One constant adversary is when I sometimes withdraw verbally if I feel anxious, sad, upset, or unsure, and either I don’t talk unless necessary or not don’t talk at all. I know this reaction that I have comes from my social anxiety, but it’s also because of my low self-esteem. When I feel triggered by a situation or by a response someone gives me, I retreat into silence. I suppose I see it as a safety net. For a long time, it didn’t even occur to me nor was it part of my thought process that my behavior made things difficult for the people around me. It’s not good for myself either. Nowadays I struggle to shed the skin of this coping mechanism. I’ve had some success though echoes of the habit still bleeds into my life. I feel quite childish and silly explaining this part of me, but I must if I mean to grow and mature.
In one early childhood memory, I was already having an issue with verbal communication because I started to feel unconfident in myself. I must have been between 7-9 years old. The hardest thing about my life then, which I recognize now, was the imbalance of language at home and at school. My parents only spoke to me in Mandarin at home, and I vaguely remember it was only after I began attending school regularly and learning English that my mom made an effort to sometimes use English words with me. Mandarin was indeed the first language I learned to speak, but as I picked up on English quickly and had to use English frequently outside of home, my Mandarin got weaker. At that age, I remember standing in the kitchen by the counter, feeling awkward because my parents were sitting nearby. I don’t recall the specifics, but it was something small where I required their help, however, I felt unconfident about saying the word in Mandarin to refer to the object, so I simply just trailed off while talking and pointed to the object instead of finishing my sentence. This wasn’t the first instance of me not finishing a sentence when I spoke, and I guess my mom noticed it was becoming a repeated habit of mine because she said, “why don’t you say the whole sentence instead of trailing off?” Immediately after, I felt embarrassed and lowered my gaze to the floor, unable to say anything back. Even though she asked for the reason for my behavior, I perceived her question as a reprimand, whether she intended for it to come across as such or not.
During 1st grade, I didn’t understand that I actually had to learn in school because kindergarten had been nothing but painting, storytime and afternoon naps in the classroom. There was this giant life-sized notepad that my first-grade teacher would write on. I sat with the other kids at the tables, and by all appearances, I looked to be paying attention to whatever the teacher was gesturing to on the notepad, but really I was daydreaming and miles away in my own thoughts. When I would be called on to answer a question, my knee-jerk reaction was to be silent for several reasons. First, it was still a foreign concept to me that some stranger was talking to me and I was expected to answer, so I felt no social shame by choosing not to answer her. Secondly, I didn’t know the answer to the question she asked me, yet I felt too threatened/intimidated by everyone staring at me to even find my voice and just say, “I don’t know.” Later on, this evolved into me not answering when called on because I felt pressure and/or anxiety about whether my answer to the asked question was the correct one or not.
See the pattern so far? I continued being verbally withdrawn all throughout school and around family and friends, sometimes at my own peril to the point I felt ostracized and was labeled as rude by others for ignoring people. I knew my behavior was embarrassing and uncomfortable for both myself and the others who had to witness it, but the habit became so ingrained in me that I would just react this way and not know how to take a step back and process my feelings before I reacted.
In one college English course, I spent the whole semester not participating in class and keeping my head down whenever the professor would ask questions. There were at least a few times I reacted like a deer in the headlights when I was called on, and wouldn’t answer. Only once can I recall giving a lame answer that was entirely forgettable. One time he called us up one by one to hand back graded homework assignments. When I went to get my paper, he said to me, “You know, could you at least say something during this class, just once?” All the students burst into laughter at this. I wore this humiliation like a chip on my shoulder for the rest of the semester and relived it many times. True, he shouldn’t have mocked me so openly and could have spoken to me in private after class or in his office. But I feel I was at fault too for not accepting that my habit of withdrawing verbally was wrong and a very real problem in my life. Instead, I kept clinging to the assumption that this was the only way I could ever live, and was reluctant to change at all.
There was also a period in my teen years where I was silent and barely ever spoke. This came after I had difficulty adjusting to junior high school and the people in it. In grammar school, my teachers seemed to accept that, when I didn’t respond if called on to answer a question during class, it was a sign of shyness. Many a time during parent-teacher conferences, my teachers would reassure my mom that I’d grow out of my shell. However, in junior high, I got mocked by classmates for being a quiet person, in addition to my reluctance to say anything if I was called on by the teacher. I felt helpless whenever classmates three snide comments my way. I was trapped in my own silence, and things became worse when I chose to use that silence as a weapon to punish people for my own unhappiness. I started not talking in school unless I absolutely had to, and I’d force my face into a blank mask when I had to deal with the same snide comments from classmates. I thought if I pretended not to care that they’d stop because I suspected they just wanted a reaction out of me. I’d say this time in my life was the worst for my parents. They didn’t understand my behavior and I wouldn’t tell them anything because I didn’t know how to even start on that. My own brother assumed I was having temper tantrums and being a brat, plain and simple. I’m sure I did come across as a brat sometimes. Sure, I wouldn’t answer people most of the time out of discomfort or not knowing what to say in response, but there were a handful of times I used silence to get back at people. To this day I haven’t told my own parents about why there were periods during my pre-teen and teen years where I wouldn’t talk. I’m not sure I ever will tell them the truth.
Just today, I had a withdrawal reaction over something stupid. I was in my room working on something. The house vacuum cleaner usually sits in my room, and my mom came in to say she would be vacuuming. I felt irritated that my quiet time was being interrupted. Especially since I knew she was vacuuming because Lily and her mother are visiting tomorrow and she cleans the house from top to bottom when guests are coming, even if those guests won’t be over for the whole day. She asked me if I had lunch yet, and I did not answer her out of spite because I was still feeling angry, in addition to pretending not to hear her since she was speaking softly. I was still feeling upset, but upon reevaluating the situation later, I realize I wasn’t upset about my time being interrupted, but that I was given a reminder about Lily’s arrival and my nerves over seeing her tomorrow.