Why Am I So Quiet in Groups? And Should I Speak Up More?

Brian O'Sullivan, M.S., LMFTSocial Anxiety

This article is for informational use only, should not be considered clinical advice, and does not establish a patient-therapist relationship.

Why am I so quiet in groups? A pattern of not speaking up in groups is often due to a fear of being judged, a core belief that we’re somehow flawed, and an underestimate of our social skills.

Often, it’s not that we are lacking social skills, it’s that we need to address underlying thoughts and behaviors that maintain our avoidance of speaking up.

In this article I’ll touch on these important topics:

  • The process of Feelings, Thoughts, and Behaviors
  • Our Core Beliefs and how they contribute to staying quiet in groups
  • How our flawed thinking limit our ability to speak up
  • Ways we inadvertently reinforce a cycle of not speaking up
  • Ways we can experiment and start speaking up while feeling true to ourselves

Feelings – Thoughts – Behaviors

We all have Feelings and Thoughts, and both drive our Behaviors. And Behaviors influence our Feelings and Thoughts. All of the three are separate, but very much connected and influenced by one another. The process flows in any direction.

When we are triggered and emotionally “hot,” this process is instantaneous. We quickly jump from a Thought or Feeling and instantly act.

This is helpful if we are in actual danger. For example, you’re driving down the road, someone suddenly cuts you off, and you instantly slam on the breaks.

We don’t want to have to think, “Oh I feel afraid, and then have thought, ‘I’m in danger,'” which then leads us to slam on the breaks. We just want to act.

This instantaneous process is helpful when we are in actual danger. Most of the time we are not in danger. But, we are reacting like we are.

Understanding this process is crucial for gaining more control.

Core Beliefs

Core beliefs are how we view ourselves. Core beliefs are like a pair of glasses we wear that influence how we perceive the world and ourselves.

We all have on these pair of glasses, which means we all perceive the world differently. And never actually how it is.

For example, imagine two people going to the same party. Both know nobody there. One person has thoughts, “This is a friendly party. Everyone here is welcoming and easy to talk to.” The other person thinks, “I need to be cautious. I need to figure out who is less likely to judge me. Maybe I should stay in the corner and slip out early without being noticed.”

The first person most likely has a core belief like, “Most people find me to interesting and enjoyable.”

The second person most likely has a core belief like, “I’m socially inept and people think I’m a little odd.”

Core beliefs are thoughts, but they’re often hidden. We have to do some work to uncover them in our brains.

At the same time, our core beliefs are usually more evident from our behaviors and emotions.

For example, someone with the core belief of, “I’m socially inept,” probably isn’t thinking that all day long. But, they are likely having thoughts that are created from that belief. Like, “People are negatively judging me right now.”

Core belief are the fuel for the more surface level thoughts we experience everyday. They drive our Thinking.

Here are some examples of Core Beliefs that lead people to be quiet in groups:

  • I’m awkward
  • I’m flawed
  • I’m less than others
  • I’m unable to handle uncomfortable feelings and situations
  • I’m socially incompetent
  • I don’t bring any value to others
  • I’m unlovable
  • I’m a failure

Our Core Beliefs were slowly learned throughout our lives. They are central to us, but they aren’t permanent. They were learned and they can be unlearned.

Distorted Thinking Contributing to Being Quiet in Groups

Distorted thinking is a product of having a negative Core Belief. It’s the more surface level thoughts we experience. Distorted thinking is also just that, they are thoughts that are not accurate or inline with reality.

Here are some examples of some Thought Distortions:

Forecasting: “If I speak up, what I say will be viewed as wrong and my ideas will be shot down.” Forecasting is when we convince ourselves we know with 100% certainty a negative outcome is going to occur.

Mind Reading: “Others are thinking that I’m too quiet and awkward.” Mind reading is when our brains convince us we know what someone else is thinking and we know their intentions. None of us have the ability to see inside someone else’s brain.

Catastrophizing: “I’m going to go to the party, not know anyone, not have anything to say, be judged as strange and weird, be laughed at, not make any friends, and be alone the rest of my life.” Our brains are great at coming up with worst-case scenarios.

Personalization: “Every time I speak up, Sarah shoots down my ideas. I’m so stupid.” Our brains love to blame us for things that actually have nothing to do with us. It’s likely Sarah has her own personal stuff she’s dealing with. Perhaps a way she tries to feel secure is by criticizing others’ ideas and has nothing to do with yours.

Black and White Thinking: “I can’t speak up in this group.” Black or white thinking doesn’t allow for middle ground. It’s all good or all bad. Rarely life is all good or bad. Maybe it’s really challenging to speak up, but it’s not that you CAN’T.

Should Statements: “I shouldn’t feel anxiety when speaking in groups.” Should statements are ways of placing expectations on ourselves. It’s a covert way of beating ourselves up. It’s very normal to feel nervous speaking in groups.

Negative Filter: Maybe we think, “This environment is group is extremely critical” when most of the people in the group complemented you, but you focus only on Sarah’s negative comments. Negative filter only allows our brain to see and hear negative information. It ignores and minimizes any positive information.

Emotional Reasoning: “My heart is racing, I have butterflies in my stomach, I must be in danger.” Just because we feel there is a threat, doesn’t mean there is an actual threat. Our emotions mislead us all the time. Especially anxiety. Anxiety is the master bluffer.

Safety-Seeking Behaviors

It’s clear how all these negative Thoughts can drive some intense Feelings, especially fear and anxiety. It’s also clear how these intense emotions will influence our Behavior.

Often times our Behavior is to avoid and seek “safety.” In psychology we call these Safety-Seeking Behaviors.

Here are examples of Safety-Seeking Behaviors in group settings:

  •  Not speaking up
  • Avoiding eye contact when we do speak up
  • Avoid the group completely (call in sick, decline an invitation, etc.)
  • We check out mentally and stop paying attention
  • We focus internally checking to see if we are calm or anxious
  • We hyper-focus on our thoughts and try to figure out if we’re safe our not
  • We start practicing in our heads what we will say

I put “safety” in parentheses for three reasons.

One reason is that seeking safety implies that we were actually in danger. Almost always, we are overestimating the actual danger. And almost always, we aren’t actually in danger. We may be in uncomfortable situation, but rarely dangerous.

The second reason is that the “safety” we seek is actually what reinforces the anxiety. We get instant comfort, but long-term, we are getting trapped in a vicious cycle. It’s an illusion of safety. I’ll explain about the cycle that traps us later.

And third, the behavior often times makes what we don’t want to happen, happen. For example, we want to avoid people negatively judging us and want people to accept us. However, when we do things like avoid speaking up and avoiding eye contact, others interpret that as us being uninterested and as a result they avoid us. The result is that our Core Belief get’s reinforced. “See people avoid me. I’m awkward and socially inept.”

The Cycle of Not Speaking Up (The Cycle of Anxiety)

Safety-Seeking Behaviors are what maintain our anxiety. The more we engage in them, the stronger our anxiety becomes and the longer it remains.

Anxiety deceives and lies. It tells us to do the exact thing that will maintain it.

When we act on what it urges us to do, the harder it is to act against it next time.

For example, imagine having an important meeting tomorrow. You’ve been thinking about it for weeks, your boss has told you that you’re too quiet and need to speak up, and all you can think about is making a fool of yourself.

So, you decide, you’re going to call in sick. You feel instant relief.

What we don’t often realize is that this instant relief is a trade off for long-term pain.

Our anxiety says, “Great job. We’re now safe. Let’s not get close to doing that again.” But, then another important meeting appears next month. As we think about actually attending, our anxiety screams even louder than last time, “I thought we learned last time that was not safe? What are you doing? I will send more intensity your way. You need to listen.”

It becomes harder and harder the more we try to seek “safety.”

This is the anxiety cycle. It’s a trap that we easily fall into.

Breaking the Cycle

The only way to break the cycle is to lean into the anxiety. Do the very thing the anxiety tells us not to do.

This is a very scary thing. Our brains will yell, “No!”

Here are some important things to consider:

  • Often anticipatory anxiety is far worse than when we actually speak up
  • We often overestimate the level of danger and the anxiety that we will have
  • We often underestimate our social skills
  • We often underestimate our ability to cope if something bad does happen

Now I’ll go into practical things we can do to start breaking our cycle, start speaking up more, feeling more comfortable, while still being you.

Start Working on the Background Music

Our thoughts are like background music in a movie.

The situation we’re in is important, but what’s more important is how we judge and perceive the situation.

The video below is a great example of this:

 

Do we have control over the background music playing in our minds? Yes and no.

We have zero control over the thoughts that enter our minds.

For example, take 15 seconds, close your eyes, and pay attention to each thought that enters your mind. At the same time, whatever you do, don’t think about a pink elephant.

It’s impossible.

Yes, we can force thoughts into our mind, but there are thoughts, just like the pink elephant that pop up no matter what. In fact, the more we try to get rid of certain thoughts, the louder they get.

In this sense, we don’t have control.

We do have control with what we do after that though.

Controlling Focus and Engagement

We control where we put our focus and whether our not we will engage with thoughts.

When we have thoughts that are cautioning us against negative judgement, it’s easy to stay focused on those thoughts and find evidence that support the thoughts.

While we do that, an entire conversation is happening in the group that we’re not paying attention to. We become internally focused.

It’s helpful to instead turn your attention to the conversation. What’s being said and that’s it. That is, turning your focus externally.

Don’t focus on your judgements of what’s being said or done. That’s internal focus.

Don’t focus on what you think others are thinking of you. Though that may seem externally focused, it’s actually internally focused, as you’re focusing on your interpretations and speculations.

Just focus on what’s being said and done. Dive in completely.

When we have a busy mind, full of thoughts, it’s easy to start engaging with them. We have conversations with ourselves.

The more we engage with our thoughts, the more power we give them, and the louder they get.

It’s important to just let the thoughts pass.

We’re not going to try to answer the questions that the thoughts pose: “Are they judging me?” or “Is what I’m about to say awkward?”

We’re not going to argue with the thoughts: “They are nice people. I think it would be very unlikely they would judge me.”

Instead, we just label the thoughts we are having and let them pass: “I’m having a thought about them possibly judging me. Interesting.”

And just like a passing weather system, we let the thoughts come and go. And when we find ourselves engaging with the thoughts, we simply reminder ourselves to stop.

We don’t try to get rid of the thoughts. We don’t try to change the thoughts. We just let them pass.

These are things to experiment with in the moment. While you’re in a group.

Let’s talk about some more long-term strategies.

Rewiring Our Brains

We don’t have control over the thoughts that pop into our head each moment. But, there are things we can do long-term that will help decrease unhelpful thoughts and increase helpful ones.

Our brains are constantly learning. They are not static and set in stone at a certain age. They have the ability to grow, learn, and adapt. Neuropsychologists call this neuroplasticity.

Our thoughts travel down pathways in our brains. The more we use a certain pathway, the deeper it gets, and the more likely our brain will use that pathway.

The more we think “I’m not good at speaking up in groups” the more automatic it becomes. And the harder it is to break the habit.

We can create new pathways though.

So, the more often we catch ourselves traveling down an unhelpful, habitual pathway, the more likely we can direct it in a new direction.

Away from, “I’m not good at speaking up in groups,” and toward something more realistic like, “I don’t speak up as much as I’d like. But, I’m actively trying to change that. It’s really normal to be nervous speaking up in groups. ”

Force Your Brain to Get Specific

Thoughts that lead us to feel anxious and to avoid love to be vague. Often times the thoughts stay vague because we want to avoid where it will go. We think, “If I make it get specific, then thoughts are going to get very scary.”

The problem is, the worry and anxiety sticks around when it remains vague. It’s impossible for us to use reason or challenge it as long as it remains vague. So, the it just continues.

Instead of trying to get rid of our thoughts or avoid them, we want to question them. Ask it why it’s so worried and make it play itself out to the end. We do that by continuing to ask it, “Ok, then what will that mean? What will happen if that’s true?”

Here is an example of self-talk we have when thoughts remain vague:

Worry: “If I speak up, I might say something inappropriate or awkward.”
Us: “Oh no. That would be bad.”
Worry: “Right? It’s probably better just to be quiet. If someone asks us something, we’ll say something quick. If not, let’s just sit here quietly”

When thoughts remain vague, they’re in the drivers seat. It tells us what to do.

Let’s try to make it more specific:

Worry: “If I speak up, I might say something inappropriate or awkward.”
Us: “What do you mean by inappropriate or awkward?”
Worry: “You know, something that’s not socially normal or something that’s rude.”
Us: “If that was true then what would happen?”
Worry: “What do you mean? That would be awful.”
Us: “Why?”
Worry: “Well, they would think we are weird.”
Us: “Maybe. And what would happen then?”
Worry: “What do you mean what would happen? They would think we were weird.”
Us: “Yea, sounds scary, but why is it scary?”
Worry: “Well then they would talk bad behind our back.”
Us: “Ok, then what would happen?”
Worry: “Then they might tell our boss.”
Us: “Ok. Then?”
Worry: “Well you’re going to lose your job of course!”
Us: “And?”
Worry: “You’ll be homeless and die lonely!”

As you can see, thoughts will fight us when we try to make it get specific. It urges us to stop questioning it and just be afraid.

Also, when we play our worry out to the end, we realize, yes, that would in fact be awful to live a lonely, homeless life, but we realize it’s highly unlikely. We see how absurd the thoughts really are.

This technique is not something we necessarily do in the moment. Remember, in the moment we want to practice being externally focused. Playing out our thoughts, we want to do when we’re not in groups. It’s another way to rewire our brains long-term.

Experiment

The next important thing to do is to experiment with new behaviors. We want to do exactly what the anxiety tells us not to do.

So, if the anxiety tells you not to speak up, you’ll speak up.

If the anxiety tells you to rush through what you’re going to say so you can quickly get the attention off you. Try to talk longer than usual.

Remember, what we resist, persists.

So, the more we resist our anxiety and the more we resist speaking up, the more both of those things will stick around.

The goal of experimenting is to do a few things:

  • Teach our brains that most of the time our fears don’t come true
  • If our fears do come true, they’re not as bad as we make them out to be
  • If our fear do come true, we’re actually quite capable of coping with the situation

Conclusion

You’re brave to be exploring this question. It’s more comfortable to keep things how they are and to continue avoiding situations that make us uncomfortable.

If you’re serious about making a change in this area I think you’ll find that you’ll learn new more things about yourself that you expected; specifically how quickly we can retrain our brain and do things that we thought were ingrained.

As you go through experiments, be sure to be easy on yourself. Reminder yourself that being more nervous in groups than other environment is very normal.

It’s also important to remind yourself that you’re likely coming across much better than you feel you are. Those awkward, judgmental looks that you’re getting from people are more likely caused by your background music. Work on those thoughts and where you put your focus, and you’ll probably realize how much our perception fools us.

If you found this article helpful, you might find the Self Help section useful too. Good luck!

 

About the Author

Brian O'Sullivan, M.S., LMFT

Brian O'Sullivan is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist dedicated to helping people overcome their social anxiety. Brian uses Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to help clients better understand the role our thoughts, behaviors, and emotions play in either maintaining and calming anxiety.

This article is for informational use only, should not be considered clinical advice, and does not establish a patient-therapist relationship.