Why Introverts Might Struggle to Put Their Thoughts Into Words

an introvert struggles to put her thoughts into words

Introverts often find it hard to quickly express their thoughts, but this isn’t a flaw. It’s their brains diving deep.

Suddenly, a coworker appears at my desk and asks me a question. The look in her eyes and her tone of voice say she wants an answer NOW. Her question is simple, but my brain freezes for a moment. I start sentences then stop them. I hesitate. I say things that are kind of what I mean, but not quite. I backtrack. My coworker, an extrovert who seems to express herself effortlessly, gives me a look that says, hurry up and say it! Inside, I wish my brain would just work right…

Ever had something like this happen to you? If so, you’re not the only one. Finding it hard to say what you’re thinking, especially when you’re on the spot, is a common problem for a lot of introverts. There are good reasons this happens, and they might not be what you’d guess.

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The Challenge of Word Retrieval

The struggle to find the right word is called “word retrieval.” When we can’t say or remember a certain word even if we use it a lot, that’s when we’re having trouble with word retrieval. Think about it like looking for a specific toy in a huge toy box. Even if you know exactly what the toy looks like, you still have to dig through all the other toys to find it.

We all have moments when we can’t find the right words, but word retrieval can be particularly challenging for us introverts because we process information deeply. We chew on ideas, looking at them from all angles. When you’re deep in thought like this — even when you’re thinking about something as simple as what to make for dinner — it can be tough to talk. A lot of introverts don’t “think out loud” like extroverts do. We do our mental processing inwardly. Quietly. Without words.

When introverts struggle with word retrieval, we might not be able to keep up with fast-talking extroverts. At work, people might think we don’t know our stuff, even when we do. In school, we might not want to raise our hand, because it’s hard for us to put our thoughts into words if we’re called on to speak.

The Role of Long-Term Memory

In her book, The Introvert Advantage, Dr. Marti Olsen Laney explains another reason introverts might have trouble finding the right words. She says it might be because of how we use our long-term memory.

As the name implies, long-term memory is where we keep information for a long time, maybe even forever. The information stored there is mostly outside our conscious awareness, so getting to it isn’t always easy. For example, try recalling your first day of kindergarten. Some details might come to mind easily, but others take more effort to remember.

On the other hand, we have working memory (also known as short-term memory), where we keep information for just a few seconds. This information is easy to grab, but it doesn’t stick around unless we move it to long-term memory.

Interestingly, Laney says that introverts often use their long-term memory more than their working memory. Extroverts do the opposite, keeping information right on the tip of their tongue, ready to use.

The struggle to dig into long-term memory is real. You have to find the right “key” to unlock the memory you’re trying to bring up. For example, seeing a certain pair of sneakers (the key) might remind you of your own shoes from when you were a kid, which then reminds you of the milk that got spilled on your shoes on your first day of kindergarten. And just like that, you’re remembering more about that day.

But this process of digging into long-term memory can take time, which can slow us introverts down when we’re trying to talk.

How Anxiety Affects Introverts’ Ability to Speak

When we’re nervous while trying to talk — like how I felt when my intimidating coworker approached me — it can make finding and saying the right words even harder. Not all introverts feel anxious around others, but many of us do feel a bit uneasy in social situations. This happens because we think things through very deeply (sometimes we overthink), and being around people can wear us out (the infamous introvert hangover). So, it’s easy for anxiety to sneak in.

Being anxious not only makes you feel nervous, but it can also tire your brain and mess with your memory. When you’re anxious, your body makes a stress hormone called cortisol. Cortisol helps with many body functions, like increasing your blood sugar, controlling your sleep/wake cycle, giving you energy boosts, and even making memories.

But, if you’re chronically stressed or anxious and have too much cortisol, it can make it hard to remember things. According to research, chronic stress can even change parts of your brain, like the hippocampus, which helps with learning and memory.

So, not only does being anxious make it harder for introverts to find the right words, but it can also affect how their brain works in the long run if they don’t take care of their stress. This adds to the challenge introverts face when trying to talk.

Do you ever struggle to know what to say?

As an introvert, you actually have the ability to be an amazing conversationalist — even if you’re quiet and hate small talk. To learn how, we recommend this online course from our partner Michaela Chung. Click here to check out the Introvert Conversation Genius course.

Why Introverts Prefer Writing

In her groundbreaking book, Quiet, Susan Cain notes that introverts “often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation.” Indeed, it’s not uncommon to find introverts among professional writers. Bestselling author of The Fault in Our Stars, John Green, describes writing as a solitary activity, a perfect match for introverts who “want to tell you a story but don’t want to make eye contact while doing it.”

But it’s not just about writing books. Introverts often like to text or email instead of calling or meeting in person. Many also find that journaling helps them understand what they’re thinking and feeling better.

So why do introverts often prefer writing to talking? It’s because of how our brains work. When we write, we use different parts of our brain than when we talk, and these parts seem to work better for introverts, Laney says.

What to Do When Your Mind Goes Blank

Memory is a tricky business; it uses many parts of the brain. Your brain stores memories in different spots and builds connections between them. Like I said, you need to find the right key to pull something from your long-term memory. The good news is, most information in long-term memory is stored with multiple associations or keys to access them. As Laney puts it, “If we find just one key, we can retrieve the whole memory.”

If you’re having trouble remembering a word, a fact, or even what you did on the weekend (since people always ask about that when making small talk), try these steps:

  • Be still and relax.
  • Give yourself permission to be quiet for a few moments. Don’t let the other person rush you.
  • Buy yourself some time by saying something like, “Let me think about that,” or “Hmm, let me see…” Give a nonverbal signal that you’re thinking, like looking away and scrunching your eyebrows a bit.
  • Let your mind wander and go where it wants. One thought might lead to another, and one of these thoughts might be the key to remembering what you need.

If you still can’t find the right words, don’t feel embarrassed or beat yourself up — your brain is just doing what it naturally does, which is to stop and think. If you’re being quiet, you’re in good company with other deep thinkers. Like the brilliant physicist Stephen Hawking said, “Quiet people have the loudest minds.”

To make any awkwardness go away, you can joke about being lost for words. Or you can say you’re a bit busy in your head right now, but you’ll get back to them later — by sending an email or a text.

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