Why Am I So Quiet? A Psychotherapist’s Perspective

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.

It can be a challenge to figure out why we do something or why we don’t do something. And a tendency to be quiet is not exception.

It’s an important question though. We thrive off connection and the only way for us to connect is to talk and put ourselves out there.

Why am I so quiet? Paying attention to our thoughts, feelings, and behavioral urges when around others is one of the best ways to figure out why we’re quiet. Things like self-talk, judgements of others, judgements of ourselves, sensations in our bodies, urges, or even zoning out are all great clues to why.

In this article I will talk about common reasons people are quiet. I will also introduce some important psychology concepts that will help us learn more about why we’re so quiet, figure out if we want to be less quiet, and some steps we can take to speak up while still feeling like we’re being authentic and without being terribly uncomfortable.

Why Even Answer “Why Am I So Quiet?”

It can be helpful to understand what is motivating our urge to figure out the reason behind our quiet behavior.

Often there are other questions behind the question of, “Why am I so quiet”:

  • Am I too quiet?
  • Is it problem?
  • Should I make a change?
  • Is it my personality (is it who I am) or is it something else (is it getting in the way of who I am)?
  • How does me being so quiet impact other people?

Paying Attention to Feelings – Thoughts – Behaviors

In psychology, there is an important process that happens with the interaction between our Feelings, Thoughts, and Behaviors. All three elements of this process impact the other. And the process can start from any of the three.

Most of the time this process happens automatically and below our awareness. For example, if we’re driving down the road and a little kid runs out in front of the car we instantly jump from panic (Feelings) to a slam on the breaks (Behavior). All three are fused.

This automatic process is crucial when we’re in danger. However, most of the time we’re not in danger.

So, in most situations we need to defuse our Thoughts from our Feelings and from our Behaviors. And when we do this, we turn off our autopilot and we begin to understand more of what’s driving our behavior.

Here are some useful questions that can be helpful in turning off the autopilot and doing some self research. Try to ask yourself these questions in the moment or immediately after a situation where you felt you were too quiet:

  • What thoughts are happening?
  • What emotions are happening? Try to identify 2 or 3 emotions.
  • What body sensations are we experiencing?
  • What are some urges that you have (what action do you take or not take when you experience these thoughts and sensations).

Often times it can be difficult to determine if our urge to be quiet originates from a Thought or Emotion. In my opinion, this isn’t that important.

For example, if the emotion your feeling is anxiety and you’re having a thought, “If I speak up I may be negatively judged,” it doesn’t matter if the Thought caused the Feeling or vice versa. Either way, the urge is to be quiet. And either way, both the Thought and Emotion need to be addressed (which I’ll talk about later in this article).

More Helpful Questions

Parsing Feelings, Thoughts, and Behavioral Urges from one another is essential to figuring out why we’re so quiet.

Also, asking ourselves other questions can help us being to pinpoint why we’re so quiet:

  • Are you quiet in all situations?
  • Which situations are you most quiet?
  • Which situations are you least quiet?
  • Which people are you most quiet around? Any reasons why? What Feelings, Thoughts, Behaviors do you have here?
  • Which people are you the most talkative around? Any reasons why? What Feelings, Thoughts, Behaviors do you have here?
  • Have I always been this way?
  • At what point in my life was I the most talkative? Any reasons why?
  • When did I first notice I was more quiet than others? Any major life events occur around the same time?

Common Reasons We’re Quiet

Believing We’re Socially Inept 

If at our core believe we’re not socially capable, we hesitate to engage or don’t engage at all. What I find with my work with socially anxious clients is, most of the time they are socially capable, they just believe they aren’t. It’s the anxiety in the moment when around others that makes it challenging for them to access the skills they already have.

Feeling Like We Don’t Fit In

It’s normal to be more reserved in situations where we feel like we don’t fit in. If we have to be in environments on a regular basis where we feel like an outsider, it can be helpful to try to shift your focus on the things you do have in common. Our brains are geared toward focusing more on problems than things that are positive. Maybe in fact there is little you have in common with a person or group, but usually there is at least something.

Not Knowing How to Contribute

If we don’t know how to contribute or feel like we don’t have anything to contribute, we stay quiet. This can be from a lack of experience, but most often I find it’s from a lack of confidence. For example, if we imagine someone else being in a situation in which we are quite, we can usually brainstorm ways this person can contribute. But, when we’re actually in it or when we think about brainstorming ideas that we would actually use, our mind goes blank or starts racing with worry and “What if” scenarios. It’s usually not lacking skills, it’s lacking the confidence.

Personality

So often I hear clients use social anxiety and introversion interchangeably. They are different. Introversion is a personality trait that needs more alone time to recharge. Introverts are deeper thinkers and as a result come across as less engaged than extroverts. Introverts do contribute though, they are just taking their time and thinking things out more thoroughly before they contribute.

Difficult Tracking Conversations / Distracted

Sometimes I hear people have a hard time tracking conversations. When we’re not following a conversation, it’s hard to contribute something meaningful. One common reason we may have a hard time tracking conversation is because we’re distracted by our inner world. Our thoughts, judgements, and body reactions. Our inner world is louder than the conversation going on around us.

Fear of Judgement

This is the most common reason I hear people are quiet. They don’t want to say something stupid. They fear coming across awkward. As a result, their strategy is to lay low, stay quiet, and hope the interaction is over as soon as possible.

Don’t Believe We Can Cope if There’s Criticism

Along the same lines is the underlying belief that if we are criticized, we won’t be able to handle it. We won’t know how to respond and then we’ll receive even more negative judgement.

Anxious and Nervous Feelings

A pounding heart, heavy breathing, sweating, and shaky voice send thoughts to our brain that we’re in danger. And if we think we’re in danger, the common response is to find safety. Safety can look like being quiet, not attending gatherings, keep our contributions short

Should I Be More Talkative?

In my opinion, this is probably more important than the question of “Why am I so quiet?”

Why? Though finding the cause can be helpful, ultimately it’s like trying to put out a fire by trying to figure out how the fire started.

Sure, knowing what is the root cause can give us a better idea of where to focus our energy, but knowing the source doesn’t resolve it.

No matter the source, no matter if we locate the source or not, we’re brought to the same questions:

  • Should I change my pattern of being quiet?
  • If so, what should I do?

Here are some questions that can help answer the debate of making a change or not:

  • What would you be doing if you weren’t so quiet?
  • What would your life look like?
  • What benefit does being quiet bring you?
  • Would there be any benefits to speaking up more often?
  • Where would you be in your career if you spoke up more?
  • How would your day-to-day life change?
  • How would it impact your overall well-being?

If you decide that the benefits of speaking up more is greater than the benefits of keeping things the same, then here are some things you can do to make a change.

Speaking Up More

It’s very brave to make a change in your life. Our brain loves routine, even if it knows the routine isn’t the best. The brain find comfort in routine.

Making a change means you’re walking into unknown. You’re going against your brains urge to keep things same. And your brain will likely nudge you or maybe even scream at when you attempt to take a risk and do something different.

It’s especially brave to make a change in the social area of life. Connection with others brings large rewards, but it also means we risk rejection, ridicule, humiliation, and conflict.

And these risks are usually at the root of why we stay so quiet.

So, how can you speak up more?

The Vicious Cycle of Not Speaking Up

First it’s important to understand the trap of staying quiet.

More times than not, we’re remaining quiet for many different surface level reasons:

  • “I have nothing to contribute”
  • “What if I stumble over my words”
  • “What if they disagree with what I say”

Underneath these surface thoughts though are core concerns:

  • “I won’t be accepted”
  • “I’ll be negatively judged”
  • “I won’t be able to cope with the judgment or disagreement”

We stay quiet because we’re anxious about possible future negative outcomes and we underestimate our ability to cope with these negative outcomes. So, we simply avoid the negative outcome by staying quiet.

Intuitively, avoidance makes sense. However, this is a trap.

First when we avoid, we’re agreeing with our brain’s misfiring, “You’re right, we’re in real danger here. I’ll avoid it completely.”

Sure, this situation may lead to something that is uncomfortable, but we are far from being in danger.

So, the more we avoid, the more our brain will misfire in situations that aren’t dangerous. And in fact, if we decide to speak up, our brain will scream at us even louder, “I thought we agreed this was dangerous. What are you doing?”

It’s a reinforcing vicious cycle. And it’s a trap.

Breaking the Vicious Cycle

The only way to break the vicious cycle is to do the very thing anxiety urges us not to do. As long as the situation is not really dangerous, we proceed despite the anxiety yelling and screaming at us not to.

Elizabeth McMahon, a leading expert in anxiety, explains in her book that the brain has two parts: The Reacting Brain and The Thinking Brain.

The Reacting Brain and Thinking Brain

Our Reacting Brains are primitive and are mainly responsible for keeping us away from danger. It is responsible for creating intense emotions like fear and anger.

The Reacting Brain does just that. It reacts.

It doesn’t examine the meaning or context of the information it receives. It simply categorizes it as “good” or “bad.”

If it’s “good,” it doesn’t react. If it’s “bad,” it sends our body and other parts of our brain intense signals.

For example, you’re walking down a dirt road and there is an old dirty hose coiled up. You notice in the corner of your eye, and before you have time to think, you’re flooded with intense emotions.

Your Reacting Brain thinks it’s a snake getting ready to bite you.

A second or two later, you have a thought “Just a hose. Phew.” Your Thinking Brain intervenes. You instantly calm down and continue walking.

Our Thinking Brains are responsible for complex thoughts and making meaning out of situations. It can examine information thoroughly and decide if it’s going to involve the Reacting Brain or not.

For example, you have a big presentation at the end of the week and notice a series of thoughts, “What if I fail?” Then, “I’m going to be laughed at and stared at awkwardly.” Then, “I’m going to fail at life.”

This sends a message to your Reacting Brain to get involved.

Reteaching the Two Brains

Luckily the brain isn’t fixed. It’s constantly learning.

It’s important realize though that the Reacting Brain learns much different than the Thinking Brain.

The Reacting Brain isn’t very smart. You can’t use logic.

For example, imagine someone telling you before you walk into a haunted house, “Everyone in the haunted house are actors. There is nothing that will harm you. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

No matter how hard you try, when someone jumps out at you, your Reacting Brain will react.

The only way for the Reacting Brain to learn, is from experience. Not explanation, logic, or reasoning.

After you walk into the same haunted house 20 times, your Reacting Brain will learn when something will jump out at you and that it’s not actually something different.

How is this relevant to speaking up?

The only way to calm your anxiety about speaking up, is to do it. The first time your anxiety and physical sensations will be strongest. The second time, they’ll probably be just as strong.

Slowly over time, as you speak up more and more, your reacting brain will begin to learn, “Speaking up isn’t dangerous.” And it will stop sending your body anxiety signals.

Unlike the Reacting Brain, the Thinking Brain can learn using logic. But, it also does take repetition.

An important concept to understand for reteaching the Thinking Brian is 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 in the future.

The more we think “If I speak up, I’m going to get laughed at,” the more automatic it becomes. And the harder it is to break the habit.

We can create new pathways though. This is neuroplasticity.

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 going to get laughed at,” and toward something more realistic like, “Yes, it’s possible I get laughed at, but most people aren’t that harsh. It’s unlikely. And if it does happen, I will be able to handle it and it is more of a reflection of that person than it is of me.”

Conclusion

It can be helpful to explore why we are quiet. But, I don’t recommend getting too caught up in that questions. There’s likely many variables: your personality, your history and experiences growing up, and biology.

What’s more important is the question of should you speak up more or not. If you find that staying quiet is limiting you and getting in the way of important goals and values, then maybe it’s time for a change.

Luckily, the brain is constantly learning. We just need to know how to teach it.

If you found this article helpful, I recommend the Self Help Section. There you’ll find tons of psychology tools that can help you with speaking up, overcoming the fear of judgement, and learn new ways to cope in challenging social situations.

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.