The Unspoken Words of a Shy Introvert

“You’re so quiet!” “Do you talk?” “I used to think you were mute!” Were just a few of the things that I heard while growing up. The thing about being a quiet person is that people feel the need to tell you from the get-go that you are.

Person: “Hello there!”

Me: “Hi!”

Person: “Wow you’re quiet!” 

 

I was told at an early age by family members as well as by teachers that my quiet personality would hinder me in life and that it was something that I needed to “overcome”. There were many times where I was led to believe that my timidity and introversion were things that I should be ashamed of and that I should strive to be the girl that was chatty and commanded attention. I also thought that in order to get and keep friends that I needed to be outgoing and spontaneous. But no matter how hard I tried to be talkative, I found myself retreating to the nice cozy places in my mind, observing and listening, talking little. 

Before I continue, it is important to note that shyness and introversion are not the same thing and are not to be used interchangeably. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), shyness can be defined as, “The tendency to feel awkward, worried or tense during social encounters, especially with unfamiliar people”. Introversion on the other hand is when an individual feels the most at ease and “energized” when they are alone and even though they are not necessarily uncomfortable in social settings, they are reserved and introspective. Although many of the times these two personality traits go hand in hand, there are many people who are introverted but not shy and visa versa. My tendency to feel worried or tense in social and unfamiliar settings as well as my inclination towards solitude and self-reflection makes me a carrier of both of these traits. My goal here is to start a conversation about the issues and struggles that shy and/or introverted people face as well as bring to light our very many strengths and key attributes.

STRUGGLES:

1. People may Think you're Mean or a Sociopath

I’ve been told by several of my friends that they thought I was mean before they even met me but came to the realization that I was actually very nice! The thing is, it is not uncommon to think that someone is mean or standoffish because they choose not to speak (I'm also guilty of this). Most people may think, “He/she is not talking because they don’t like me”, but the reality is that the individual may feel more comfortable with just listening and observing rather than talking. Being quiet is not equivalent to being mean.

And I’m sure that we’ve all heard the phrase, “It’s always the quiet ones!” If you haven’t heard this saying, it’s basically in reference to the fact that many serial killers and murderers throughout history were described as quiet and reserved by their friends and family. I can’t speak for the individuals who went on killing sprees but I can say that most of us quiet folk are just thinking about what show we’re going to binge watch next on Netflix!

 

2. It can be Difficult to Carry out Conversations

I’ve always found it pretty difficult to carry out conversations with people, especially people that I don’t know very well. There have been so many times where I would be asked a question and although I knew the answer to it, getting the words out to form a coherent sentence is an absolute hassle. Whenever this happens, I’m always afraid that I will come across as dense! And as someone who wants to become a leader in the field of public health, my biggest fear is for people to question my intelligence because I may struggle with words.

 

3. It can be Difficult to Excel in Group and Social Settings

As we all know, group conversations and socials are the place for stories, jokes, and laughter. In most group conversations, everyone has something that they want to say but the trick is to speak before anyone else decides to or before the topics changes. For people who are comfortable in social settings this may seem like a simple task, but for us quiet folk it can be a bit of a challenge. There have been many times where I found myself in a very interesting or funny group conversation and I had so much that I wanted to say but I feared that I would stumble on my words or get talked over because I was not loud enough. And the worst part of it all is that when I finally muster up the courage to actually say what is on my mind, the topic changes.

 

4. People may View your Quietness as Weakness

A good example of this would have to come from one of my favorite movies called “Nerve”. What I liked about the movie was how real the characters were, more specifically Vee. When the film first introduces her, a few adjectives may come to mind. Talented. Troubled. Timid. In one scene in the movie, Sydney, Vee’s friend, tells her that she’s just a “Watcher” rather than a “Player”, referring to the hip new game that many people in the city were engaging in. In other words, Vee is just someone who sits on the sidelines watching the “players” get praised for being outgoing and spontaneous.

Unfortunately there have been several instances in my life where I was made to believe that my reserved personality was a flaw, many of those instances taking place in school. A prime example of this took place during my junior year in high school. My friends and I participated in a conference for a health organization that we were a part of and our task was to effectively present on a topic of public health concern. It was the first time that I was really stepping outside of my comfort zone and doing something that most shy and or introverted people fear, public speaking. After several practice runs, one of my teammates suggested that we should present in front of one of our teachers so that they could critique and suggest how we could improve. My other teammates were very pleased with the idea and agreed to do it. But I sat in my silent misery because I knew that our teacher would not go easy on us. I was right. 

We stood in front of her, one by one presenting our information. Although not perfect, I felt good about my performance and felt that I was loud, clear, and professional. Once we got done she went down the line, critiquing each of my team mates, giving most of them pretty good remarks and appreciating the fact that they were clear, confident, and full of energy. But when she turned to me it was clear that she was about to drill a hole through my soul. She looked directly at me and went, “You look like you don’t want to be here” and proceeded to criticize my personality for what seemed like an eternity. She went on about how my part was unmemorable and would not impress the judges. As someone who was no stranger to people treating me like my personality was an impairment, the last thing that I needed was a teacher making me feel like I was an ant. My teammates realized that things were getting pretty intense and tried to lighten up the situation by saying things like, “It’s okay, that’s just how she is. She’s just a quiet person”. Our teacher then proceeded to say, that it was probably because my parents raised me that way. This shocked me beyond repair because here was a woman who knew nothing about me making such a huge assumption. What’s worse is that she made it seem like it was such a shame that I was shy and that it was due to my upbringing, which was completely false. Towards the end she goes on to say that our presentation was good but, “Some of you aren’t the best at presenting. You know who you are”. At this point it took everything in me not to start bawling. The whole ordeal took a big hit on my self esteem and brought many feelings of inadequacy. 

A very good friend of mine, Hanna, who is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Biostatistics (You go girl!) provides a very good example of how quietness can be taken for weakness. In a Ph.D. program you are assigned a Principal Investigator (PI) aka a Professor who will serve as your mentor and assist you in designing and carrying out a research project. As a requirement, the Professor evaluates your performance during the semester including your strengths and weaknesses. When Hanna met up with her Principal Investigator she was told that her weakness was that she was “too quiet” and shy throughout the semester and that she should “talk more”. Hanna then expressed to her that although she is quiet, she is not shy and is not fearful of talking or interacting with others. She simply finds comfort in observing and reflecting, rather than talking. Hanna expressed to me that what her Principal Investigator deemed as a weakness is actually a strength and it allows her to be successful in her work and her studies. 

 

5. May have Feelings of Inadequacy

I can attest to the fact that many of us who are shy and/or introverted have struggled with thoughts of inadequacy. We live in a world that is seemingly designed for extroversion as well as those who excel at social interactions, making it difficult for the rest of us to thrive. These thoughts of inadequacy stem from years of being scolded or questioned for not talking and engaging more in conversation and in social settings; and I must say it is quite frustrating living in a world that views quietness as a flaw and not as a personality trait that is unique and has its strengths as I will mention below.

 

STRENGTHS

Even through the struggles that we face both internally and externally, we are filled with positive characteristics and STRENGTHS. And to go back on the words of my friend, Hanna, the qualities that people may deem as weaknesses can in fact be what allows us to be successful. Some of our strengths include the fact that we are:

  • Observant
  • Insightful
  • Good listeners
  • Artistic (Reading, writing, drawing, etc)
  • Good judges of character
  • Self Reliant
  • Once you get to know us we’re pretty damn funny

These characteristics allow us to succeed in whatever we invest in such as friendships, hobbies, careers and make us good leaders as well. In fact, there are quite a few leaders and successful men and women throughout history that were shy and/or introverted, including:

  1. Mahatma Gandhi; He even once said, “In a Gentle way you can shake the World”
  2. Albert Einstein
  3. Rosa Parks
  4. J.K. Rowling
  5. Bill Gates
  6. Mark Zuckerberg 

The important thing to mention here is that people should learn to understand and accept our quietness rather than scold us for it. Although it can be difficult for us to excel in social settings or step outside of our comfort zones, we are not weak. No one wants to be told that they’re personality is flawed and that they should strive to be something that they are not. We are not in need of correction, instead we are in need of the people around us to understand that we simply are not like everyone else and that is absolutely okay.