People using the word “shy” is a sore spot for me. A four year old girl hiding behind her mother’s leg when a stranger approaches is shy. A 23 year old woman who doesn’t talk much is not. Once upon a time, I was absolutely that shy four year old hiding behind my mother. You could say I spent most of my childhood and adolescence being shy, sure. But somewhere in my post-secondary years, I did indeed start to “come out of my shell”.
It took a few more years still for me to not just overcome my “shyness”, but to accept it as who I am. I am an introvert. Through and through. I am proud to say so, and will happily explain what that means to people who think I’m shy, timid, socially anxious or just plain weird.
People who met me when I was 20 years old starting my first job as a cashier in Berkeley,, not knowing me before, would use words like “shy” to describe me, which felt like a punch in the gut. I knew I had come so far from my timid, socially anxious teenage self, but apparently that still wasn’t good enough for people.
The catalyst of my journey from social anxiety to social acceptance began with my first year of college. I was fresh out of high school. At just 17 years old I was dropped off by my parents in a new city, far from home, left to fend for myself. My first challenge came just hours after my parents and I had exchanged a tearful goodbye; I had to walk to my new school by myself, ask for help to find the classroom by myself, and sit in a room of peers while completing an entrance assessment by myself. I did it. All by myself.
Over the next few months, I did all sorts of new things all by myself. I went to school. I spoke to classmates. I went grocery shopping. I even acted in classmates’ (new friends) student films and developed a crush on a boy who, by some miracle, actually liked me back! The rest of the school year had its highs (my first boyfriend and my first kiss) and its lows (depression, failing classes), but by the time I came back home for the summer, my friends were commenting how outgoing I was being around people that I wouldn’t have said much to before. I felt like I had grown so much. And I had.
Skip forward four years and I’ve been to college again, worked a cashier job in Berkeley for almost three years, been a cake decorating class instructor for one year and just started a job in a bakery. I’ve come a long way with the socializing thing. I can small-talk now, if I have to. I can exchange pleasantries with strangers. I can even make new friends. Yet, this word “shy” still haunts me. Some people just don’t seem to understand that there could be any reason for not speaking other than out of fear. Is it really so strange for me to not chat while I’m concentrating on decorating a cake? I like my work, I like the people I work with, but being an introvert means that I don’t always remember social interactions that come naturally to people. Things like replying “And, how are you?” after responding to their same question with an perfunctory “Good” don’t come naturally to me. I’m not rude, inconsiderate, or self-centered. It’s just not wired into my brain to be curious about other people, I guess.
After a good day at work, feeling confident that I got everything done properly that was assigned to me, it’s a real kick in the pants to hear my boss tell me I need to stop being “shy”. Augh! That word! I’m trying my best, but sometimes it feels like my own personality, my true self, is just sabotaging me in my professional life. Can we get Introvertism declared some sort of official medical condition, so that employers cannot discriminate against it? I don’t think it’s fair to point out my personality as something I need to work on in an employee assessment. Next thing, they’ll be telling me I need to change my face. (I’ve suffered from chronic Bitchface my whole life. I actually had a customer say to me “No, I think I’ll find someone who actually wants to help me.” after just looking at my face.) Why can’t people just understand that there are different types of personalities, that people have different ways of socially interacting? I might have to start listing “Introvert” under Skills on my resumé to warn people. Or hand out a pamphlet to everyone I meet; “Introverts: Care Instructions”.
Over the past few years, I’ve gone from wishing I was different, that I could make friends and go out and party to being very comfortable in my introvert skin. I spend the majority of my time alone, as I live alone, and only have a few friends to hang out with occasionally. But thanks to the Internet, I can keep in touch with old and new friends, and be a part of online communities that make me feel less isolated. I’m quiet around people because I don’t have anything to say, not because I’m scared to say anything. I don’t go out of my way to make friends because I’m happy with my handful of real-BFF-since-high school friends, and frankly, I haven’t run into anyone that I’ve felt a kinship towards in a long time.
So, you can say I’m quiet. It’s true, even when I do speak it’s not very loudly. You can say I’m a hermit. It’s true, I don’t venture outside unless I have plans with a friend, I need groceries, or perhaps I want a picnic in the park on a sunny afternoon. You can even point out my bitchface because I’ve seen it for myself. But, please, please, don’t dare call me shy, timid, scared, anxious, or weak. I am confident in my introvertness. I am strong. I am proud. I am capable of great things. You just won’t hear me say those things out loud, because, frankly, I don’t talk much. And that’s okay.
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