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Why Silence Is My Response to Emotional Crises or Conflict

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Sometimes I stop talking.

This irritates other people because it happens right at the moment when I am most expected to talk. It happens during a crisis, when I’m distressed, when I’m overwhelmed and teary. It happens right at the very worst possible moment because I lose the ability to communicate what’s wrong.

I have no control over this.

No doubt that sounds illogical. It’s my head, my brain, my tongue, my feelings. But the innate reaction of, “shut up and ship out” is so ingrained I cannot (at this point in time) override the learned response.

I am asthmatic. It’s not a big deal most of the time, because I don’t have asthma most of the time. But on the odd occasion, I do become short of breath and asking me to engage in a hearty conversation about the pros and cons of the cable car on Mt Wellington is a taxing task and will soon become impossible.

That’s what emotional crises feel like to me — impossible.

When a conflict arises — and I think I can state quite confidently, I have no capacity whatsoever to deal with conflict — my body goes into instant panic attack mode. Panic attacks are well documented and fairly well known about in the general populace. These are the most common symptoms according to the Mayo Clinic:

  • Sense of impending doom or danger
  • Feeling of unreality or detachment
  • Fear of loss of control or death
  • Rapid, pounding heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Shortness of breath or tightness in your throat
  • Chills
  • Hot flashes
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Chest pain
  • Headache
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness or faintness
  • Numbness or tingling sensation

I think I score 15/15 on that. Some symptoms are more immediate – like pounding heart and the feeling of unreality. Some are more subtle or may not be there – like headache and chills. If you’ve ever had panic attacks you probably know the severity can vary. I’ve been attended by paramedics because of a panic attack (how humiliating), but other times I’ve calmed myself and talked myself down. So it’s not always the end of the world. But it’s not possible to talk.

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If I’ve been subjected to a barrage of criticism, if I’ve ended up in a personal attack, if I’ve become consumed with catastrophizing, if my depression or anxiety has flared out of control, if I’m afraid of the response to something I’ve said or done, if a million other scenarios appear – then I shut down and can’t talk.

I want to talk. I want to tell you I’m upset, ashamed, hurt, humiliated, shocked, confused, afraid, disappointed. I want to say I disagree with you, it’s not my fault, I’m sorry I did that, this is my point of view, I didn’t do that, can you please stop, let’s work this out. I want to ask for forgiveness, understanding, compassion, an apology, acceptance, for a hug. But my tongue is firmly attached to the roof of my mouth and my sense of the here and now has fled. Every part of my body is tensed and trying to fight for a way out. There’s no talking – just walking.

This is why I shut down. It’s not anybody’s fault and I’m not trying to cast blame. This is my responsibility and something I work on with my ever-patient psychologist. It’s the key reason I do dialectical behavior therapy (DBT): emotion regulation, distress tolerance and interpersonal skills. Unbelievable as it may sound, I’m actually making progress. I’m getting better at it. But in the meantime, I want you to know that when I shut down and shut up, it’s not your fault. I don’t disvalue you as a friend. I don’t want anything. I can’t discuss it. I need to be alone. And when my brain has had time to process and my heart has had time to stop thumping, I’ll be able to talk it through.

Right in the heat of the moment, it’s impossible.

I’m sorry – really, truly I am – that this is an unusual and unnatural response to normal human interactions. But sometimes the things we were taught as children hang around liked a fused fart and all the willing it away makes no difference. One day, I’ll find my tongue and fight back. Right now, I need to huddle on my own and make sense of it alone. Please understand it’s not you, it’s me.

Image via contributor

Originally published: November 7, 2020
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