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.