E055 - How to Communicate When All You Really Want to Do Is Shut Down

communication self-regulation transform your voice trauma patterns Sep 28, 2023

Sometimes when you need to express yourself in a meeting or an important one-on-one, do you find yourself freezing, shutting down, the words just not wanting to come out? I know firsthand that this can be incredibly painful, because I've had a bunch of this in my own life.

Watch the video or carry on reading below to learn what to do if you shut down and freeze when you need to communicate.

It can happen in meetings, where you start speaking and then freeze and can't speak, or it could happen before you can even open your mouth, so you avoid speaking altogether, or it could be in intense one-on-one conversations at work when you have a confrontation, or with your partner, or a family member or friend, and you find yourself freezing and the words won't come out.

And perhaps the other person is even speaking at you—they're angry, but you're just not saying anything. You may believe that no one wants to hear what you have to say, or that there's no point speaking when no one will listen. These are belief systems that underlie a pattern of freezing and shutting down and not speaking.

This can be harmful to your work life, where you can’t speak with authority and clarity in meetings to present your ideas. This can lead to a whole lifetime of not putting yourself out there—so you live this kind of lesser life where you've stayed safe, because you’re actually just too scared of freezing or too scared to speak or scared of that shutting down thing happening again. And it can have equally negative consequences in our families or with our partners.

I personally had a real freezing issue in my one-on-one love relationships, where if there was a conflict going on, I would shut down, and I wouldn't express what was going on inside me. And that would lead me to resentment, withdrawal, and a feeling that it was impossible for me to feel safe in a relationship… And of course, the truth is, it is impossible for you to feel safe in a relationship if you don't show up and express yourself and say “This is okay for me,” “That's not okay for me.” It sabotaged a lot of my relationships.

So if you see yourself in any of these patterns, please know that it's dealable-with and workable with, but I know how tough it is too—so my heart is with all of us as we work through this thing of freezing and shutting down.

The first step is to recognize that you’ve got a giant clump of conditioning and that you're going to work with it. So your first step is really a mindset shift from “I'm stuck with this. I'm the worst, and I hate this part of myself, and I’m pissed off with life” to “Okay, this is enormously challenging, but I can turn this around.” (Read some of the testimonials from my clients to read about how people have transformed this pattern in their life. They got their voice back and learned how to express themselves, even when after thinking “I need to shut down, and I'll never change.”)

Step number two is to start working with your nervous system. Generally, people who freeze or shut down or who don't express themselves have a freeze response embedded in their communication system that takes over their body. It's not like they want this to happen, but the freeze happens anyway. It's like the whole system freezes.

This freeze response is a dorsal vagal nervous system response—it’s our Most Extreme Nervous System response. A quick bit of polyvagal theory: the unicorn state when we want to communicate with others is called our ventral vagal, which is where we feel confident, calm, settled, okay to be ourselves with everybody else and connected, and able to just express ourselves… that's the ventral vagal.

And then when we start moving into anxiety, fight or flight starts happening: we might speed up, we feel anxious, our muscles tense, our throats close, and that's really when we just want to run away from the conversation or have a fight—not an ideal space to communicate from!

And the most extreme state of this response is to freeze when we feel like we can't fight or flee anymore. Our system can flop over into freeze, where all these pain-relieving chemicals pop into our body. A great description of a freeze response is like this: Imagine driving in your car, but you've got your foot fully on the accelerator and your other foot fully on the brake at the same time. A lot of anxiety and full-on “I'm going nowhere” at the same time. That's a freeze response! So that's what's going on in your system when you can't speak and you freeze.

So first you’ve got to recognize that you’ve got a freeze response going on there. The next step is to regulate your way out of the freeze. If you've got a freeze response in your system, you essentially have to become a master of self-regulation, regulating your nervous system from frozen down through fight-or-flight and back into “I feel confident and comfortable and safe in my own skin.”

Now this is admittedly easier said than done in some nervous systems, but that’s the work: to regulate the nervous system back into calm in real time in that meeting or conversation. Breathing, pausing, and beginning to work with tapping or any other tools in the moment to bring back a state of calm. Check out this earlier post for some practical tips on how to self-regulate.

Next is to know that a trauma or conditioning pattern from childhood may be the source of this clump of conditioning that's inside you around this pattern of freezing. You may have a lifetime of memories of shutting down and freezing and feeling shame and regret. You may also have childhood memories of being shut down in some kind of way, where events as a child led us to decide or believe that it wasn't safe to speak.

So we have to do the work of meeting those early life patterns. It’s really beautiful work to do in groups, but I often do it in one-on-ones, too. Work with your support practitioner around this to unravel that clump of conditioning and begin to heal the parts of yourself that believe it's not safe to express yourself or that no one wants to hear what you have to say, and so on—these are deeply embedded belief systems that are often picked up in childhood.

Another really sweet practice we can do is the daily work of bringing energy and life back into the vocal system. I get people to hum for five minutes every day—literally just “Hmmmmm” for five minutes to start bringing some strength and dexterity and melody into their voice. Another useful exercise is to put on a timer and speak by yourself every day to get used to speaking and letting out whatever is inside.

You could start by saying “Here I am, and I feel kind of weird talking to myself,” “Here I am, and I'm excited about the day,” “Here I am, and I'm nervous about that meeting,” “Here I am…,” and you just keep saying “Here I am” for five minutes, practicing getting words out, letting your communication system flow so that you can express yourself without having to control all the words or rethink everything beforehand. And trust that just the right words will come out, especially if you're in a regulated nervous system and body.

So please believe: I know that you can heal this pattern. I've seen it happen hundreds of times. We all have a birthright to express ourselves with confidence and clarity, with authority and heart and warmth, where we can be believable and authentic. It's really just being deeply human and safe and confident in our own skins while expressing ourselves. And that's really the promise of this work, and it's what I love to share.