Selective Mutism: What It REALLY Means When We Talk About Our ‘Rules’

When I first heard about the situations where people with Selective Mutism can and can’t speak being referred to as rules that the person with Selective Mutism had, it was whilst watching a documentary. I wanted to scream at the narrator of the documentary and tell them how wrong they were. I was so angry that the wrong information had been put into a documentary that was supposed to be making people aware that Selective Mutism is not a choice. My first thoughts about it were that it wasn’t like I one day decided to make a list of all the people I would and wouldn’t talk to and where and when I would talk to the people I would talk to, I didn’t ever make a list of rules it was just that I simply could talk sometimes and not others. I often don’t know if I will be to be able to talk in certain situations until I get there.

Fast forward to now, and I now realise what they really meant. When people talk about rules, it does not mean people with Selective Mutism suddenly decide to come up with some rules one day and write them down, but rather things that were decided by their anxiety overtime. The rules made by the anxiety are not things that the SM sufferer is necessarily conscious about. Often I don’t know why my anxiety isn’t letting me talk in certain situations.

Those that suffer from OCD (and I am making this comparison as I do suffer from OCD myself) may be able to relate to this in that they too in a sense have rules, but just like SM, they are not rules that they make up themselves. People who have OCD have intrusive thoughts that randomly pop into their minds that include thoughts telling them that they have to carry out a certain compulsion otherwise something bad will happen. If they don’t, they experience extreme levels of anxiety to the point where the only way to relieve the anxiety is to carry out the compulsion. The anxiety is ordering you about and making the rules. With SM, the rules are more of an unconscious thing in that there are often no thoughts that come about when you can and can’t speak, the anxiety just seems to pop up in certain situations and often even the sufferer may not know why. As a sufferer with SM, I can say that the pattern is baffling even to me.

As explained by Maggie Johnson, “The rules are the predictable pattern set up by everyone’s fear triggers. If I have a phobia of spiders my rules might be that I can’t look at a real spider or a photo of one but I can handle a friendly cartoon spider. Likewise I might have a rule that I can’t be in the same room as a spider but I can be in the same building.

The reason people use the word ‘rules’ is that they literally rule your life. You didn’t make the rules but you live your life by them. It feels like someone has imposed these rules on you. In fact it was the process of fear-conditioning that set up the rule-system, i.e. the pattern of what feels safe and what feels like a threat.”

Personally, I have never liked the idea of referring to them as rules, particularly if I know that the other person doesn’t know much about SM. However, it is completely up to you what you choose to refer to them as; whatever you choose to do is perfectly fine. If you do refer to them as rules, I would definitely recommend explaining to the other person what it actually really means as many people can misinterpret it and think that you actually mean that they’re rules that you have come up with yourself, rather than rules that your anxiety has come up with for you.

So the next time you watch a documentary or read an article and see someone mention rules, just know that this is what it actually means; it does not mean that the person with Selective Mutism has just suddenly decided to come up with a set of rules one day.


6 thoughts on “Selective Mutism: What It REALLY Means When We Talk About Our ‘Rules’

  1. Thanks Leanne, as usual your blog really got me thinking!
    Especially about how on the one hand there are certain strict rules imposed on you by your anxiety that are very predictable (e.g. you know there are certain people you are fine with as long as no-one else is in earshot, and other people who you know there’s no way you could speak to them at the moment), but on the other hand, you never know exactly what’s going to happen and the pattern seems completely baffling.
    Hmmm… I think this is probably because SM is not a phobia of something fairly predictable like spiders or buttons or flying. It’s a phobia of the act of speaking – the actual need to talk to someone. So it totally depends on how the other person behaves towards you – and that’s incredibly UNpredictable! Some people manage instinctively to take all the pressure off and make you feel like it’s OK not to speak but also OK if you feel like speaking. Some people just seem lovely and non-judgemental so you worry less about messing up. Some people have a knack of gradually desensitising you towards speaking by easing you through other forms of communication first. And some people completely ruin it by saying stuff like ‘Are you going to talk today’ or just acting impatient or judgy or even being OVERfriendly and not giving you enough space. Often strangers are easiest because you know you can just say your bit and leave and they won’t be trying to continue a conversation with you.
    And of course it also depends on who else is hovering in the background – if you talk, are they going to notice and start talking to you as well – or get upset because you spoke to someone else first – which was the subject of one of your other blogs. No wonder it sometimes feels like there are NO rules at all – there’ are just so many things going on.
    What do you think? Does this make any sense?
    Maggie xx


    • Yes it makes perfect sense! I agree with everything you say. SM is such a confusing thing to try and get your head round even when you suffer from it yourself. And like often I don’t know if I’m going to be able to talk until I enter the situation or sometimes I think that I will manage OK but then don’t. I suppose it’s got a lot to do with when it comes to meeting a new person/entering a new situation, you don’t know what kind of a person they’re going to be and like some people are naturally good at going through all the things you should be doing to help with SM to talk without even realising it, but others aren’t so much. Perhaps it’s got a lot to do with maybe an unconscious vibe you get from some people? I really don’t know. I don’t think it’s one singular thing that stops you from being able to talk at times, it’s loads of different things factoring into it which is why it seems so different to a typical phobia because you can make sense of a lot of the reasons why certain things trigger anxiety, but with SM the pattern is just so baffling it’s so hard to make sense of. I think there’s just so much going on in someone’s mind when they have SM that it’s so hard to work out why certain things trigger you and others don’t. Like if you have a phobia of spiders you know that if you get anxiety because you’ve seen a spider or seen a picture of spider etc, you can make sense of why you’re feeling anxious but with SM it’s not so easy as figuring it out like that. It’s possible that nothing I’m saying is making sense haha! But I definitely think SM needs so much more research so that things like this can be looked into a bit more! xxx


  2. I love my grandson and want to learn more about selective mutism the name is confusing to those who don’t know exactly what SM is, but I think the more we talk about SM it will get the attention and respect that is needed. People who are not affected need to understand the individuals and families who are getting on on thier own. I hope I can find your blog again it is so insightful. I have been reading and learning and understanding so much more thru facebook Thank you for sharing


    • That’s so lovely to hear that you want to learn more about SM so that you can help your Grandson. 🙂 Yes, I’m with you on the name, I cannot stand the name! I hope that it will be changed in the future! Yes, exactly. There are so many things that were just like SM where not many people knew about it and there was so much stigma attached to it, but now they’re things that are talked about all the time and hopefully the more we talk about SM, the more SM will become more of a well known and respected thing. If you’ve got Facebook, I’ve been sharing my blogs daily throughout the month of October in some of the SM groups! So if you have got Facebook, I would definitely recommend joining this group: that way you will be able to find my blog again. 🙂 Thank you so much for your lovely comment! 🙂


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