Overcoming shame to find my own voice

by | Jul 28, 2021 | Authenticity


I have a confession to make. I’m a great big phoney. From my voice, you might think I’m ‘posh’, that I live in a nice house and that I’m possibly from the south of England. Or else, you might find it difficult to pinpoint my place of birth or my class origins from how I speak. And that’s no accident because my accent is a carefully cultivated disguise.

I was born in rented rooms in Wolverhampton, the first child of an apprentice toolmaker and a shop girl. My parents married young (my mother had to secure her father’s permission to wed) and sensibly resisted the expectation of the time to live with their parents until they found somewhere decent to live. My first ‘nursery’ was a bottom drawer in a house of multiple occupation.

Hardly the most auspicious of starts, but both my parents had aspirations for their first-born and, despite their modest education they were determined that I would be brought up in a home with books and music and dreams of a better life. My father joined the classical music appreciation society at his factory and learned to love Bach and Beethoven (his legacy to me). My mum helped to start a pre-school playgroup – then a very radical idea – where the emphasis was on learning through play. This was the sixties after all.

I noticed class differences from an early age. The kids with the easy confidence, shiny new bikes, homes with fitted carpets and the nice clothes were the ones whose dads were bank managers, school inspectors and college lecturers. Apart from their affluence, they had one thing in common – Received Pronunciation (RP). While I couldn’t hope to match their social and material advantages, as a talented mimic, I could at least sound like them.

My strategy paid off when the careers teacher advised me that ‘being nicely spoken’ would be helpful if I wanted to be a teacher (I didn’t, but at the time, that was the only option for smart girls). And it proved to be the case. A middle-class accent conferred upon the speaker both intelligence and good character, whether deserved or not (it still does). I beat hundreds of applicants to get a much-coveted place as a trainee journalist at the Express and Star (the interview panel chair described me as ‘that cool blonde’, a description that betrayed both his classism and misogyny). And I later became the first in my family to go to university where I discovered a Wolverhampton accent would come in handy in reading Middle English aloud. Chaucer and Shakespeare were both men from the Midlands.

It was only when I moved to work in the south of England that people would ask if I came from Birmingham – my pronunciation of ‘bath’ with a short ‘a’ rather than the ‘ah’ of RP was a dead giveaway.

Over the years, the voice that I had originally usurped to fit in and get on in the world feels a little more natural. It’s like the shoes made for someone else have started to mould to my feet. My powers of mimicry enable me to speak ‘yam yam’ when I need to, usually an act of allegiance to my local friends, family, or city. These days, if I’m asked where I come from, I readily own up to my phoniness. People who know me know that while I might ‘sound posh’ I’m anything but.

I’ve long forgiven my younger self for feeling so ashamed of her class and her place of birth that she should pretend to be someone else. I recognise the deceit as a creative response to not feeling good enough, a belief that persists and occasionally shows up when I try a little too hard to please or to impress.

Nonetheless, my voice is a lasting testimony to my inauthenticity. If our eyes are the windows to our soul, our voice reveals something essential about the self, who we are, who we think we are, who we’d like to be. All that data in a few syllables.

Most of us hate the recording of our voice because when we hear ourselves speak, the pitch seems lower. Our recorded voice seems so shocking to us not only because it sounds so much higher and thinner in our ‘mind’s ear’, but it also challenges our perception of how we think we sound to other people. In the same way, hearing ourselves connect to a deep and painful experience for the first time in counselling can be disconcerting, probably because this voice is so unfamiliar to us. “Did I really say that?”

So much of my own work in therapy has been about finding my own voice, something that feels true to me, that I can own without apology or compromise. At other times, when my struggles have been most painful and profound, finding a voice of any kind can feel beyond my competence and yet, when it splutters tentatively into being the effects can be transformative.

Voicelessness seems to underpin those feelings of shame and self-blame. Naming our shame for the first time is like bringing sunlight into a dark, dank cave and wondering what we ever feared at the prospect of exposure. Finding our voice is like taking power.

Abusers and perpetrators demand our silence, in fact, their continued freedom to abuse depends on it. And yet, even if we were to summon the courage we would need to speak out, who would hear us and believe us? Voicelessness is so often helplessness.

As a counsellor, I guess one of my most important jobs is to help clients to find their own voice and then to bear witness to what they say – to accept their truth, to validate their experience, to hear them intently and without judgement so that they can hear themselves.

“What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?”  Audre Lorde. 

1 Comment

  1. Georgie

    I see like most, you have had a long journey of self discovery, validation and finally a celebration for being simply “you”.👏😊


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