Learning to Tolerate Silence

By Jackie C Dotson -

I was involved in a discussion this morning with some great folks in my business development group. I really love this group because the business topics we riff on are not the run of the mill “10 ways to generate customers” types of topics. In our meetings, we get real and explore topics you don’t normally get to discuss in your average business or networking meeting.

Today we talked about having a “fear of free time”, of not knowing what to do with yourself during gaps and lulls in your day when things get quiet. Most of us treat silence as a vacuum that needs filling, after all, nature abhors a vacuum, right?

What happens during those silent times that scares the crap out of you so much? Silence gives us space to think about things, which can be very intimidating. During quiet times, we tend to start thinking about things we don’t want to think about, maybe hurts from the past or situations in the present that we need to confront but wish we could ignore. Sometimes silence gets us thinking about what we really want in life, which is incredibly frightening to most people, as counter intuitive as that may seem. It’s frightening because there focusing on what you really want to do and have is admitting to yourself that you are not “there” yet and the gap between what you have and what you want can be intimidating.

Silence also gives resistance more of a chance to speak up. Although resistance seems to shout loudly over any activity, it gets big during quiet times. As I’ve written about before, we tend to quell resistance by creating drama and busywork, just like how we quell silence with noise and busyness.

Culture also plays a big role in our need to fill the voids. Being busy, having a full schedule, being on the go is seen as honorable and is rewarded in work environments. Taking downtime, napping, meditating, daydreaming is seen as a form of laziness, which is unfortunate because those are some of the best places that energy and ideas come from.

Right now, take 15 seconds. Stop reading. Mute your music. Close your eyes and just sit there. Okay, what was that like? Uncomfortable? What did your head use to fill the space? Chatter? A mental to-do list, perhaps? The voice that shoulds? Was it easy or hard to sit there? Take note of what came up.

If you are used to always filling the free space in your life with noise and activity, it is going to be very difficult at first learning how to tolerate it. You may only be able to take a few seconds or minutes here or there. That’s okay. There is no right or wrong way to teach yourself how to dial down a bit. Putting pressure on yourself to “do it right” will just make things worse.

You may be asking, why do I want to subject myself to this if it’s so damn uncomfortable? What’s in it for me?

Being able to tolerate silence and downtime is a killer skill to have in your pocket. For one, it keeps you more level-headed. Have you ever been in a tense discussion where all of a sudden neither party is talking? It’s during that period of dead air that you’re more likely to blurt out anything in order to fill the empty space. This could cause you to lose power in a business negotiation or disclose something about yourself that you were not quite ready to say. In short, being able to tolerate the silence can go a long way in protecting your personal power.

Silence spurs creativity. Ideas do materialize out of thin air, but not typically when you are going a mile a minute, doing anything and everything to stay busy. Getting quiet gives dormant ideas and insights a chance to rise up.

Tolerating silence, dare I say it, builds maturity. We’ve established that, during downtime, we often start thinking about things we’d prefer to avoid. Being able to look at that stuff and begin to take action on it takes a lot of courage. Being able to feel uncomfortable, scared and even panicky, without rushing to stop it helps you grow. In fact you will not grow until you face the uncomfortable, so any action you take to build this mental muscle will serve you.

So, in summary, being able to tolerate silence will go a long way in helping you make stuff go in your life. I find this a bit ironic, because “type A” people who love to make stuff go in the world typically struggle the most with this.

What are some of your beliefs and attitudes towards things like free time, dead silence, and “downtime”? Would it be possible for you to re-examine some of these attitudes so you can use silence to help you get more from your life?

Jackie Dotson is a psychotherapist, blogger and the founder of Jackie Dotson, LCSW in Sacramento, CA, as well as the co-host of The Powder Keg of Awesome Podcast.

Engage with Jackie on Twitter: @jackiedotson or on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/Jackie.Dotson.LCSW.

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