Dear Friend: Lead By Example

A response to a friend who has asked for help accessing her authentic voice.

Dear Friend:

Thank you for your letter. Letter-writing is and has always been my favorite form of communication. In fact, most of my journal entries are second-person letters to myself.

I love letters because they immortalize a moment. And they are personal—directed at a specific recipient. It’s great practice in focusing your energy, in “picking a spot to land your sound,” something my voice-and-speech teacher says to do before we speak. Letter-writing may lack sound, but it still contains a focus.  

When you write a letter, your experience becomes a gift to someone else, and it isn’t owned by a server, the way a text message is. So, thank you for gifting me your experience. I will now gift you some in return. 

You ask me how to use your voice to communicate truthfully, set boundaries, and break unhealthy patterns. You have written me a letter, so you clearly know how to write, and at risk of assuming, I dare say you know how to speak.

That said, I take it the issue is how to voice truth that is yours. And how to do so with those you know. After all, you’ve communicated beautifully to me—but I am a stranger. 

When people know you, they expect things from you—at least, that’s how I feel. That is one of my stumbling blocks in my practice of articulation. I fear letting people down. I fear voicing an opinion that surprises them, or shocking them by changing my mind, and therefore letting them down.

That’s why, growing up, I had a habit of “changing my tune” to match the opinions of those around me. I got in trouble when the people with whom I’d expressed conflicting opinions to wound up in the same room. 

In writing to me, you had nothing to lose. We have no pre-established connection. But speaking in relationships—that is hard for you. You do not feel confident. You do not feel eloquent. You do not feel authentic. You do not feel worthy. 

I know this feeling well.

As a child, I suppressed my feelings. I felt deeply inadequate, but as long as I was healthy, I did not think I deserved to speak about it. I feared the repercussions of standing out. I believed that if I took up space, those in my life would resent me.

If I were to speak my truth, I would have to do something to compensate for it. I would have to shrink; I would have to hide; I would have to fade into the background.

So, four years ago, I started to starve myself. I became a victim of my own emotions. I was 120 pounds in August of 2015, and by December of that year, I was 80. I had to show my depression—let it physically manifest—in order to justify changing it. 

This is not the way.

There is another way.

Not only do you have the right to speak up for yourself, but you have a responsibility to. 

Our duty on earth is to lead by example. I thought that using my voice made me selfish. I thought it sent a message to others that I was better than them and that only my feelings were valid. I associated filling space with cockiness. In reality, it gives those around me permission to use their voice. It breaks the ice. Here’s an example:

3 years ago, I needed help letting go of my eating disorder. It had become my whole life. And I had bonded with a friend over of it. We both had eating disorders, we were both depressed, we both knew we needed treatment, and we both were scared. We were scared of the change. We didn’t think we could love ourselves without it. 

I began to reach a breaking point, and my disease was more obvious than his was. I knew that I was dying, and that if I didn’t do something about it, I would lose everything, but I was terrified to extricate myself from the space we’d created. I enjoyed our co-misery. I thought if I recovered and he did not, I’d lose the friendship.

How could I heal without him?

I did not know what was on the other side. 

A quiet voice inside me told me, “Go before you’re ready,” and I felt that I should listen. I told myself, “Bella, if you get help now, you can relapse again when you want to. Just try this out. For today, let it be temporary.”

I took the plunge—and I did grow apart from my friend. We no longer existed in the same head space; we no longer saw the world the same way. I was sad, because I considered him my family. But I committed to my decision and the life that I wanted.

Recently, I got an important phone call. It was my friend telling me he had broken down and gotten help. He used his voice and admitted he’d felt left behind when I got treated. He said my new way of life had seemed unattainable, but now he understood and was ready to fight.

His words deeply moved me. Not only was I proud of my friend and grateful for our reunion, but I realized how valuable my decision to help myself had been.

By using my voice and asking for help, I demonstrated hope.

I became an ally for my friend in his recovery—someone he could share understanding with on his journey. When you lift yourself up, you can bring others with you—it just takes as long as it takes. 

That’s why you need trust. You must cultivate trust. I had to blindly trust that I was doing the right thing by seeking treatment and recovery, or I would not have been able to commit. I had to “just decide.” And so do you.   

When you use your voice, you give others permission to use theirs.
It’s called leading by example.

We are all human. We all change our minds. We should change our minds, lest we have a fixed mindset. We’re not here to stay the same, we are here to grow. But it is hard. It is hard to change patterns. Especially when they are lifelong patterns. 

But we receive what we give and we give what we receive. What would you say to someone you love? Would you want them to operate from fear? Would you want them to stay small?

I sure doubt it.

So you need to trust that those in your life feel the same way about you. Anyone you lose when you live in your truth should not be in your life in the first place. It is perfectly okay to out-grow relationships. 

You will not leave anyone behind if you thrive.

Everyone has the opportunity to come with you, and if they feel left behind, that is on them. In fact, by detaching with love and allowing yourself to thrive, you give them an opportunity to examine their own self—to ask their self why it is they feel left behind or out-shined.

It’s cheating to attach your journey or your self-worth to another person—but at the same time, there is no rush or deadline to learn this. 

Have patience with yourself and have patience for those around you. When it comes to recovery, let your actions speak louder than your words. Help yourself for yourself, and allow others to evolve in their own time.

Do not push your new way of life on anyone. I said nothing to my friend to encourage him. I simply took responsibility for myself and let the rest unfold.

When I was deep in my eating disorder, an older girl at my school revealed that she was in recovery. She asked multiple times if we could meet to talk, and if she could give me a paper she had written on her experience. I was nowhere near ready for that, and I felt overwhelmed.

I appreciated her caring, but I also felt violated. There’s a fine line between making yourself available to somebody and invading their space, assuming responsibility for their problems, and manipulating them to enforce your own agenda. But it’s easy to find. You’ll find it.

My advice to you is to cultivate a practice of inquiry. Every moment in which you are able, asking yourself the following questions: What do I feel, and What do I need?

I also suggest you cultivate a space where your voice is at the center – where it is the center of attention. This space does not need to be public—it can be private. It can be a diary. It can be therapy. This is not about dominance. This is not about attention.

The goal is not to out-shineThe goal is just to shine.

Shine as bright as you can, within healthy boundaries, and let your friends come with you.

When I let go of the lifestyle that was my eating disorder, I knew I had to replace it with something of meaning. I had to take the advice I gave you and cultivate a space where my voice was at the center. So, I started a blog, called Destination Recovery. Writing on my blog, recording myself speaking, sharing in group meetings, and performing my story onstage—these things keep me heathy. 

Using my voice keeps me healthy.
It is the difference between sickness and health.

Your voice is your own, and so is your personal narrative. These are your teaching tools.

And remember, your voice is nuanced. It has various manifestations. As I’ve expressed thus far, you can use your voice without speaking. You can show without telling. You can lead by example by taking an action. You can send a message with an act of self-care.

You can use your voice to say yes; you can use your voice to say no. Saying “no” is a positive thing. It is an affirmation of your boundaries – an affirmation of what you will and won’t allow.

No other voice will sound like yours. No other journey will directly mimic yours. When you embrace that quality in yourself, you can better honor it in others.  

I will do my best to cultivate support and space for you on this journey. I would like to continue this exchange. In fact, I am giving you an assignment:

In your next letter, I want you to highlight everything I said that does not resonate with your experience. We can play a little game called “Mine” and “Not Mine.” To fully embrace your voice, you must get better at claiming what is yours and leaving the rest behind. It is crucial in setting boundaries.

Do not fear hurting my feelings. Trust me, I will respect you more. Your primary job in this life is to be unapologetically yourself.

And finally, I will offer you my mantra:

            Speak from the heart, and you will be fine.

Bella

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