I never know what’s a Southernism and what’s not.
When we were planning our wedding, I asked my Massachusetts-born fiance what he wanted to do for his groom’s cake, and he stared at me blankly. “What’s a groom’s cake?”
“You know, the wedding cake is a towering confection of delicate white buttercream swirls and the groom’s cake is…..well, just for the groom. It’s something fun that shows his interests like a sports team or something, and it’s usually chocolate. You’ve seen it a hundred times. What do you want for yours?”
“I’m pretty sure you just made that up to get extra cake.”
“I did not!”
“Well, it’s clearly just a Southern thing, because I have never heard of that.”
In his defense, yes—I would totally concoct a lavish story in order to get extra cake, but I was completely sincere in my question to him. I hadn’t paused to consider what traditions were universal and what were unique to my tiny cultural experience.
So when I tell you I’m changing my relationship with backtalk, you’ll have to forgive me if “backtalk” is a purely Southern expression. For the purposes of you not thinking I made this up to get extra cake, let’s define “backtalk.”
Backtalk is a verbal expression of disagreement with authority. It’s something you do when you’ve been given instructions you don’t vibe with.
Mom: “Clean your room.”
Kid: “But I don’t want to! Cleaning rooms is stupid!”
Mom: “Have you lost your damn mind? Don’t backtalk me!”
The “clap back” emoji works the same way.
While it’s completely normal and reasonable for a mom to want her kid to clean up without a bunch of drama, for highly sensitive kids already prone to people-pleasing and perfectionism, the message can become skewed. What started as, “I’m the authority figure; when I say don’t play in the street, you need to listen to me” has the potential to become “I’m the authority figure; my way is the only correct way of being. Get in line.”
And sooo much of our culture operates on listening to an outer authority figure to find and maintain that line, especially in our careers. No wonder so many of us have trouble standing up for ourselves, moms and inner children alike!
No wonder so many of us deeply long to follow our own path, but feel terrified of everyone else’s judgment. No wonder we shut down our desire to make a difference and choose the “responsible” path at all costs. No wonder we yearn for impact but end up wondering if we’re “qualified” enough instead.
In this community alone, most of us could write a book filled with times we’ve spoken up and been slapped down. It’s a wonder we continue to speak at all.
I grew up thinking backtalk was bad—literally the worst thing you could do as a daughter, and when I joined the workforce, I took my “good daughter” persona with me, not speaking up, not questioning, not disagreeing with what I knew was wrong.
And you know where the “good daughter” got me? Smack dab in the middle of a team I didn’t like, at a company I didn’t align with, with a mission I couldn’t stand.
Just like I never questioned the universality of groom’s cake, I never questioned the “backtalk is bad” story that unconsciously guided so many of my actions, keeping me from saying “this job is stupid, I hate it here, they don’t appreciate me, and not feeding my soul is not okay with me.” No wonder I was stuck!
Biting back these truths for so long severely impacted my health, and ever since then, I’ve been learning to talk back. I’ve been learning that backtalk isn’t bad—it simply means I have a voice. A strong, powerful voice, a voice that doesn’t care if other people like it, a voice that isn’t willing to behave in order to make someone else more comfortable.
Here is the short version of what being quiet has cost me:
- My ability to trust my body-I used to crave a doctor or a diet to tell me how to keep this outrageous, loud, uncontrollable thing small, safe, and polite
- My confidence in my calling-I longed for someone to tell me I’m doing it right. Even now when things are going well, I want approval and confirmation that I’m on track
- Authenticity in my relationships-I couldn’t really connect when I was so concerned with who I was supposed to be. So many of my relationships had this layer of film over them-like I was a gauzy image that reflected the hopes and needs of the beholder
- Trust in my ability to earn money and support myself-I used feel desperate to make the logical, responsible choice at all times. I believed that following the path of my calling would leave me without any money or stability
If a fear of backtalk is what’s holding you back from fully embracing your calling, what is it costing you?
Since the days of my health breakdown, I have been unraveling my fear of talking back, and since unraveling this fear is my particular soul work right now, I’ve learned a few pathways for breaking through the fearful programming and into the most dazzlingly self I can be.
If you want to join my backtalk revolution, here are a few ways you can ritualize your own backtalk practice.
Pathway #1: Ground your backtalk in something bigger than you.
You are a loving, giving person who genuinely wants the make the world a better place. Why not make that work for you? Everything is connected, so your actions affect other people. Because we are all connected, you are constantly affecting everyone else’s vibe around you. If you want to stand for empowerment, start by empowering yourself to use your own voice more, and then let that leadership provide an example to the women around you, especially the little girls. Talk back to fear, victimhood, and negative self-talk for them. Do it for your daughters and their daughters and for all the women who will come after you.
Pathway #2: Journal constantly.
The most important talking back you can do is to the voice in your head that tells you you’re not good enough. Even if you only journal five minutes a day over your morning coffee, use a simple notebook as a safe space. Write about all the things you want to talk back against. Write about what angers you, whether it’s the injustice in the world or your own life. Get it out of your head and onto the page. You’ll be surprised at how easy it is to leave it there.
Pathway #3: Find a tribe of backtalkers.
I knew deep down that I was called to a career of female empowerment, but I never actually believed it was possible until I found my tribe, a group of kickass women navigating the same journey I was. Maybe you are supremely self-confident all the time, but if you’re like me, you’re going to need some support. Find the people who encourage your rebellious streak. Look for the gals who are doing the thing you want to do. Line yourself up with the ladies on the same path or a few steps ahead of you, and lean on them. Love them. Let them support you on your quest.
When it comes to talking back to your fears, to the haters, to the bullshit rules you’ve imprisoned yourself with, or to external constraints, it's an ongoing journey. But it is one that gets easier the more you do it. Plus, the world needs more people like you. Think of it this way: how many times have you betrayed your own voice, and in doing so, robbed the world of your calling? When it comes to backtalk, it’s easy to become a rebel with a cause and use your voice for good. This is a Feminist revolution you can start from your own couch! All you have to do is own it.