I’ve always been shy and self-conscious, afraid of embarrassing myself. I cannot remember a time when I didn’t feel this way.
I wanted to be perfect. I wanted to look perfect, fit in with everyone and never miss a beat. Say-all-the-right-things perfect. Always-get-the-joke perfect. I never lived up to these goals, but in my head these were the things to strive for.
But I was shy. I knew that I couldn’t please everyone, so I felt safest when I stayed under the radar. I was sensitive and I thought that put me at a disadvantage. I thought acceptance would give me confidence and criticism would kill me — death by sticks and stones, of course — because I was too delicate to tolerate a harsh word.
By the time I got to high school, I was an avid people-watcher. I studied before I befriended, avoiding aggressive, confrontational people. I became more outgoing over time, fueled by the attention of my carefully selected friends (true friends that I still have to this day). We weren’t the most popular or the least cool; we were safely in the middle and generally liked. At the time, I viewed this as success. No one expected too much or too little from me.
This middle of the road posture carried me through high school, then into adulthood where it started to feel like a problem. I was afraid to rock the boat; afraid to say how I really felt about things if I suspected that someone would disagree. I hated confrontation. I hated debate. I didn’t stick up for myself because I wasn’t sure about anything, and I didn’t want to make myself look stupid. I partied a lot and listened to other people more than myself.
I was quiet. I liked being quiet. But I also felt limited by it because loud people seemed to always get more of what they wanted.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but there is a difference between choosing to be quiet and being afraid to speak. Between self-preservation and self-denial. Between being introverted and being anti-social. Between being loud and being heard.
Does any of this hit home for you?
Awhile back, I wrote a book of essays called Wallflower that walks through my clumsy journey from a shy kid to an emotionally suppressed adult who finally found freedom in embracing her quiet voice. Before my breakthrough, I’d been trying to be someone I wasn’t. The effects of silencing my authentic self and trying to live up to the expectations of other people took a toll on me and everything I’d been ignoring was bubbling up.
This is what happens when you are out of alignment with your spirit and you’ve allowed outside demands to outweigh and overshadow what really matters to you.
I’d filled my life up with so much noise that I couldn’t hear myself. I’d abandoned everything that made me feel creative and special. I was working tirelessly to achieve goals that meant nothing to me. And through it all, I was beating myself up for not being more vocal, more aggressive and more competitive. I thought the answer to my problems was to try harder to be like everyone else, or at least how they seemed to be.
Then one day, I discovered that I’m an introvert.
I began to understand why I was so exhausted by people’s energy and needed to recharge for a long time after socializing and…
…that I wasn’t alone in dreading confrontation and having to speak up without time to process my thoughts.
…how I could go LONG periods of time without speaking to my loved ones (and that I wasn’t a bad person because of it.)
…why I instinctively stand back in social environments to see if I want to play or stay on the outskirts looking in.
…why I get cranky, impatient and eventually sad and even depressed when I don’t get enough time alone.
…why I’m so preoccupied with and inspired by my inner world, to the point that sometimes I have to literally rip myself away from it in order to function and be present in the outside world.
Instead of fighting against my nature, I started thinking about how to nurture it and express it to the world in unique ways.
I stopped calling myself crazy and I stopped apologizing for needing time to be alone with my thoughts. With an enlightened view of myself, I learned how to set boundaries without feeling uncertain or selfish. I learned how to be myself and cultivate a life of my own choosing. A life that is loud with purpose and full of meaning, now that I know how to use my quiet powers and express myself confidently in my own way.