You may have heard of the term, selective hearing. If you haven’t, selective hearing is where you hear what you only want to hear.
For example, when a teenager’s mom tells them to clean their room before playing on the game system. The teen ignores every word except “play on the game system” and instantly goes to play video games, claiming they didn’t hear their mom say they had to clean their room first.
This post isn’t about selective hearing, it’s about selective mutism, which is commonly misunderstood due to the similar wording of selective hearing.
I am someone who struggles with selective mutism daily. It’s embarrassing, frustrating, and draining. So, what is selective mutism?
According to selectivemutism.org, selective mutism is a complex childhood anxiety disorder characterized by a child’s inability to speak and communicate effectively in select social settings, such as school. These children are able to speak and communicate in settings where they are comfortable, secure, and relaxed.
These children grow into adults who struggle with verbal communication. A skill that is vital in today’s world to prosper in society.
My Own Experience
I have had a few encounters with people who have actively read my writings through my personal blog, and who are baffled when we hold a verbal conversation. I do not speak as I write, though I wish I could.
My anxiety becomes louder than the words I wish to speak. Often the words get lost somewhere along the way from my mind to my lips, causing me to sit in silence as I listen to others speak. Later, I dwell on how I must have made them feel to offer such little words to our conversation.
My thought patterns after a one-on-one conversation often go: did I upset them with no additional thoughts? Do they think I’m less educated? Are they ever going to want to be around me again? Do they think I am a fraud because I’m able to write? Or maybe they think I’m stuck up, not willing to talk.” The thoughts pile on and on.
This is also one of the reasons I apologize often after talking. You see, I WANT to be able to add value to spoken conversations. I would love to let my anxiety sleep so I could speak with as many words as I write.
However, for now, that is not my reality. For now, I must face the fact that it is okay to not speak the words in my heart when I want to. They will be heard when they are ready and when my mind calms from the storms of my past.
Thinking back, I’ve always had trouble with spoken communication, but it wasn’t until I went through psychosis that it really started to impact me. I’m not able to form the words in my mind fast enough when talking due to my working memory. My anxiety also causes me to freeze in mid-sentence, or forget words altogether.
Additionally, I have a very child-like voice which makes talking on the phone a nightmare. Have you ever tried ordering something by phone only to have the person on the other side ask where your parents are? Sir, I am a grown woman with a child, I don’t need to ask my mom to order food for me, is what I desperately wanted to say, but hung up instead. Unfortunately, this has happened more than once, even calling family.
I am unsure if having a child-like voice stems from not talking much as I was growing up, but man is it a pain. I wonder if it is linked with selective mutism? Hmm.
Coping and Understanding
Selective Mutism is hard to live with. If you suspect you may be dealing with this too, I wanted to share some of the ways that help me cope. They may or may not help you, but I hope they do.
Understanding it’s okay to not talk
Growing up the rules were clear: you must speak when spoken to. No ifs and or buts about it. If I didn’t answer mom when she asked a question I would get the belt, even if I didn’t know how to formulate the response, and the phrase I don’t know was not an answer.
As you can imagine, this altered my views on having to talk. I’m sure many children grew up with similar rules. So for many, dissolving old belief systems and coming from a place of understanding is one of the most crucial things you can do when dealing with things like this.
Back up communication options
As stated though out this post, when dealing with selective mutism, vocal communication is a challenge. Learning different ways to communicate is highly beneficial. I use writing and texting as my go-to when I cannot formulate the words.
There are other ways such as drawing, sign language, poetry, and more. You just have to find out what is best for you.
Just because we have trouble speaking, does not mean we don’t have a lot to say. We just have to figure out the best way to say it.
Making other people aware
Letting other people know of my selective mutism was a big step and an even bigger blessing in my life. For a while I tried to pretend I had everything under control, forcing myself to take classes and reading article after article on how to communicate properly.
While this method did help, it also took a toll on my mental health. I decided to accept this part of me and work with it, rather than against it. So the first step was letting people know.
I found out most people have no problem at all with letting me write out a response to previous conversations. It takes a little more time and effort, but it has helped in many ways.
Be kind to yourself
It’s easy to get frustrated when you freeze up. Which can lead to thinking awful things about yourself.
For years I would call myself stupid for not being able to say what I wanted. I would spend hours crying in frustration not understanding why I could easily write and not speak. I felt like a failure.
Getting into the habit of telling yourself it’s okay, it’s just not my strong suit I am working on it and I accept myself the way I am, which can help redirect the mind. Selective mutism is a struggle to deal with on its own, thinking about yourself in a demeaning way can cause depression and more anxiety.
If you are someone who struggles to vocally communicate I want to let you know you are not alone. It’s okay to be different and do things differently. Everyone has something they are working on.