I cannot get the words out of my head and into my mouth...
April 15, 2021 10:00 AM   Subscribe

I have a problem that I'm getting really sick of. My mind is always teeming with thoughts and I have a constant internal monologue, but I have a lot of trouble *speaking* them. How can I begin to explore what this is all about and possibly improve? Do you experience this?

So I've had this problem since forever, although I've only begun to be truly bothered by it in the last couple of years. I function as a person reasonably well (I have bipolar disorder) and I don't experience problems at work, but I feel so stuck in my own head and it's so isolating. I don't even really know how to describe it. It may be a thing where I just can't figure out how to think and talk at the same time. I also can't talk and look people in the eyes at the same time. It leads me to be silent a lot of the time. Or I talk about boring things that I don't want to talk about with people when it's necessary to talk. I'm an absolutely terrible story teller.

I also think things like "Wow you got a new haircut" and forget to say it out loud, as if the thought itself was sufficient? Which makes me seem like an uncaring person who doesn't appreciate the things going on in other people's lives. I try to tell my family things and it comes out like this "Ok guys, I was thinking that..." blink, blink, blink - and before I can get any more words out they are teasing me with "Cool story mom!" It's a running joke in our house. So it's definitely a thing that other people observe.

If you have any ideas about this or have this experience yourself, can you give me some leads on how to understand what's going on? Books? Movies? YouTube videos, anything at all?

One interesting thing that sort of prompted me to ask this question is that a) I'm really into Sarah Marshall (You're Wrong About podcast) these days. She can talk endlessly and is so incredibly clever. Anyhow this leads to b) I watched her speak in a youtube video and noticed that she engages in some really idiosyncratic movements while she's speaking, and then different ones while she's listening...and I thought - that's kind of me! Except without the ability to be so brilliant and speak so fluidly. So then I thought, well maybe if I observe her some more I might figure some of this out.

Ach, I'm sorry this question is so poorly constructed. I'm just honestly looking for any leads at all. It's hard to begin to explore solutions to a problem I can't even name or describe properly. I've also wondered for a while if I might be on the autism spectrum but I'm not sure if this would have anything at all to do with that.
posted by kitcat to Grab Bag (19 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Two things that strike me here, kind of related. One, this sounds like there may be some ADHD in addition to bipolar disorder. I know that I have no professional expertise and very little sample size to work off of, but some of the train of thought stuff especially sounds like it might be ADHD. There's no real downside to looking into it.

The other thing is that it sounds like you're holding a lot in your head, and so stuff has to compete for space. Personally, I've found it helpful to do some journaling/note taking to offload a bit. This way there's less going on in your head, leaving space for the more important in-the-moment stuff. So like, I have a really good memory, so I never used to write grocery lists down; I'd just remember what I needed. But then I'd get busy at work and my wife would call and ask me to pick up the kids because she's working late and this and that, and by the time I'd get back from the grocery, I'd have forgotten the most important thing I wanted to get. (Or worse, I'd remember my grocery list but forget something at work.) So I started writing things down. My grocery list is in my phone's Notes app. My work to-do list is in a text file on my work computer, I email reminders to myself, etc. It's not perfect, but that's one or two fewer things I have to think about. Might be useful for you.
posted by kevinbelt at 10:26 AM on April 15 [4 favorites]

My husband experiences a lot of what you've mentioned. To me, it sounds like introversion. Maybe consider reading Quiet by Susan Cain.

Our society celebrates introverts and doesn't understand introversion very well. It's a societal failure, as far as I'm concerned. I'm sorry your family doesn't get it.
posted by happy_cat at 10:35 AM on April 15

I have struggled with this as well, but primarily at work where I deal with complex concepts that all swirl around in my brain.

I have no good answers here, but have found reading about ADHD/executive functioning, as well as communication styles (inductive vs deductive) to be helpful. I would love to be a deductive communicator but find I need to describe the larger picture (and some tangents) to then get to the point.

Attention work may also be useful - being grounded in the present can shift your focus away from fleeting thoughts.

Looking forward to hearing others’ reflections.
posted by jilloftrades at 10:48 AM on April 15 [1 favorite]

I'm bipolar too and I definitely experience this
posted by Chenko at 10:49 AM on April 15 [1 favorite]

Well, this is a single anecdata point, but...I'm autistic, and you've described basically my entire life when it comes to speech. The only difference is that I don't necessary have an internal monologue consisting of *words*; it's more like...data and images and impressions and internal flow chart-like things, and part of the difficulty comes in 'translating' that into words.

Plus, from a receptive-language standpoint, I am a slow processor, i.e., when other people are talking, I might hear the words, but meaning/significance of the words doesn't click in right away, so it's like I am constantly "buffering", cognitively speaking. Moreover, being put on the spot makes my word-brain go blank, so if it's my "turn" to talk I often can't say anything, whereas when others are talking I often have to work hard not to interrupt because something they say triggers something relevant I could potentially say.

That said, regardless of what is going on with your neurologically in a specific sense, one thing that has helped me a lot is defaulting to typing (rather than speaking) across as many contexts as possible. E.g., always using texting or email rather than phone calls, whenever I have the choice.

I also do a lot of following up with people post-conversation (in text, email, or social media) because inevitably I think of a lot of things I could have said after the fact.

So in short, I haven't found a way to fix my conversational speech issues, but I HAVE discovered workarounds over time, and this has helped me get more out of the realtime interactions because I'm not putting so much pressure on myself to say all the things in a perfectly synchronous and orderly manner, etc. I don't know if that makes sense or is at all helpful, but I did see a lot of things to relate to in your question so wanted to respond just in case.
posted by aecorwin at 10:50 AM on April 15 [18 favorites]

- practice ignoring the monologue, it's a stream of mostly-garbage commonly characterized as 'the monkey mind'. a side effect of being human, not a benefit.
- is it important? honest? useful? compassionate? necessary? say it. none of those preclude humor.
- practice listening to yourself as you speak.
- people fuck up all the time. especially saying or not saying shit out loud. forgive yourself, laugh a little, drop it, move on.

simple. not easy.
posted by j_curiouser at 10:52 AM on April 15 [2 favorites]

You can type faster than you can talk, with practice. You might find that letting the words out of your fingertips rather than your mouth is easier.

Sometimes there are so many words and possibilities inside that the mouth cannot possibly keep up, especially when there is a need to be understood the first time around so you can't jump from one partially articulated thought to the next without frustrating any listeners. With typing you can just let it rattle out on the keys and then go back and look at it and edit it if you want to before you share it, if you even do decide to share it.

Typing is worth experimenting with because if your written work is inarticulate or incomprehensible even to you, you can go over it and figure out what part of your thoughts, or what linkages are missing.

If there are a host of emotions that also are making speech production get strangled, try singing. You can use tone and cadence and other tricks to convey a lot in a short phrase without having to go into excruciating detail. The words "I love you," for example, can be sung in anger, in shame, in joy, in bafflement, in grief, in despair or in boredom. Singing comes from a different place in the brain than other words do, so sometimes people with a stammer or similar signs of speech production difficulties can sing when they struggle to talk.
posted by Jane the Brown at 11:01 AM on April 15 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: You know, maybe my internal monologue isn't very verbal. I'm having a hard time figuring that out right now. I know I imagine conversations with other people that are made of words, mostly trying to explain things that I have found interesting. The rest seems to be the beginnings of sentences like "I wish..." and then it becomes a floating free associative impressionistic set of partial thoughts that refer to whole thoughts - like synecdoche almost because it's like - oh that thought again well here's this one impression of it and no need to ponder the whole thought because I already know it... Anyways swimming through these thoughts and trying to put them into words is kind of tortuous.
posted by kitcat at 11:10 AM on April 15 [3 favorites]

I really feel you. This is also something that makes me suspect that I'm on the autism spectrum, personally. It was also a revelation to me that not everyone goes through this all the time!

In my head it feels like there's a big dome where the ideas are floating around in space, and a portal that the ideas have to pass through to get converted into words. The lag between that happening will be more or less noticecable depending on: how hungry/angry/lonely/tired I am, how many ideas are trying to get out at the same time, how many times I have expressed these ideas in words previously (Can I reuse constructions that people understood before?), if someone is teasing me in the middle of this happening (! ack !), etc. At times it definitely feels like the portal is shut and nothing is going to come out again until it opens up.

When I was younger this was much worse and my relationships with people suffered for it. I decided to work on getting better, which for me was:
- learning about Buddhist meditation, which taught me how to be able to just sit and let the thoughts hang there in space where I can look at them and take my time forming them into words in a calm way, rather than feeling like I'm caught up in the middle of a whirlwind that's blowing my hair all around.

- spending a lot of time journaling which is just rote practice of putting thoughts into words one after the other. Just spend some time writing down whatever comes to mind, no matter what it is or if it's legible or understandable. I think practice makes perfect is a big part of this.

- I also did some time in therapy which was also just a form of exercise in answering questions using information from all different parts of my head and formulating that into something that makes sense to someone else. Even if you don't feel like you need therapy for depression or whatever, I think it can also function as a kind of workout to build your brain muscles. Also not for nothing, talking through unanswered questions & stresses from my childhood probably went a long way to freeing up brain resources for communication as well.

I think it would be ok if you let your kids know that sometimes you do need them to shut up and let you think - what if you made a deal that when you put your hand up that means you're thinking and you need everyone to be quiet until your hand goes down.
posted by bleep at 11:33 AM on April 15 [10 favorites]

Developing a meditation practice may help you with being able to focus on those thoughts you already know long enough to follow it to its articulation.
posted by aniola at 11:34 AM on April 15 [1 favorite]

I think with your family especially you can tell them directly what you need of them. For instance, to wait for you to finish your thoughts instead of joking about it.

Like, I get that the running joke is not mean-spirited and you are probably laughing along with it. But it may be counterproductive because the end effect is that you're known as the vague one of the family and no one ever needs to listen to you finish your thoughts.

I know that I have a couple of "defects" (not remembering faces, or names, being bad at numbers and directions etc.) and I ended up projecting a sort of klutzy space cadet persona, to get people off my back. So that in the end my friends rib me but at least they never expect me to keep track of where we are or what year it is, you know? But...I'm not a space cadet, I just struggle more with some things and it might have been better for my self esteem to make the people close to me be more considerate of me (and, for instance, wait patiently for me to figure it out.)
posted by Omnomnom at 11:56 AM on April 15 [6 favorites]

Practice. You can join a group like Toastmasters to get practice at public speaking, which is the ability to organize and articulate your thoughts and present them, or practice by chatting with friends. Every day, identify a topic, from the banal to the complicated, and develop a a couple minutes of speech about it. Do this out loud. if you get confident, tape yourself. Practicing is the way to get better at a huge number of things.
posted by theora55 at 12:20 PM on April 15 [4 favorites]

You might be interested in Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It, by Ethan Kross.
posted by MonkeyToes at 12:46 PM on April 15

I’m here to +1 aecorwin’s comment - I’m autistic and your description is how talking has gone wrong for me my whole life. I have a ton going on mentally, lots of thoughts, and then I try to convey them to someone and it comes out very stilted/disconnected/with breaks for me to stare into space while my brain takes a break from doing words. This creates a pretty bad feedback loop where I think someone will be interested in a story, I try to tell it, they are obviously disinterested because I’m not structuring my thoughts clearly, and then I feel pretty discouraged the next time it occurs to me that the person I’m talking to might like to hear about something. There are two things that I notice have helped:

* Environment. I am WAY worse at talking when there is a lot going on, or if I was recently in a place where a lot was going on. This also seems to apply to having a lot going on emotionally. If I’m calm, in a quiet environment, and have a patient listener things can go very well.

* Therapy! This is basically just for practice talking. My therapist has to talk to me for the full hour, and if I spend five seconds in the middle of a sentence thinking, she has to stick around and still be interested. The actual content of our conversation is helpful to me for therapy purposes, but just having an hour every week where I have a conversation where I do most of the talking is great. It gives me reassurance that people don’t always stop listening just because I’m not the world’s best verbal communicator, and it gives me practice telling stories about myself. I notice I’ll use the exact same wording later on if I tell my girlfriend or mom something I told my therapist, and it’s way easier than coming up with the words the first time.

Also, you don’t have to make eye contact while talking, if it makes things worse for you it’s totally fine to not try.
posted by nevernines at 1:31 PM on April 15 [8 favorites]

Lots of good advice here and I hope you have found some suggestions you can use.

I'm just going to go in a different direction and focus on the bipolar as I am type 1 and have had the diagnosis for over half of my 54 years. I get storms of thoughts and have trouble sorting them and expressing them. It's getting worse as I age. A couple of years ago my psychiatrist changed my diagnosis from "Bipolar I" to "Bipolar I with Anxious Distress" ("Anxious Distress" is the new "Anxiety"...) because he said that the stress of a long-term mood disorder can cause anxiety. He said it will likely persist and probably worsen and to not be surprised by this. He said menopause can cause fluctuations in this mind storm/fog as levels of hormones change. It was not easy to receive this information, but it was somehow reassuring to know that the problems I was experiencing were not unusual. I just had to work on coping mechanisms. I still have swirling thoughts that make no sense, but I don't really care about that as much as I used to.

My favorite meditations involve focusing on the chakras. The fifth chakra is the throat chakra and contributes to communication. I like to imagine a blue light glowing in my throat and making my words come out well.

I hope you find some answers, some solace. Good luck! Memail me if you want to share stories there or maybe in snail mail. I find writing letters and notes helpful when I have enough clarity to compose something. But I have tons of letters I never sent because they seemed too much to put on someone else. These are journal entries now, but they served a purpose in that they emptied my brain. OK too much, stopping now. :)
posted by danabanana at 3:28 PM on April 15 [3 favorites]

Practice. Talk to your pets, and then answer for them. If you can't have pets, prop up some stuffed animals and converse with them. Just practice practice practice making conversation around the house until it's habit
posted by Jacqueline at 6:52 PM on April 15

Here is a 7 minute 20 second video about situational mutism (in the context of autism) that was useful for me. (Honestly the whole channel has been incredibly useful for me.)
posted by heatherlogan at 7:01 AM on April 16

i think effort spent towards 'figuring out the monologue' is wasted energy and dangerous, to boot. don't be tricked into thinking there are any answers there.

a single concession: do 'the artist's way' morning pages exercise. i think it's 30 days? probably more?

anyway...after the prescribed amount of time - not before - read back over the output. wow. is that useful? or that?! to me, dangerous garbage that smells like roses but has shit inside.

listen to your gut, not your brain.

anyway, I'm in the minority here. I'll drop out now. good luck and be careful 🙂
posted by j_curiouser at 9:59 AM on April 16

Response by poster: Thank you everyone! I may or may not mark best answers...This is all helpful and it's very nice to know that I'm not alone.
posted by kitcat at 12:14 PM on April 16 [2 favorites]

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