What Free Speech Means to a Therapist

An all-important question of our times, is what does free speech mean to you?

Depending on who you are, your answer to this question will differ from one another in a drastic way.  I would like to consider now, what free speech means from the perspective of a psychotherapist.

I think of myself as a professional listener of free speech. My hours are spent using creative methods to encourage my clients to share and express themselves as honestly as possible. I help people be able to voice their thoughts and feelings that they have never before put into words. I remind them frequently that they are free to say anything, and I mean it: anything

Yet even in the confidential, compassionate, unbiased space that I do my best to provide, I find that many people still struggle to speak about the things they are the most afraid to say. They confront all kinds of inner demons in the process: the fear of being judged, the fear of retaliation, the fear of being boring, the fear of sounding narcissistic, the fear of saying the wrong thing, the fear of being bad, the fear of not making sense. The list of fears go on and on. Many sessions are devoted to talking about the fear itself. 

I'm not describing everybody, but definitely more people than you think are helpless against the oppressive regime of self-censorship. This is normal human behavior designed to help us get along with each other, although we pay for it with symptoms of psychological pain- hence the need for "talk therapy."

For therapists, helping someone with speaking about what's important to them feels less like giving them a microphone and soapbox, and more like a dentist pulling teeth.  It's no fun when words are all you have to express unspeakable suffering. There’s guilt and embarrassment involved. There's a letting go of how you wish to see yourself. There’s a responsibility to explain yourself. There’s fragmentation and incoherence. Again, all of these feelings about speaking are completely typical and expected. And being able to speak in spite of it is precisely what helps. 

In today's society, we usually value the loud and extroverted types as our leaders, the ones who dominate conversations in groups. Inside my office, I see and value the ones most afraid to speak. The shy, timid middle school girl who works hard each week to find the words to describe her deepest desires. The anxious "nice guy" who can finally admit that he gets angry sometimes. The couple who finally stop their battle over who is right in order to simply want to listen to one another. 

Free speech can take on many different interpretations, but to me, the people who exemplify it are the ones who use speech to free themselves.