Comfortable silence. Awkward silence. Thoughtful silence. Angry silence.
It might be a myth, but I’ve heard it said that the Native Aleutian people (Eskimos) have 400 words to describe snow. As a therapist we probably have 200 words to describe silence.
Generally though, for those who are struggling to cope with social anxiety every day, there is only one word for silence: terrifying!
But why is silence so scary?
Often, we can use chatter not as a way to connect or have a conversation with people but as a way to simply distract ourselves. And that’s Ok, we all do it, but what tends to happen with an awkward silence for those with social anxiety is we can “fall into” our own anxiety, because there is no longer anything to distract us from how we are feeling.
It’s also true that you might feel in that moment a pressure that you “have to talk”: that silence is just wrong, or bad.
I call this the “social anxiety awkward silence” moment.
A lot of times when I talk to people during therapy sessions about these moments, I ask them – “do you think the other person or people were anxious too?” Frequently at first the person doesn’t know, but once they start to observe the other person, they notice actually, they seem anxious too.
Human beings are empathic creatures, we’re wired to notice and feel others emotional states. And when we do so it can be quite intense and a little confusing.
It’s also true that silence is a normal part of social interaction, and it’s important to figure out, what kind of silence is this, and do I need to do anything about it? It this is a socially anxious awkward moment, or just a normal part of having a conversation with someone?
Here are some tips that I recommend next time you find yourself having a ‘moment’:
- Breathe. Use the breathe to slow down and try to just stay open to the present moment.
- Look up, and look around. Examine others. Ask yourself, is the other person or people anxious or shy too?
- Ask yourself: is this my problem? Do I need to talk right now?
- Ask the other person: “What’s up? What’s on your mind?…” invite them back into the conversation. You don’t have to solve it on your own.
- If it seems like actually silence is OK, then distract. Read a magazine, check your phone, whatever might be appropriate to the situation.
Do you have other tips? If so, I’d love to hear what works for you.
Email me your ideas at: firstname.lastname@example.org
All the best,