Silence over sound

16 november 2021

You know that saying ‘think before you speak?’ I was terrible at it. I felt like I had to reply right away, to whatever someone asked me. And sometimes that first response wasn’t always the truth, but I felt too ashamed to admit that.

I hated silence. In conversations, alone at home. I was always listening to music. Even when reading a book, I’d turn on the TV to have some noise in the background. Noise meant not having to listen to my own thoughts – and they weren’t pretty. 

I felt the urge to respond to whatever someone asked, even if I was in a group. If I didn’t and that person wouldn’t get what they needed, it would be my fault. Even in class, I would feel obliged to answer any question, to avoid the awkward silence in the room. And when I didn’t, I felt responsible for that silence. I knew the answer, right, so why wouldn’t I just say it?

I felt rude for not starting and keeping a conversation with someone, but I would also be incapable of ending that conversation. I hated letting people down. Even if I didn’t feel like talking anymore, I chose my own discomfort over making someone feel awkward – something that was just an assumption anyway.

My therapist once told me that silence is not something to be scared of. No human being is capable of talking all the time, and if a conversation falls silent, it is not just up to me to fill that void. Though I had always seen silence as something bad. As something I needed to avoid, because not being in a conversation with someone at all times, meant that we had nothing to talk about, and that our friendship wasn’t worth enough. Or that I as a person, wasn’t good enough.

My therapist gave me the advice to say ‘I’m not sure what to say right now’ whenever a conversation stops. Or ‘hey, it’s a bit quiet’. It felt like an extremely awkward thing to say, and I was absolutely not planning on using it.

Now, I’m okay with picking silence over a conversation. Sometimes I even do it on purpose, to test myself and see how far I can stretch it. When am I still comfortable, at what point do I feel like I really need to say something? How long will the other person stay silent? Can I stretch it even more? And then, when the other person starts to speak, I celebrate a little victory.

I started to understand what it meant that being able to be silent with someone is sometimes more important than having a conversation with them.

But getting there was hard. I had to do a lot of work. I stopped listening to music whenever I went out, and let the voices ramble. I ignored most of them but also listened to some of them. They told me to always say something, whenever I could. They told me to speak up when no one else dared to. I had always had the feeling that I could prove myself by talking. Being silent was equal to being weak. But all this worrying was affecting my mental health, so it needed to change.

I went from being completely unaware of what I needed to actually listening to my own body and not stretching its limits. I realized that nothing happened if I kept my mouth shut. I started to ignore a lot of things that didn’t really concern me. I stopped feeling obliged to answer every question, because sometimes I just don’t feel like getting involved in whatever is going on. I don’t try to keep a conversation when it isn’t working. And even when it is, I sometimes stay silent. When meeting new people, I am perfectly capable of starting a conversation. But sometimes I just don’t feel like it. I’d rather stay silent and use the moment to calm down and observe others. I really enjoy seeing other people talk, and I do hope that they are comfortable doing it.

Now, I take my time before answering any question, up to a point that it might get awkward. Sometimes I just need time to think, and you know what works perfectly for that? Silence.

Gemaakt door: Emma
Emma Kemp werkt sinds december 2020 bij NEWConnective als communicatiemedewerker/programmamaker, en eerder al in 2019 als communicatiemedewerker. Ze studeerde Taalwetenschap aan de UvA en deed een master Communicatiewetenschappen aan de VU. Ze heeft korte tijd als marketeer gewerkt en werkte als (eind)redacteur voor (online) tijdschriften.

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