity means a feeling of wholeness, or being of one piece. For me, the sensation of integrity is one of stillness and calm inside. When I’m upset by something (out of integrity) I feel a buzzing, restless energy in my body, as my thoughts race around and around, thinking about what happened and what I want to say back. This is not the time to say something! So the first rule of thumb in most situations is:
1. Wait until you feel clear.
Unless you or someone else is in imminent danger, your first reaction will probably do more harm than good, because your energy is so swirled up you can’t see what’s really there.
Usually I love old sayings and aphorisms for the wisdom they contain, but there is one that I vehemently disagree with: Don’t let the sun go down on your anger. Honestly, in nine cases out of ten, the better advice is: Sleep on it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to bed angry and in the morning could hardly remember what the fuss was about.
When your energy is swirled up and agitated, it’s like a muddy pool that needs time to settle. Once it’s clear again, you can see if there’s still something there that needs to be cleaned out.
The ego (your “small self”) is always on the defensive and ready to over-react when it senses a threat. You can be sure that your ego is activated when you feel that urge to lash out and say potentially hurtful things. It’s only trying to protect you, but often the damage it does to relationships (and your own well-being) is lasting. This is why my second rule of thumb is another aphorism:
2. “Least said, soonest mended.”
You can’t un-say or un-write something you have said or written (once you’ve sent it), so err on the side of caution. Don Miguel Ruíz, in The Four Agreements, says that we need to be “impeccable” with our words, because they are essentially like magic spells we cast, with power to do both good and evil.
In my experience, the ego tends to over-explain and over-justify. There are many reasons for this: maybe you want to show how much you were hurt by what the other person did, maybe you want to elicit an apology or an admission that you were right, maybe you’re taking advantage of the current situation to bring up old grievances with that person (or give voice to free-floating anger that isn’t even related to them!).
The key here—again—is to pay close attention to your own energy. Often we begin a conversation with calm energy and the best of intentions, but then find it spiraling out of control.
When you feel a tightening in your chest, or your breath coming faster, or your voice rising a bit in volume, it’s time to back down. This is a tricky place, because it’s tempting to keep barreling forward. Sometimes you can calm your energy enough by simply slowing your speech and breathing way down, taking long pauses, and focusing your attention in a soft way on the other person. (We tend to get blinders on when our energy is swirled up.)
Say less than you think you should. This is particularly helpful when dealing with a narcissist, who will try to use your words against you or argue you out of your feelings.
If you have to walk away, try not to do it as a punishment or rejection or manipulation of the other person—simply admit that you’re having a hard time keeping your own energy in control and commit to returning when you feel clear again.
This isn’t to say that you can’t express strong feelings when necessary. Ironically, you will be far more forceful and effective in conveying them when your energy is clear.
Some people, especially women who have been encouraged to always hide or deny their anger, feel that they “need” to lose control in order to confront someone else. Unfortunately, this almost always backfires and doesn’t produce real change. The sad truth is that when you lose control of yourself, you turn your power over to someone else.
So let’s re-orient for a moment: What does it feel like when your energy is “clear?” Remember, we called this a feeling of integrity or wholeness. It’s a feeling of being solid and grounded in your truth. (Notice that I didn’t say the truth: We can never really know what the truth is for another person, but we are always on solid ground when we speak our own truth.) Because the small self is so pesky and persistent in muddying up the waters, my third guideline for speaking up is:
3. Check your baggage at the door.
I really had to use this rule recently when I confronted my sister about her new boyfriend. I waited quite a while to see if what I was sensing was truly something that needed saying or was simply my own ego being sad that it was “losing” something important (my sister’s time and attention). It’s easy to fool yourself that you’re acting altruistically, when in reality your main motivation is your own perceived wants and needs.
In reality, these hidden agendas (and our underlying energy) usually speak quite loudly! People pick up on them, consciously or unconsciously, and they only weaken our arguments and put others on the defensive.
On the other hand, when we speak from a clear and grounded place, that energy is read as well, and it allows the other person to hear even very sensitive and raw communications with an open heart.
One way to check for hidden agendas is to ask yourself: What outcome am I hoping to achieve by speaking up?
This turned out to be an important distinction for me. When I first thought about talking with A., my motivation was to convince her to break up with the guy. (That would have made me happy.)
As I sat with the situation for a while, I realized that she truly had the right to her own opinion, and that she might have viable reasons for continuing the relationship. When I ultimately did speak with her, I acknowledged that and didn’t try to “convince” her to follow my advice. I simply told her my fears and observations and left it there.
But what made me think I should say anything in the first place? That brings me to my final guideline:
4. Don’t ignore your gut.
As easy as it is to get into trouble by speaking up when we shouldn’t, it’s equally tempting to squash our instincts to say something if we think it will be awkward, unwelcome, or “pointless” to do so. This comes down to energy as well.
Sometimes when we choose to wait, our energy clears and the situation resolves by itself. (Yay!) Sometimes, we continue to feel upset or to ruminate about the situation. This is the time to check our own baggage. We have to carefully and honestly assess how much of our upset feelings are due to our own issues, and deal with them first. If you have done this honestly and you’re still troubled, that is the time to speak up.
In the case of my sister, aside from my personal sadness, I truly felt that she was getting in over her head with a narcissist. This put me in a bind, because every time she would talk to me about him, I felt inauthentic and upset for hiding my true feelings.
After we spoke, my energetic quandary was resolved, even though the situation remained the same. She chose to stay with him but promised to be careful and go slowly. I no longer had to hide my feelings (which was a relief), but I also gave up trying to change her behavior and worked on my own issues about the situation instead.
Learning how to understand and monitor my own energetic integrity has helped me in all aspects of life, beyond just communication (although that’s pretty important!). Deciding whether to speak or not to speak, and what to say when we do, is an ongoing issue throughout every day, and energy is the key to communication that truly achieves what we want it to achieve, with the least potential for harm.