Have you ever had a moment, or let’s be honest, a million moments, when you just stumbled upon your words, mumbled them upside down, and cringed at how inarticulate you can be? It happens a lot to me that I forget how to speak. Being a polyglot, I tend to lose my words oh-a-plenty-of-times, and if it happens frequently enough during a week, my Social Anxiety kicks into high gear. And then it’s much more difficult to tone it down than it is to keep it in check.

I’m talking total confidence shutdown.

Inferiority complex bangs on the door—impostor syndrome clocks in. The negative inner talk takes over.

Here’s an example of such a time when I wished someone would kick me to the moon, away from the interaction at hand, because I failed at language. My manager called up a team meeting to let us know that many college students would come to the office to learn more about what it’s like to, you know, work. It was a cooperation with our company and the local university. Before I even had a chance to hide in the corner, my manager looked straight at me and told me that he had assigned me a student already. Great.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no qualms about participating in knowledge transfers. I prefer it when I’m the one getting the knowledge. Also, don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy imparting knowledge, but it just so happens that I was bored at work and didn’t have much to showcase. “Hey, look at me. I’m getting paid to be bored.” This made the task at hand much more difficult. Imagine trying to come up with what you’ve worked on in the past week when your boss asks you, when in fact, you spent all week Instagramming stories.

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It was kind of like that.

So, there I was, staring at a first-generation college student named Briana. She was going to shadow me at work. And let me tell you, she was bright, perky, and wide-eyed, ready to learn all about the IT department, corporate America, and what it takes to get your foot in the door.

As I sat there explaining to her what I do and what my current project was all about, I couldn’t help but lose control of my English. And I mean, holy moly, how did I even graduate High School?!

Be it that I’ve spent so much time talking baby-talk at home, or not reading enough in the past month, or simply lacking in sleep, I couldn’t bring myself to sound coherent at all. I could see myself from her perspective, and it made me uncomfortable. The HSP in me could feel her judging me. And so, it was that my inner talk grew louder and louder as the minutes passed.

It made me feel like I didn’t own my responsibilities. 

It made me insecure about my communication skills, thus reigniting my impostor syndrome. When you forget how to speak, it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing you’re not good enough.

I imagined her thinking:

  • How can she possibly oversee this project if she can’t even explain it to me?
  • I could TOTALLY do this better than her!
  • They are paying her for this?!
  • Why is she sweating? The AC is definitely on high here?

It made me feel small. And I hate feeling small.

But ultimately, there were two ways I could have reacted to my reaction. I could have 1. commiserated for days on end at how I’m failing at life, or 2. give myself a break. At the end of the day, I decided not to think about the many ways I could have portrayed myself better. I wanted to avoid the rabbit hole of why I couldn’t explain myself properly and save the sad excuses for another time. I also didn’t want to allow myself to think that there was a bigger problem at stake. Hypochondriac anyone? My inner talk took a backseat as I decompressed and hugged myself for not having a good day. I told myself that the next time, I wouldn’t forget how to speak.

If you ever find yourself at a loss for words or cannot express yourself how a British playwright would (we can always dream), cut yourself some slack. Don’t overwork your brain because clearly, it’s already overworked. Not only are you doing yourself more harm by forcing your brain, but you’re inviting a slew of other issues through the door, i.e., insecurities that are better off hiding in the darkest corners of your mind.

We all have those moments where we ramble and make a fool of ourselves – and while that’s tough for anyone, it might be tougher for introverts because most of us pride ourselves on being methodical and careful with our words. This is the extrovert equivalent of getting mad-ass drunk at a party and leaving behind a trail of unsavory pictures for the world to see. The same feeling, I imagine…

But fear not, you can always redeem yourself! This is what I did to speak eloquently the next time around.

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1. Slow down

If I don’t make it a point to speak slowly, I get agitated and jump from one explanation to the next without any correlation between them whatsoever. Speaking fast derails me and makes me forget what I want to say. But that’s not even the worst of it…it makes me look incompetent, among other things. Here are three reasons why you’ll benefit by slowing down when you speak.

Your nervousness will take a hike.

That thing called adrenaline is best friends with stress, which means that the more stressed out you are (especially after a few stumbles), the more adrenaline spikes. That’s correlated with an increased heart rate. And if you’d be so kind as to complete this sentence: And an increased heart rate means increased ___. Not only will you feel more nervous when you’re speaking, but you’ll also look like you are. Thus, you’ll be forever stuck in a vicious circle.

You’ll be in more control.

By speaking slowly, you’re giving yourself extra time to dig into that amazing repertoire of words you know. This will not only allow you to fetch the best word for the situation, but you’ll be able to steer the speech in a different direction should you realize that it’s not catching on with your audience. You can think of it as slowing downtime, which gives you the upper hand in analyzing the person in front of you and their reaction to your words.

You’ll gain credibility and authority.

Think about your favorite orators. How fast/slow do they tend to speak? Speaking slowly shows credibility and authority because you’re taking up time at the table. It’s also a sign of confidence and expertise, both characteristics you want to have!

2. Organize your thoughts

Before you meet with someone, jot down the sequence of your ideas so that you can have a rough outline in your head of how you’ll approach the discussion/conversation. This usually works better when you know who you’re meeting, when you’re meeting, and the agenda/topic of conversation. Impromptu conversations are much harder to organize but not impossible. I’ve written about this before, but I tend to role-play conversations with people beforehand to arm myself with preset knowledge. If I already know how I want to approach someone, say the college student that shadowed me, I’ll be better equipped with the right words to use. I wouldn’t have floundered so badly if I had a plan in mind, but I instead chose to speak like it’s the wild west.

3. Take your time

Take your time to make sure you’re not missing anything crucial – don’t feel rushed to get to the end. This is related to #1, but more in the sense of allowing yourself to pause between sentences, allowing the silence to work to your advantage. DO NOT BE AFRAID OF SILENCE. If there’s one thing you should learn how to do, especially if you have social anxiety, it’s to learn to love the silence. Don’t try to fill the space in with useless words. It will just make it worse because you’re going to panic about it. Give yourself enough time to 1. Speak slowly, and 2. Organize your thoughts. See how they are all related but different in their own way?

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4. Ask questions

What part of this makes sense? What doesn’t make sense? Did I miss the point? Engage the other person to make sure they’re following your train of thought. If you did #1, #2, and #3, the chances are that they understand you just fine! But just in case you missed a few steps, or you see them squint their eye strangely, stop and ask questions to make sure that what you’re saying is clicking. The last thing you need/want is to get the validation that you’re not making sense. So don’t let it get that far. Intervene occasionally to check in on them.

5. Start over

Lastly, don’t be scared to stop, take a breather, and restart. We know it works for computers; let’s assume it works for humans too. Just let the other person know you’re restarting. Being funny always resets the mood so that you can say something like: I know this probably makes no sense to you – I apologize. I’ve been talking too much to a baby these past few days! Let me reset. Being honest and vulnerable are probably the most powerful weapons to combat social anxiety, especially when words escape you and you feel naked and afraid.

Also, there’s one crucial point to remember for all of this to work, and that’s to let go of any expectations you have of yourself. If you plan to bring out a whole dictionary to impress someone, no matter how much you try to complete these steps, you’ll flounder and forget how to speak because you’re putting too much pressure on yourself. Always remember that the simpler the words are, the more impact you can make. And if you have social anxiety, your main priority will always be to stay away from the vicious circle of thoughts, and the best way to make that happen is not to have high expectations. Because the moment you fail to meet them, the inner talk begins, and then everything else unravels right in front of you.

I’ll leave you with this. As long as you realize what’s going on, especially at the moment itself, and you’re taking steps to recalibrate, don’t be scared to speak Chinese sometimes.

And if Social Anxiety has your tongue, revert to these 5 things, and you won’t forget how to speak.

This article was featured in Introvert, Dear.