How do I stop feeling awkward and self-conscious with silence?

I’ve always considered myself to be rather extroverted. Until I suffered a bit of a nervous breakdown in my early twenties and married an overly-critical man, I didn’t realize my self-consciousness.

I find it rather odd and crippling too because people who have known me a long while expect me to be the “talker” while I feel more like being the listener. I am very uncomfortable with silence. I feel very nervous in small settings (2 person dyads) where I feel I’m expected to keep conversation going. If there is a lull I seek to fill it. This puts enormous pressure on me.

In my teens and early twenties in retrospect it seemed like I always spoke to people about “guys” and at that stage that seemed appropriate. I feel self-conscious about talking about personal things and thinking that people can’t talk about relationships all the time. Small talk always alludes me when I’m nervous.

On the other hand when I tell people I’m close to that I feel awkward at parties and such, they can’t believe it because I seem so bold at times. I can speak up in class and when I have something planned to say I can say it with confidence.

It is a bit of a roller coaster ride and I’d like some balance.

Does anyone have any suggestions?

Much appreciated.



  1. Shy and extroverted is wonderful. You know you can be both! I’m not a therapist so what follows is my opinion based on the information you provided.

    Being around someone over-critical can really cause one to close up. It is important to realize that the way things were in the past are not the way they will always be. Not everyone is so critical (some are sure, and you now know what to be on the lookout for).

    Some ideas to allow being close one-on-one are therapy, a relationship class, a good friendship, conversation skills, or reading about intimacy and trust.

    It sounds like you are very together and just may need a little help being able to trust another person after a bad experience.
    Post again with additional information.

  2. Thanks for your reply.

    I’m not entirely certain that all of this started after marrying a critical man. I think it definitely exacerbated things. The thing is that in my teen years I never really noticed that I was shy. I would dislike going to parties but not really know why.

    I think I masked this “challenge” up until the critical husband because I used to talk freely. If I had nothing to say, I’d talk about myself. However, after my ex repeatedly pointed out to me that no one is interested; I started to become overly self-conscious.

    Now, it seems so ingrained that even though I have awareness it seems to live a life of its own. Being around people I get preoccupied. Ahead of time I think, what am I going to talk about?

    I think what is most disturbing to me is the feeling of awkward silences. I want to feel comfortable with silence. I want to relieve myself of the pressure to feel like I must entertain. Then, maybe the ideas will flow.

    I’ve gone back to university and have plenty of ideas/opinions but they have been shut down by this preoccupation.

    I did read a thread somewhere and I thought you’d mentioned that you too have had some challenges with silence.

    How did you get over that hump?

  3. Yes, I also felt awkward and self-conscious with silence. I did two things. First was to learn about making conversation and small talk. (the book “How to Work a Room” by Susan Roane is very good). This gave me some techniques to use which I practiced.

    The second thing I did was realize that I do not always need to make conversation. I have the skills, have practiced them, and now choose when to talk.

    In other words, from practicing I learned that sometimes things worked and sometimes not — it is just the way things are and is something I cannot control. I can only do my part (when I choose). Also practicing removed the feeling that something was wrong with me because now I had the needed conversation skills.

    I learned to be comfortable with silence by observing myself and others during these moments of silence. Instead of criticizing myself, I now just observe and know that I can either break the silence or enjoy it (sometimes others get very angry at silence — they don’t know what to do.)

    I now know that the ability to enjoy silence is also a skill and can help one achieve even higher states of awareness.

  4. Thanks again for your insight. I’ve made a note about that book.

    It is funny, really, when I think I don’t have much to say. I put myself in a situation where I’d have to practice and I found out that I did OK. I was pleased with that.

    I think now I’ve had a chance to delve a little deeper and what comes up for me now is a generalized feeling of taking focus off myself and onto other people and then somehow feeling “lost” and nervous. This may sound strange but it is an experience I’ve just had.

    I spend so much time alone studying and with my 4 yr. old son that I have only small chunks of time with others. These small time periods I can handle but for some reason when it extends into whole days I get sort of panicked. I feel like, what will we do today? Sure, it is easy when one has a lot of disposable income, but that isn’t my situation so I feel I kind of lack the “know how” of what to do with others whilst at home for a whole day. I’m used to solitary activities or playing with my son. It is uncomfortable. I noticed my whole body tense because I didn’t know what to do. I just wanted to leave and come home where I can be alone and not feel the pressure to “do or be” anything specific.

    I’m trying to come to terms with some of my own thoughts while I write this to you. So, I do appreciate your interest in “listening” and giving input.

    I think somehow that there is a deeper issue here that underlies what may manifest as shyness and perhaps yourself or others can relate and tell me if I’m on the right track.

    It there somehow a correlation between my feelings of “awkwardness” with not knowing what to do (for an extended time) with people (based on little frequency of extended contact)and the “shy” feeling?

    Is being shy a sense of not feeling free to just be who we are?

    I also find at times I have difficulty sustaining eye contact. Not always, but at times.

    Another correlate, I’m wondering…the feeling that once one travels down one path with a person one must continue. For example, not ever really dating, just getting together and staying together perhaps because the other person wanted to keep going and we felt responsible or uncomfortable “hurting” them.

    Do any of these things ring a bell and relate to the shyness theme?

  5. Yes, I relate very much with what you say about being uncomfortable with others and not knowing what to do when with someone when you are together for a long time. Is it shyness? Really only you can answer that. Never accept a label placed on you by someone else.

    The best definition of shyness I have read is “…being shy means being nervous or worried about what other people are thinking of you.” from Ronald M. Rapee in “Overcoming Shyness and Social Phobia: A Step-by-Step Guide”.

    As a shy person, I certainly relate to what you write and share similar feelings and fears.

    It is important to realize that these feelings and fears go away when you are with someone who is really compatible (whether you are shy or not). When you are with someone compatible and feel safe, there is no worry about what to do next. The worry comes from being concerned about what they will think of you or comes from just not really being motivated to do anything with this person.
    Just staying with someone because you don’t want to hurt them has some elements of safety as you know what to expect and do not have to take risks of putting yourself out there to find someone more compatible.

    What follows is totally my projection based on the posts (please ignore if it does not feel right to you):
    I imagine being with someone very critical which causes my self-esteem to lower. This lower self-esteem makes it harder to take risks and receive happiness in my life.

    Now things are stable, not great, but I don’t want to rock the boat for fear I may fall over.

    I know I can be much more, in fact I prove it to myself often in many circumstances.

    … I search and search for deeper explanations while I realize that what I really want is not explanations, but happy, mutually compassionate relationships and fulfillment in all areas of my life.

    My mind can take me only so far. My mind seems somehow to be in the way (odd because it is trying so hard to solve this problem).

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