On Healthy Silence

silent treatmentTwo things: (1) I am a Super Communicator and Clarifier. I go above and beyond the call of normal communication to make certain that the person before me is always 100% aware of what is happening in my head because if they misunderstand, I feel responsible for their misunderstanding.

(2) Because I am a Super Communicator, I am sensitive to distance. If someone slowly falls to the shadows, I notice because I never fall to the shadows. Before falling into the shadows, I can be found messaging that I’m TIMBER! BRB!

Fun Fact: When someone we care about gives us the silent treatment, for even a brief period of time, something science-y called the anterior cingulate cortex (the part of the brain that detects pain) is activated. In non science-y terminology, the silent treatment causes actual physical pain to our person.

That in mind, this is for you if you are considering hitting the Silent button on someone. For you, so that you are clear; for you, so that you are not hurting another, but rather dealing in compassion and kindness with them.

There are two kinds of silence. The first, it is a constructive silence – where before the silence is taken, the space and the pause required to think / consider / rejuvenate / not think at all is in fact communicated. This is the kind of silence that usually needs to span days, and here are some examples of what you might say – please feel free to cut and paste:

“I’m going to take a time out for a little bit.”

“I need a break from thinking so you may not hear from me for a few days.”

“I’m tired. Shutting off for a few days. Miss you already. Can’t wait to talk soon.”

“I am overwhelmed and exhausted and I really need to just stop for a bit. It doesn’t mean that I don’t care about you…it just means I need some time to myself. I know that you’ll understand.”

Why the above? Because it signals two things – first, that you have confidence and trust in the person before you. Confidence that they are an adult who will take your adult words with an adult’s understanding. The understanding that says they know that everyone needs space, and the understanding that they too will one day need space, as sovereign adults do.

The space that you need, that we all need at some point or another, is not about hurting someone’s feelings. This space, to which we are all entitled, is yours as you need, so be okay when asking for it. If the person on the receiving end gets angry or stomps their feet when you are so communicative, you need to expressly tell them to grow the fuck up.

Second, that you are dealing in honesty and respect. That the person before you is important enough (by virtue of their breathing, by the way, makes them important enough) to receive both.

That’s the healthy kind of silence.

The second kind of silence has the potential to be the hurtful destructive kind, which as above explains, is too easy to avoid. It is the silence which is taken without a signal. The silence that is meted out without explanation or precursor, usually leaving the person on the receiving end wondering what in holy hell is happening? 

It is the silence which feels unkind. And without kindness for one another, I don’t have a God damned clue where we’re left.

To anyone on the receiving end of this kind of silence – you are not without power. You have to decide for yourself what your boundaries are and how you allow people to treat you.

I would caution you to not chase after them and demand an answer when they are taking space; silence itself is an answer. I would also counsel you to take things slow when the person who went mute returns; instead, default to curiosity more than any other position. You have no idea why this person went silent and felt incapable of explaining their silence beforehand. Let them explain, and then weigh that information with gentleness and kindness to yourself, to them, and to what you two are together. Remember that no one is your emotional core but yourself and you have the means to control how the behaviours of another affect your emotional state.

Based on the information they share, you can then decide how and if you wish to move forward with this person. If you believe that there is growth possibility between the two of you, then you need to explain your boundaries and what you need next time they need space. Explain that when you need space, you will also do x-y-z. Come to an understanding together. Do not punish one another, but always always always look to find common ground and understanding. Most everything in a relationship, new or old, is a negotiation.

To anyone who is meting out the silence in this way – when you become un-silent, come at your piece with unadulterated honesty. Have a conversation about the why of your silence and equally about the why of your inability to signal your need for it. Trust that your partner is adult and caring enough to treat your honesty with kindness and forgiveness; respect their needs as much as you respect your own. Otherwise, there is no balance and there is very little room for growth.

When you are on the precipice of silence, consider the above two ways forward and weigh your options against your character, and the reality that we treat people with the respect we show ourselves.

As always, choose wisely friends.

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Originally published April 2015.