I really struggle with this one. I fit all or most of the selective mutism characteristics, because I am very quiet, even as an adult, and I’m also very shy.
But the more I learn about introversion, the more it sounds like quietness is a perfectly natural part of introversion, because of the way our brains process information and social situations, as contrasted to extroverts.
Since I am also very quiet most of the time even in groups of friends I’m familiar and comfortable with, my shyness is not the direct cause of my quietness.
Rather, it’s because I need time to process and come up with responses, which often leaves me left in the cold as extroverts talk over me when I try to talk, or the topic has already changed by the time I come up with a comment.
Or I just plain don’t have anything to contribute, because I don’t know enough about, or am not interested in, the topic. Whatever I might say, others say before I get a chance.
I used to go to planning meetings for my church’s GreekFest, but stopped because I had nothing to contribute, and somebody even mentioned that I say nothing.
I’ll say almost nothing at a general assembly meeting for my church, then get home and e-mail thoughts to the parish council, thoughts which I could not properly formulate till I was at home with my keyboard.
While at home, with my husband or parents or roommate or best friend, I can be quite the chatterbox, though if I have nothing to talk about or my brain is taken up with my latest perseveration, I say nothing.
If I’m called upon to read aloud–at church, at school, wherever–I can do it with ease. People have often complimented my reading skills, from as far back as at least middle school, and they do so when I read the Epistle at church. I’m often called upon to read passages during Lenten services as well.
I do not have to think what to say; I simply read the text, make myself forget that a whole church is listening, and do not stumble over difficult names.
But I’m also very shy. I don’t initiate conversation with strangers. I struggle to speak to people who make me uncomfortable, especially if they are mean to me.
So is it selective mutism? Or is it introversion?
Or have psychologists labeled an introverted trait as a “disorder” because we now live in a society which values extroversion, when in the olden days introversion was acceptable, and character was valued over personality?
I do know that research has shown that forcing a selective mute to speak, through shame or anger or punishment, is counterproductive. I also know that research has shown that forcing an introvert to speak doesn’t work, since our brains are simply wired differently than an extrovert’s. So–regarding the use of force, both are the same.
Susan Cain describes this eloquently in her new book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Prior to the 20th century, we lived in what she terms “the culture of character.” Individuals were judged primarily on the content of their character.
By the 1920’s, as America became more urbanized, and salesmanship became a vital part of the economy, people started being judged on their apparent personality. First impressions took on greater importance.
It was vital to be perceived as “captivating” and having a strong personality. Winning friends and influencing people became the goal. –Greg Markway, PhD, Introverts Need Not Apply: The Problem With a World That Chooses Extraverts
I recommend Shyness is Nice, a blog about the value of shyness and quietness. Some quotes:
The real revelation for me, though, is that being shy isn’t even necessarily a social handicap. Shy people have a great gift: their gut about whom to trust. It comes from years of observing people and a deep fear of being burned, and it pulls us away from the frigid, hateful and fake. –Celia Ampel, I’m Shy and I’m OK
Socially, I remained very reserved. I didn’t say much, other than to the small group of nerdy friends I regularly ate lunch with. I remember one day being stunned when a girl at school asked me, “Why are you so stuck up?” –Greg Markway PhD, Introverted? Shy? How the World Misperceives Us
Yeah, I’ve gotten that one too, a few times. It’s totally off-base. I’m far too scared of people to think myself better than them, far too awkward and uncertain of myself, while they seem to know just what to do or say.
Today, Emily would be diagnosed with selective mutism. The subtle, but significant, change of words from elective to selective represents a major advance in how we think about the condition.
Selective mutism is a variant of social anxiety disorder in which a child, who is normally capable of speech, is unable to speak in given situations, or to specific people.
Emily made progress even though I knew very little about what I was doing at the time. She had wonderful parents who accepted her struggles while also helping her gradually take tiny steps out of her comfort zone.
October is Selective Mutism Awareness Month, and I thought this would be a good time to discuss briefly some facts and myths about the disorder:
- We now know that children with selective mutism desperately want to speak. Some children have described feeling that their vocal chords “freeze up.”
- It is not a matter of will or stubbornness; it involves an underlying anxiety disorder that literally prevents speech in certain circumstances.
- Children with this disorder tend to have shy, inhibited temperaments. They frequently are “highly sensitive persons.” –Greg Markway PhD, Scared Speechless: Children with Selective Mutism
In Elaine Aron’s book, The Highly Sensitive Person, she describes some extremely important research dealing with this issue of culture. The study, conducted by Xinyin Chen and Kenneth Rubin of the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, and Yuerong Sun of Shanghai Teachers University, compared children in both cities to determine what traits made children popular.
Among the group of 480 students in Shanghai, “shy” and “sensitive” children were the most sought-after as friends. In contrast, among the 296 Canadian children, shy and sensitive children were the least desirable.
This study shows that whether you’re accepted by others can have little to do with you personally and much to do with the prevailing cultural norms. –Dr. Barbara Markway PhD, Quiet is Not a Four-Letter Word
Westerners tend to focus more narrowly on individuals, independence and on individuals taking action, while Asians are more likely to focus on context, harmony, and interdependence. –Greg Markway PhD, Shy and Popular? Depends on Where You Live
Recently, there was a letter to Dear Abby about a little girl who was too shy/anxious to talk with her aunt on the phone. When the aunt would visit, the girl would hide in her bedroom and not come out. The aunt asked Abby for confirmation that this girl was rude.
I thought for sure that Abby would suggest the aunt be more understanding of a frightened child. Instead, Abby labeled the girl as rude, but allowed that the child might need therapy.
What gives the aunt, or Dear Abby for that matter, the right to pin a negative label on a shy and sensitive child? Why does our society consider the shy and anxious to be defective? While I agree that this child may need help, what she needs most is to be accepted and understood.
As a therapist, I learned long ago that the quickest way to help someone change is to accept who they are first….
There is nothing wrong with being shy….
However, labeling this little girl as rude or obstinate will only compound the problem.
A healthier (and more effective approach) would be to accept that the child has a shy/anxious temperament.
Understanding friends and family members could tell the little girl that it is ok to feel anxious, that most people feel this way at times. They could help the child gradually practice small steps in being more sociable, to try things that take the child slightly out of her comfort zone. –Greg Markway PhD, Rugrats Vs. Dear Abby: The Wisdom of Chuckie
Michael Jones explains things this way:
It’s just not so. Children who are very quiet in school, and who are unhappy about it, are probably shy or are introverts. Children who are totally silent in school, but talk a lot at home with their family, may have selective mutism. What’s the difference?
A shy child is keen to join in, but is anxious about how other people might react to them having a go at something, or talking in a group. Their anxiety can be so great that it stops them from joining in.
A child who is an introvert will enjoy being with other people, and may join in, but will be energised by being on their own: to think their own thoughts and to ‘do their own thing’. Or they may operate best when working in pairs or small groups because they prefer the company of a few people at a time.
A child with selective mutism has developed an extreme anxiety about talking outside their home. They may have developed a dread of talking, or the possibility that someone will try and make them talk. They can be so anxious that they may ‘freeze’ physically and be unable even to move. —Shyness, Introversion and Selective Mutism Explained
So what is it if you’re just naturally quiet among friends and co-workers but not a bit shy, but shy and quiet with acquaintances and strangers?
I have no anxiety among friends and very little with co-workers with whom I have a good social relationship, yet I’m still quiet with them; that’s completely introversion.
But I’m shy with strangers and people I don’t know very well, speaking only when spoken to, so is that selective mutism?
Could my quietness be related to bullying, or is the bullying related to my quietness?
Hard to say in the early years. I was always shy and uncertain.
I do recall a group of kids I tried to join in my early years of school, but they always ran away from me and made fun of me, and I had no clue why, so that helped teach me subconsciously that reaching out to make friends was “wrong.” That it was bad to try to join a group.
In more adult terms, that me trying to make friends with somebody was stalkerish, that they had to invite me first.
This was reinforced in later years a few times when I would try to call a friend on the telephone, like other girls do, and they’d say I called too much, or ask in puzzled tones why I called.
I was always just as happy playing by myself with my dolls and imagination, as with other kids. Even on the playground, if with friends I often played pretend games based on imagination, or played pretend by myself while surrounded by other kids.
To my friends and I, the brown tunnel (a drainage pipe painted like a log with a knothole) became the forest home of us, a family of foxes.
Yes, I did have friends, sweet and kind kids who didn’t care that the others called me weird; I could talk to them, while I was shy with other kids.
While the other kids simply played on the Kee-Klamp (a kind of twisted pipe with ladders), to me the Kee-Klamp was where the human settlers of the 10th planet from the sun (Spimpy) stayed to keep off the poisonous ground.
My imagination was fertile enough to keep me occupied even if I was alone. That’s not anxiety, that’s introversion. I often wish I could remember more of those games and worlds, so I could write them into children’s books.
I was bullied practically from birth by one of my brothers, who is still a bully to this day, so I have distanced myself from him in adulthood. I live in a different state, making this easy.
I was also bullied all through school, starting in first grade, not ending until I graduated high school, so I had no reason to expect good things from new kids.
While most of my teachers were kind to me, I have had a couple of teachers who tried to shame and force me into being more outgoing: my teacher in 4th/5th grade, and my college German teacher.
Their shame and force did not work. I couldn’t control which teacher I had in elementary school, and being in a MACPO school for gifted children, I expected to have the same teacher from 4th through 6th grade.
(I’d include a link, but all I get when Googling “MACPO” is a Minnesota group for probation officers. MACPO was around in the 80s, but appears to have been replaced with PACE or Montessori schools. My childhood school now has an entirely different structure.)
But when the structure changed in 6th grade, I was put in a class with just 6th graders and a brand-new teacher. She had more rules of behavior, more structure, rather than the go-at-your-own-pace which had inspired me to slack off. She was also kinder, gentler. Both points helped me thrive under her direction.
I’ve always gravitated toward kind people, and been repulsed by fiercer personalities. In college–as you can see in my college memoir posts about freshman and sophomore year–I was bullied by my German teacher, and could not understand why she was complaining about things which other teachers did not complain about. I ultimately dropped German, and did much better with other teachers.
I was also very outgoing the first month of my freshman year of college (though my “friend” Shawn tore it all down by saying I was too shy). I didn’t go up to random strangers and say hi (which Shawn told me to do), but I did quickly warm up to other students and my suitemates. I knew why this was:
During orientation activities, we were told that we freshmen were all in the same boat, all among strangers, all by ourselves, so reach out to others. Since I knew the other freshmen were just as alone as I was, I was able to break that reserve and make friends within the very first week.
I went into more regular patterns eventually, but that initial outreach gave me people to sit with at meals, leading to more familiarity with them, and their friends coming into my social circles. It’s a lot harder to break in when everyone else already has established friendships and connections, and you’re the newcomer.
I also went through a couple years of counseling with a child psychologist in the later elementary grades. I don’t recall precisely which years, though it started after 5th grade, on recommendation from my aunt (probably borderline because of all the people she’s pushed away recently), who tried to push me into social skills through force and criticism, then declared she could do nothing with me.
But with the psychologist, I made considerable improvement socially and in my attitude at home, according to my mother.
I’ve also noticed that a lot of NVLD and Asperger traits overlap with introversion, making me wonder at first if NVLD and Asperger’s were also pathologizing introversion.
But no, NVLD and Asperger’s are not just about social awkwardness. NVLD includes such things as visual-spatial issues, math problems, handwriting problems, trouble with maps, novel situations, organization; Asperger’s includes various forms of stimming, perseveration, trouble driving, fixed routines.
Because I have all or most of those issues, overcoming handwriting and organization problems but still struggling with others, I still consider NVLD and/or Asperger’s to be extremely likely for me, even with the explosion of information about introversion in recent years.
I also am nowhere near the levels I was as a child. While I am still very shy and very quiet, I did blossom somewhat as I got through my teens and early adulthood.
This is one reason why I’ve never gotten officially diagnosed: The times when it was truly a problem, when a psychologist or neurologist may have easily made a diagnosis because I exhibited so many traits of selective mutism, NVLD and Asperger’s, nobody had heard of such things, so I was never tested.
I was tested once for something, probably a learning disability, but nobody ever told me the results or what it was all about. I just remember things about it that seemed unusual, and I believe I was the only kid in my class put through that test. It was probably in 4th or 5th grade, with that teacher who criticized me all the time.
I always knew I was different from all the other kids (even in the “gifted” school which should have been full of socially awkward or imaginative kids), but didn’t know why, or even why they were not like me.
But in adulthood, when I finally discovered the probable source (NVLD), I had overcome and progressed in so many challenges that I no longer needed a diagnosis so much.
I keep reading about people with autism or Asperger’s or NLD or other social challenges getting early intervention and succeeding in school and life, so we are capable of improvement, and this does not negate a diagnosis.
Susan Cain has a blog, The Power of Introverts: Join the Quiet Revolution. I intend to start following it. This is good: After 40 years, I finally find that my way of being is not “wrong,” and have a way to explain why I am the way I am. Whether it’s “selective mutism” or just introversion, it is the way I am, and I have a right to be so.
After all these years, I can finally be more comfortable with myself, and know that I have valid reasons to expect others to accept me as I am, rather than trying to change me or (as Richard did) accusing me of being a “victim” or (as Tracy did) accusing me of needing to “grow up and TALK.”
No, if you can’t accept me as an introvert, as the quiet one, if you want to force me to change to suit you rather than working with my natural temperament, then YOU are the one with the problem.
Selective Mutism: a collection of information on SM
Some more on the confusion about Selective Mutism, shyness and introversion, to help us answer the questions posed at the top of my post:
Now to post this without proofreading because I really ought to get to bed: church in the morning…..
Finding these criticisms of me for having questions and looking for answers and keeping a log of what I find and what I think of–That’s a good way to shut up someone who already struggles with speaking up. If I’m just going to be beaten down for having questions, why speak?
I thought other people with SM would understand the questioning and confusion, not criticize someone for asking and searching.
In summary, I only bring up questions here which kept concerning me as I researched selective mutism between 2008 and the writing of this post.
I explore various possibilities as I ponder whether selective mutism describes me. I quote articles which seem to help answer the questions. I examine how the articles on selective mutism relate to my own experiences.
Apparently I neglected to mention my childhood anxiety, which “froze” my vocal chords. (Though I did mention my psychologist, which apparently got missed.) And that in 4th grade, of all the class stuffed animals, I preferred one cat puppet, because through that I “spoke.”
And that the common response to my adult quietness–even from other introverts–was to make me feel like it was “wrong” to be quiet. Making me sensitive to quietness being labeled a disorder, even severe shyness/quietness on the level of selective mutism.
I instead wanted it to be called simply a variation which should be accepted, rather than forcing the quiet ones to speak through ostracism, pressure, scolding, etc.
I wondered if half the problem with selective mutism is actually the reactions of others causing anxiety in the mute child. If accepting it as a variation would help draw out the mute, who would feel safer.
Apparently you’re not supposed to have questions, just know all the answers.]
Some more of my posts on selective mutism, but not all:
Selective Mutism strikes at a Zeta party
Why I Struggle to Let Go of Richard; Also, Musings on NVLD/Asperger’s
NVLD (this page explains in more detail why I was offended by extreme shyness being labeled a disorder)
I must be accepted as I am–introversion, NVLD and all–or you’re out
How to bully an introvert–and assets of NVLD