Honesty and vulnerability are the most powerful weapons to combat social anxiety.
Have you ever had a moment — or let’s be honest, a million — when you stumbled on your words, mumbled them upside down, and cringed at how inarticulate you were? Being an introvert and a polyglot, I tend to lose my words oh-a-plenty-of-times, and if it happens frequently enough, my social anxiety kicks into high gear. Then it’s much more difficult to tone it down than it is to keep it in check.
I’m talking total confidence shutdown. Inferiority complex banging on the door. Impostor syndrome clocking in. Negative inner talk taking control.
For example, something happened recently where I wished someone would have kicked me to the moon, away from the interaction at hand, because I failed at language so badly. It all started when my manager called a team meeting to let us know that a bunch of college students would come to the office to learn more about the working environment. It was a cooperation with our company and the local university. Before I even had a chance to hide in the corner, my manager looked straight at me and told me that he had assigned me to a student.
Don’t get me wrong, I have no qualms about participating in knowledge transfers. I just prefer when I’m the one getting the knowledge.
Also, I do enjoy imparting knowledge, but it just so happens that I didn’t have much going on to showcase at that time. Hey, look at me, I’m getting paid to be bored. This made the task at hand much more difficult. Imagine trying to come up with what you’ve worked on in the past week, when in fact, you spent all week Instagramming stories. It was kind of like that.
So, there I was, staring at a first-generation college student named Briana. She was going to shadow me at work. And let me tell you, she was bright, perky, and wide-eyed, ready to learn all about the IT department, corporate America, and what it takes to get your foot in the door.
As I sat there explaining to her what I do, and what my current project was all about, I couldn’t help but lose control of my English.
I mean, holy moly, how did I even graduate high school?!
It Made Me Feel Small
Perhaps I’d spent so much time as a new mom baby-talking at home, or not reading enough in the past month, or simply lacking in sleep that I couldn’t bring myself to sound coherent. I could see myself from her perspective, and it made me uncomfortable. The highly sensitive person (HSP) in me could feel her judging me. My negative inner talk grew louder and louder as the minutes passed.
It made me feel like I didn’t own my responsibilities.
It made me insecure about my communication skills, thus reigniting my impostor syndrome.
I imagined her thinking:
- How can she possibly oversee this project if she can’t even explain it to me?
- I could TOTALLY do this better than her!
- They are paying her for this?!
- Why is she sweating, the AC is definitely on high here…
It made me feel small. And I hate feeling small.
Introverts Pride Themselves on Their Words
Ultimately, there were two ways I could have reacted. I could have 1. Commiserated for days on end about how I’m failing at life, or 2. Given myself a break. At the end of the day, I decided not to think about the many ways I could have portrayed myself better. I wanted to avoid the rabbit hole of why I couldn’t explain myself properly and save the sad excuses for another time.
I also didn’t want to allow myself to think there was a bigger problem at stake. Hypochondriac, anyone? My inner talk took a backseat as I decompressed and gave myself a hug for not having a good day.
If you ever find yourself at a loss for words, cut yourself some slack. Don’t overwork your brain, because clearly, it’s already being overworked. Not only are you doing yourself more harm by forcing your brain, but you’re inviting a slew of other issues through the door, i.e. insecurities that are better off hiding in the darkest corners of your mind.
We all have those moments when we ramble and make a fool of ourselves — and while that’s tough for anyone, it might be tougher for introverts because most of us pride ourselves on being methodical and careful with our words. This is the extrovert equivalent of getting mad-ass drunk at a party and leaving behind a trail of unsavory pictures for the world to see. The same feeling, I imagine…
But fear not, you can always redeem yourself! This is what I did to speak eloquently the next time around.
5 Things to Do If You Forget How to Speak
1. Slow down.
If I don’t make a point to speak slowly, I get agitated and jump from one explanation to the next without any correlation between them. Speaking fast derails me and makes me forget what I want to say.
But that’s not the worst of it. It makes me look incompetent, among other things. Here are three reasons why you’ll benefit from slowing down when you speak:
- Your nervousness will take a hike.
- That thing called adrenaline is best friends with stress, which means that the more stressed you are (especially after a few stumbles), the more your adrenaline spikes. That’s correlated with an increased heart rate. If you’d be so kind as to complete this sentence: And an increased heart rate means increased _____. That’s right, respiration. Not only will you feel more nervous when you’re speaking, but you’ll also look like you are. Thus, you’ll forever be stuck in a vicious cycle.
- You’ll be more in control.
By speaking slowly, you give yourself extra time to dig into that amazing repertoire of words you likely hold as an introvert. This will not only allow you to fetch the best word for the situation, but you’ll also be able to steer the speech in a different direction should you realize that it’s not catching on with your audience. Think of it as slowing down time, which gives you the upper hand in analyzing the person in front of you and their reaction to your words.
You’ll gain credibility and authority.
Think about your favorite orators. How fast/slow do they tend to speak? Speaking slowly shows credibility and authority because you’re taking up time at the table. It’s also a sign of confidence and expertise — both characteristics you want to have!
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2. Organize your thoughts.
Before you meet with someone, jot down the sequence of your ideas so you have a rough outline in your head of how you’ll approach the conversation. This tends to work better when you know who you’re meeting, when you’re meeting, and the agenda/topic of discussion. Especially for introverts and HSPs, whose brains process information deeply, impromptu conversations can be harder to organize — but not impossible.
I’ve written about this before, but I tend to role-play conversations with people beforehand to arm myself with preset knowledge. If I know how I want to approach someone (say, the college student who shadowed me), I’m better equipped with the right words. I wouldn’t have floundered so badly if I had a plan, but instead, I chose to just speak like it’s the wild west.
3. Take your time.
Take your time to make sure you’re not missing anything crucial — don’t feel rushed to get to the end. This is related to #1, but more in the sense of allowing yourself to pause between sentences, allowing the silence to work to your advantage.
DO NOT BE AFRAID OF SILENCE.
If there’s one thing you should learn, especially if you have social anxiety, it’s to love the silence. Don’t try to fill the space with useless words; it will just make it worse because you’re going to panic about it. Give yourself enough time to 1. Speak slowly, and 2. Organize your thoughts. See how they are all related but different in their own way?
4. Ask questions.
What part of this makes sense? What doesn’t make sense? Did I miss a point? Engage the other person to make sure they’re following your train of thought. If you did #1, #2, and #3, chances are they understand you just fine!
But in case you missed a few steps, or you see them squint their eyes strangely, stop and ask questions to make sure what you’re saying is clicking. The last thing you need/want is to get the validation that you’re not making sense. So don’t let it get that far. Intervene occasionally to check in on them.
5. Start over.
Lastly, don’t be scared to stop, take a breather, and restart. We know it works for computers, so let’s assume it works for humans, too.
Be sure to let the other person know you’re restarting. Being funny always resets the mood, so say something like: “I know this probably makes no sense to you — I apologize, I’ve been talking too much to a baby at home these past few days! Let me reset.” Being honest and vulnerable are the most powerful weapons to combat social anxiety, especially when words escape you, and you feel naked and afraid.
Also, there’s one crucial point to remember for all of this to work, and that’s to let go of any expectations you have of yourself. If you plan to bring out a whole dictionary to impress someone, no matter how much you try to complete these steps, you’ll flounder because you’re putting too much pressure on yourself. Always remember that the simpler the words, the more impact you make.
If you have social anxiety, your main priority will always be to stay away from the vicious cycle of negative thoughts, and the best way to make that happen is not to set too high expectations. Because the moment you fail to meet them, the inner talk begins, and then everything else unravels right in front of you.
I’ll leave you with this. As long as you realize what’s going on — especially in the moment itself — and you’re taking steps to recalibrate, don’t be scared to speak baby-talk sometimes. We all do.