Day 14: The sounds of silence (and how we respond)

I’ve been thinking about silence lately.  Specifically, I’ve been thinking about how people react to silence – how it “speaks” to them (interesting word).

I’m thinking about how we can fill in silences with all sorts of thoughts and assumptions.

I’m not thinking about the silence that exists when we’re alone. I’m thinking about the silence in response to an attempt to connect.  That is, interpersonal silence.

As a group therapist, I’ve witnessed and observed lots of people’s reactions to interpersonal silence. In a group, there might be a lull, a stretch of time were nobody says anything.  Often, somebody will fill in that silence,  perhaps out of discomfort and anxiety.  Sometimes, the group therapist has to fight the feeling that the silence means that the group isn’t a “good” one. (This is something I’ve worked on, and now I actually like silences, because interesting things often come out of them.)

Often in a group, somebody will share something intimate, risky, or important, and nobody will say anything.  Or somebody might change the subject, almost immediately.

I’ve seen all sorts of people – in and out of therapy groups — react similarly when they say something that feels important and then don’t seem to get a response.  They may know, intellectually, that silence can mean many different things. They may know that the silence might indicate that people are thinking and even very much affected by what they’ve heard. They may know that silence might mean that people didn’t know what to say (or what they were expected to say).

Even so, speaking without a response often causes something really painful.


And that’s not surprising, since humans react that way, almost from birth. It’s been said that infants are “hard-wired” to have a shame response, which is triggered when a baby actively tries to make eye contact with the mother (or other primary caregiver) and they get an inattentive or disinterested response. The baby’s response looks like adult shame – head drooping, eyes down-cast, face turned away.

So when we try to connect with others and we don’t get a response within a certain amount of time, sometimes we’re going to feel bad about that. It’s natural to fill that silence in with all sorts of assumptions.

But feeling shame doesn’t necessarily mean that the situation is as bad as we fear. In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, another common distortion is Emotional Thinking. Emotional Thinking is, in a nutshell, the following:

I feel it, therefore it’s true.

For example, “I feel hopeless, therefore there’s no hope” or “I feel inadequate, so therefore there must be something wrong with me” or “I feel shame, so therefore people must be rejecting me.”

I think it’s important to be aware of how hard-wired we are to feel shame when we reach out and don’t get a response, and to be open to other possibilities: that the other person is busy, for example.  I’m not saying we won’t get rejected sometimes, but maybe we’re not being rejected as often as we fear.

And it’s important to remember that even when we feel shame, we still matter.

I’ve heard guilt vs. shame defined this way:

Guilt is feeling like you’ve done something wrong.

Shame is feeling like YOU are wrong.

That’s such a painful difference, dear reader.

Categories: personal growth | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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5 thoughts on “Day 14: The sounds of silence (and how we respond)

  1. Lovely and thoughtful piece on silence, how it manifests and the ways we interpret the absence of sound. When I was young I liked silence, it was natural, like the pause between breaths; then I became social and silence became freighted. I still liked silence, but like many chafed at social silence, even when choosing not to fill the space. I began to like social silence again in February of 2007. I was doing a live performance that became the basis for my first spoken word album. I began my performance and continued for just short of an hour. The room was silent, no one talked; no one applauded; people barely moved in their seats; they sat silent, quiet, indrawn, perhaps attentive. I’d rehearsed painstakingly for this performance for three months, and I’d never had an experience like this on stage; It was terrifying. To quiet the fear and to go on, I decided to let go of hope for feedback and simply deliver the work as I had planned. The performance ended–silence; people barely moved in their seats, more silence, then thoughtful applause, then silence. I moved from behind the rostrum and people rushed forward wanting to talk about what had happened. When I listened to the tapes with my producer we knew I had an album. That was the night, I learned to love silence.

  2. Great story!! Oh so TRUE!!!! I can’t count the amount of times I have felt that anxiety to fill in the awkward silence. Very well said!!!!

    • Thanks for this comment, and I apologize for taking so long to reply. Hmmm. I wonder how you interpreted my silence, here? I’m glad you reached out, and I appreciate what you wrote, very much.

  3. Pingback: Day 612: Not the only one | The Year(s) of Living Non-Judgmentally

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