What is selective mute?

Q&A With Shay Each Sunday

This week I’m going to digress from the writing theme a bit and get into something very prominent in my everyday personal life, though it of course plays a large role in my writing life as well—extreme shyness.

Q: What is selective mute? And why are you shy?

A: So, if you have read my personal essay “Don’t Quiet Down Please” then you might have a bit of an idea about the struggles I face in dealing with social anxiety and shyness. (Available for download here.)

When I was seven I was diagnosed selective mute. A lot of people don’t know that this is an actual diagnosis whenever I tell them about it. It is something that goes beyond simply deciding not to talk to people. Even though the word “selective” is in the title it really doesn’t feel like a selection or decision from the person faced with this. Although they are able to speak, they don’t feel able. It has been explained as a coping mechanism, which definitely makes sense. When I was younger I would only speak to my direct family members and a few close friends, depending on when I developed a level of comfort that made these situations feel safe. It may seem absurd to feel unsafe speaking to people, and this is actually an irrational fear like anything else, but it is very much real. I have triumphed over the “selective mute” diagnosis but although I am able to speak to anyone now, it doesn’t make these situations easy. I still feel tremendous anxiety and even, fear, when speaking to people I’m not comfortable with. I wish I knew more about why, but this is just the way I have always been. It’s definitely not fun, and I have often wished I had a different mentality or something, but I have worked toward accepting this part of myself (I even have the word “Silence” tattooed on my arm). I think most people who are shy can relate to the feeling of wanting to be known and to contribute while simultaneously wanting to disappear.

It’s especially hard when we live in a society that makes it seem as though being quiet is a bad thing, or it’s wrong, or something that parents have to apologize for about their kids, or a reason for teachers to exploit quiet students. I’m not sure when the time will come for us to embrace it the way we should be able to, but if you’re shy and have ever struggled to this extent, believe me, you are not alone. There are a lot of books out there about introverts accepting who they are and how they are assets in a way that extroverts can’t be, and I totally agree and think it’s great for awareness to be raised on the fact that we are not all social butterflies and some of us get overwhelmed in social settings, and that this is actually a good thing in many scenarios. However, though being shy may often be a part of being an introvert, it’s a little different than simply liking quiet and solitude and being introspective. It’s a struggle like anything else that people struggle with and I’d like for others to understand that. But, I think maybe if I weren’t so extremely quiet and always listening and watching other people rather than being an avid participant then possibly I wouldn’t feel as connected to writing. Writing is the way in which I can express myself freely without worry…that is until faced with the prospect of someone reading my writing, or you know, having to talk to people about my writing—then I’m back to a nervous wreck. I’m working on it.