Speaking for the first time – understanding selective mutism

For the month of February I am exploring my experiences with selective mutism. Yesterday I wrote about doing too much too fast – and what happens when you try to run up the stairs in two’s. Today I am going to share a brand new realisation with you – this is something that I have only just understood about selective mutism (and myself).

A fear of introduction

I love it when I read or hear something that connects a whole lot of dots inside of me. This happened just now when reading the very first sentence of this resource from the Selective Mutism group. I am sharing my realisation with you, as I connect it with the way I act and the techniques I have unconsciously developed to avoid talking to people for the first time.

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“The majority of selectively mute children have developed a chronic anxiety reaction in situations where they are required to talk to people for the first time, especially when they can be overheard (a phobia of speaking).”

It was the ‘for the first time’ bit that got me.

This completely resonates. It isn’t so much the speaking, it is the speaking for the first time. Familiar conversation with new people – or new conversation with familiar people – is scary. Even today. This part of selective mutism – the part I’ve never before understood – has lingered.

This means that every time there is a new situation … the anxiety returns.

What happens when I meet someone new

I watch in awe when people are able to fall into conversations with strangers. To me, there is nothing more scary than finding myself face to face with someone I have never spoken to. I prefer to wait until I know they have overheard me speaking to someone else before I can even imagine saying something directly to them. I also prefer to hear something that person has to say too – I like to know a little bit about another person before I dive into conversation with them.

Until now, I didn’t realise that this behaviour was selective mutism still playing out in my life – and now that I understand it, I feel comfortable enough to admit what I was doing.

I felt uncomfortable admitting to myself that, despite how far I feel like I have come, I am scared of meeting new people.

Some coping techniques I use

I find it really interesting to understand something new – and then to notice the many ways it has been playing out in my life. I am now beginning to see the different habits I have unconsciously developed to cope with the fears and anxieties I feel.

  • Avoidance – Instead of dealing with my fear of meeting new people, I will avoid introductions like the plague – hovering in the background where possible, and hoping that other people see enough of me that next time I will not stand out as being someone new to meet.
  • Pretence – I prefer to pretend that we’ve met before to lessen my anxiety, rather than go through the tricky business of introducing myself for the first time. It’s like starting a conversation in the middle – missing out on that introductory part, where I feel exposed and vulnerable.
  • Whispering – By speaking more quietly I hope new people won’t hear my voice. If I’m admitting something new to someone I do know, I often speak more quietly because of my anxiety about what I’m revealing.
  • Group introduction – Since becoming more comfortable with public speaking, I now find it easier to stand up and say something to a whole group of people than to mingle with the crowd. I think this is because I only have to make my introduction once. Following this, everyone has heard me speak, and the second interaction with people is then much easier. Once I’ve said my thing, I find that people are more likely to approach me regarding what I have said, and the conversation can flow from there. I am, however, quite likely to simply slip away without saying goodbye …

A healthier approach to initiating conversation

The problem with the above coping strategies is that I find myself always on guard – scared to be myself until the initial anxiety of that first interaction has passed and I can begin to relax a little more. Being on high-alert is stressful, and it is difficult to flow with the natural movement of life when you are always avoiding new situations.

When I was seven I found I was able to speak a little to my teacher and some of the kids at school. However, the following year my new teacher was quite different, and I took a couple of steps backward.

To cope with this, I started to take something in to school with me each day – a conversation starter. 

With this method, I didn’t have to speak to my teacher to initiate conversation. She would comment, or ask a question about the thing I’d brought in that day, and if I could I would answer her.

At the tender age of seven, I found a way to face my fears of speaking to my teacher, instead of avoiding it. I’m not sure where the avoidance strategy made its appearance, but I can now learn from my younger self, and once again find new ways to initiate conversation with people.

Beyond anxiety

To the outside world I have been free of selective mutism for many years, but as I explore the subject I am finding that it has lingered and I still have parts of myself that are seeking recognition and freedom from anxiety. Discovering these behaviours is a huge breakthrough for me – and massively empowering. I am beginning to understand how much I want to say – and what it is that holds me back from saying those things in both familiar and unfamiliar circumstances.  I am looking forward to embracing the anxiety I still feel around speaking, and using that fresh acceptance to find new ways of feeling comfortable enough to initiate conversation in more and more situations.

Writing this post has been huge in helping me to understand myself better. I hope it has also been helpful to you too. If you enjoy my writing, why not check out my children’s books – written from my point of view to help children feel understood with their feelings.

Katie-Jane books

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