Foot-in-mouth syndrome is a little-discussed disorder because of the deep shame associated with it. The diagnostic criteria include:
- The individual is verbal.
- The individual sometimes does not think before expressing herself, either orally or in writing.
- Despite the individual’s intent to be socially appropriate, non confrontational, supportive, and kind at all times, occasionally she blows it.
- As soon as the individual puts her foot in her mouth, she regrets what she has said.
The severity of this disorder ranges from mild to severe based on number of occurrences per month, or week, or day. (Further study needed.) The disorder can be acute (e.g., brought on by a short-term stressor), or chronic (some people are born this way; it’s similar to breech position).
The prevalence of the disorder is 100%, i.e., we all have it. The incidence is higher in times of stress, such as the election of a misogynistic, xenophobic, homophobic, idiotic and completely unqualified and ill-prepared president last week.
There is no known genetic basis for the disorder, but modelling within families plays a significant role, i.e., foot-in-mouth parents are more likely to nurture their children’s foot-in-mouth behaviour.
Differential diagnoses: Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, substance use disorders, both due to related poor impulse control; antisocial personality disorder, whose sufferers don’t care how others feel.
Oh sure, I’ve got foot-in-mouth. I’ve had it for years. I cannot tell you the number of times J. has cringed when I have said something inappropriate in her presence, and sometimes I even transgress when she’s not there. Why just the other day…let’s skip that. I shame myself enough in here.
Today, allow me to share someone else’s example as a teaching point. I was talking to a dear friend who felt she had spoken unduly harshly to someone she has long known. She was quite distraught over the interaction because she works very hard to relate to others in a careful, considered, and respectful way. In fact, I have spent many hours with this woman over several years, and I’ve never seen any sign of foot-in-mouth disorder. Sometimes I’m amazed at how well she manages to keep her foot so far from her mouth under all circumstances. But that day she felt she acted inappropriately. I was not there to witness the event; I just saw how upset she was afterward.
I put on my supportive-friend hat and told my friend that we have all suffered from the disorder at one time or another–I personally have been fall at the chronic and severe end of this spectrum–and that she was not a bad person for behaving so that day. She felt she needed to apologize directly to the person in question.
Sometimes an apology may be warranted, but more often I believe we need to forgive ourselves for the moments that we dare to be human. This insight is not mine, of course. I gleaned it from The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown, an insightful book about the importance of self-compassion. It’s worth a look if you too suffer from this disorder. My completely biased and unfounded research suggests we all do.