*I wrote this letter awhile ago, confronting all of the things I never confronted when I was younger. I post it now to offer some empathy for those who are more introverted than others and to plead with everyone who reads this blog to be gentle with the quiet ones, to be patient and loving. I jumble up introversion, shyness, and quietness quite a bit, but the message is still there. There are many stigmas surrounding kids who are quiet. Let’s get rid of those, okay?
You are situational, often elusive. I feel as though I could touch you, you’re so real and so destructive, but you somehow manage to disappear in those moments when I most need understanding. You only come out when you want to. Dragging you up and spitting you out and staring you right in the half-hidden face you protect from the world is hard. You don’t want to be seen. You don’t want me to be seen.
Writing about you is hard. Talking about you is even harder.
You’re like the wolf and I’m the boy who cries. You turn me into a child. You’re a disease that infects silently. Your symptoms? Coldness, distance, unfriendliness, self-isolation, self-degradation, melancholy, moodiness. Everyone thinks they can diagnose me, attributing these things to arrogance or rudeness or depression or lack of interest. That’s because you don’t like being obvious.
Sometimes I tell people that you can overwhelm me, but they struggle to see it.
They weren’t there when I was put in a speech class in first grade because I didn’t talk much. They never saw how claustrophobic I was on the school bus, how I curled into the window with a book because I didn’t know how to make friends the way normal kids make friends and because I didn’t want to have to look at those girls at the back of the bus and face the reality that I would never be like them because talking would never come easily to me like it did them. They didn’t see how much I internalized when my first big crush rejected me. Or when the popular girls at yearbook camp turned and looked at me following them and laughed and I ridiculously assumed it was because of how I looked and never wanted to be looked at again. Or when my teacher asked me in front of everyone if I considered myself to be quiet or shy and I was so mortified that I blushed and stuttered “quiet,” because it seemed to me that shyness was a dirty word and I didn’t want to admit that I had it. I didn’t want to be made fun of.
No one knows how I would wake up hours earlier than anyone else on school trips to get ready so that I didn’t have to be analyzed through the mirror by girls who were much more confident, much more beautiful. No one knows how much anxiety I had when teachers called on me and I couldn’t form a response because my stomach was churning and my tongue was thick and my body was panicking on me. No one knows how much I hated hearing my voice on camera, seeing my face in a photograph, being called “chipmunk” because of the slight gap in my teeth. No one knows how I can often be in a group of friends and not know anything to say or how I can be ready to talk in church and feel so sick that I want to vomit. No one knows how much safer writing is for me than my own voice, and few people recognize that that is okay.
Most of all, they don’t understand false hope, the kind of false hope that pushes me into social situations, that forces me to pretend like I am an extrovert, that finds me behind the wheel of my car saying, “This time. This time I’m going to go in there, talk to everyone, and they’ll love me and I’ll feel confident. I’ll start over again this time.” Nobody knows how much I pep talk myself into certain social situations, as if they are the last inning or the last quarter of a game that could cost me my career. And they don’t know how it feels to show up, ready to face the world, and to then be consumed by insecurity, to see how easily speech comes to everybody else and to then disappoint myself so much so that I have to leave early, silently devastated by myself. They don’t know about the nights I’ve come home, struggling to hide tears, and falling to my knees, pleading, “I just want to get over this. Why can’t I get over this?” Or the times when I gather enough courage to speak my mind and regret it when I realize how stupid I sound.
They don’t see my journal excerpts:
2007: the first time I admitted I was shy.
My mom says to be more outgoing, but I don’t know how.
“I just cannot seem to get out of this shyness void. I’m so safe, I don’t go out of my way for anything. I’m trying to be better.”
I hope I can become braver.
They don’t understand how broken you can make me feel, like I am not good enough. You can make me squirm in my chair and blush uncomfortably and force me to muster enough strength to stand up and leave. You demonize me. And it’s not like you’d ever tell them these things. You wouldn’t mention that my resolution for the past four years has been, “Be yourself,” as if being quiet was some freakish defect.You wouldn’t talk about the times people have called me stuck up or fake, just because I was so awkward. You wouldn’t mention how my friends called me boring because it was so difficult for me to respond in conversation. You wouldn’t mention how frail you made me, how frail you make me. You snatched my vulnerability away from me and in doing so, made me more vulnerable.
And because of you, because of how hard it was to fight you and how fragile that made me, my friends and classmates said these things:
You’re stuffy. Annoying. Churchie looking. Your hair looks like a poodle’s. Why are you even here? They’d still pick my poem over yours. You’ll never say that, because you’ll never get over your awkwardness. Your hair smells like it needs to be washed. Your hair looks gross. You should cut it, but you probably won’t. Why is it the quiet ones that are the most annoying? Don’t date Arianna. She’s gross. You’re a victim, a damsel. He will never like you. You have traits that I hate. I’ve been subconsciously trying to get rid of you. You’ll fall for the first guy who talks to you and get your heart broken badly. Nobody likes you. After being embarrassed that I couldn’t afford a prom dress and was too shy to try many on: don’t worry. I knew it would be a disaster.
I thought I was the disaster.
Because of you, I pinched myself to stop crying in high school. Because of you, I told myself that it was okay for my best friends to bully me because it would help me to get out of my shell. Because of you, I was embarrassed by myself. I told myself I shouldn’t have said anything. That I needed to deal with this myself. That I am quiet and that quiet is disgusting, but that opening my mouth and saying something stupid was worse.
You wouldn’t mention what you do to me when I date, how you rob me of everything that could possibly be found to be attractive in me. How many relationships you’ve cost me. How many times I’ve gone home saying to myself, “I ruined it again” because of what I couldn’t say, how I couldn’t act around the people I cared about. The number is up to four, four potential relationships you’ve managed to botch for me. Actually, it’s more than that, but I stopped counting so I could stop berating myself. “It is so deceptively easy to avoid taking risks, but it is so painful. Will no one be patient with me?” I have written. More than once.
Right now, I am better than I’ve ever been, content and comfortable, but I still get shy sometimes. I am introverted, I would often rather spend a night at home than in town, I would often rather be by myself or a few people than with a big group, and I often exhaust myself trying to be more extroverted than I am, but I am also sometimes consumed by you, shy. I hate you, and in extension (because of how many people told me I was too quiet for my own good), every now and then, it’s hard to avoid disliking important aspects of myself.
For the past 16 years, the world has told me that because I am quiet, because I may be more introverted than most people, I am disgusting. That it’s not okay to be quiet, it’s not okay to do things on your own. You must be loud and blunt and exciting and outgoing and obnoxious. When you have a problem, you must tell it to someone’s face. You can never internalize, you can never isolate yourself, you can never deal with things on your own. You have to have attention.
I tell myself that all the time. I force myself to express my opinions and share my photos in very public arenas because that’s what I’ve been told I need to do. I force myself to write what I think, even if I wouldn’t have the guts to say it in person. I tell myself that I am not myself when I am not outgoing. Sometimes, I’ll even find myself doing the very thing that created my self-inadequacy, analyzing people who are quiet and saying, “That’s so and so. She’s quiet” or “He’s really kind, he’s just kind of quiet.”
But we are not defined by our quiet. Quiet isn’t some insult, some negative trait you just hook up to the word “but” and toss around like it’s no big deal. You, and I mean people, now, call other kids quiet like it’s all they are, but in reality, they are smart and they are kind. They are intelligent and they are observant. They listen and they follow instructions and they imagine things that are more beautiful than many outgoing individuals could ever say. Quiet is not broken, quiet is not a disqualifier. Quiet doesn’t make monsters.
The world makes its own monsters, the kids they call monsters and the kids who they later write about in newspapers: “He was a loner, a 20-year-old whom Newtown High School classmates remembered as a skinny, shaggy-haired boy ‘who never really talked at all’ and who stayed tight to the corridor walls when he walked, often clutching his laptop . . . There was a common refrain among acquaintances of Adam Lanza: I knew of him but I didn’t know him.” Monsters whose stories they headline: “the quiet, friendless boy whom no one knew.”
I read his story and I cry, because I was that quiet, friendless girl whom no one knew. I was the girl with a label that defined everything I said, did, and thought because I thought it had to. Once you’re called shy, you feel like you can never be anything else, that you can’t stand above it. That’s just who you are, and if you try to step out of that and be outgoing and be vulnerable, you’ll disrupt every notion every person has ever formed about you. “I thought you were shy,” they’d say, and just like that, you recede and become what they expect you to be, not wanting the attention for being unexpected. But that’s what we crave. We crave being unexpected. We are not shyness and we don’t deserve to be stuck with it.
I’m probably going to post this on my blog. I’m probably going to wince at what I didn’t say, and I’m probably going to want to hide under a rock for what I do say. I’ll probably have that moment when I realize I’ve spewed my insecurities in front of a bunch of faceless strangers and silent friends, and I’ll say, “Gee, Ari. You probably shouldn’t have done that. How embarrassing.”
But I am not you, shy. I may know you better than anyone else, I may often be motivated by you, and I may often feel defeated by you. But I am not you, nor am I less of a person for struggling with you. God gives us weaknesses so that we can overcome them, not so that we can become them.
No one should be defined by their silence.
And for the record, that includes me.