Growing up, I suffered from a crippling mix of shyness and introversion. I enjoyed solitary and one-on-one play, but in groups, active play gave way to quiet observation.
Even in my early teens, engaging in conversation with a stranger was anathema to me. I avoided it at all costs – no small feat considering that this was the era before digital communication. A boon to modern-day introverts, there was no email, texting, social media, or online shopping to create the social cushion needed to interact in an extrovert’s world. So, something as simple as calling to order a pizza filled me with sweaty-palmed, heart-racing anxiety. In line at the movies or McDonald’s, I would pass my money to a friend and ask them to order for me – and feel further chagrinned at their eye-rolling acceptance of my aversions.
In her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, author Susan Cain describes the core of the introvert: “Introverts…prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues, and family. They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions.”
Put me in a classroom, though, and I became another person entirely – a dichotomy I and those close to me found difficult to understand and reconcile. I was one of those kids. I always had my hand raised high to answer a question, any question – complete with that hyped-up ‘pick me, pick meeee!’ look on my face. I spoke with confidence and conviction. Then I’d slink out of class and turtle back into my protective shell.
Then I found myself in Mr. Sheehan’s Grade 11 English class. He saw me for who I was, and who I could be – in the classroom, and in life – the mark of a remarkable teacher. His passion for literature ignited the slow-burning desire that I, a life-long bookworm, had always had to be a writer. Writers were shy, solitary, and socially awkward, right? I could hide behind my words, using them to engage the world beyond my internalized one.
Except Mr. Sheehan saw that too, and wanted more from me, for me. One day, he came to me and told me that I would be joining the school’s debate team, and he would be entering me into an upcoming public speaking contest. Shocked and stunned doesn’t begin to cover my reaction. “Thank you, Sir. But…I can’t do that. There’s no way,” I stammered when I’d managed to drag my jaw up off the floor. His simple reply: “That wasn’t a question, Miss Burgess. You will do this.”
Surprisingly to everyone who knew me – myself included – I did. Before my first debate, my heart was in my throat, tremors of anxiety chasing rippling waves of nausea through my body. When I opened my mouth to speak, I couldn’t be certain what would come out – my carefully prepared remarks, or my lunch. Then something transformational happened: A sense of calm washed over me, and I heard my own voice ring out, emotive, persuasive and confident. I came in second overall in my age category for that first outing – and I floated back to school on an adrenaline pumping high. I’d found my drug of choice.
Flash forward to today. I’ve built a wildly successful career – one best suited to an extrovert. I started out as an entertainment journalist, transitioned to PR, enjoyed a stint as a branding consultant, went back to PR, and then shifted to the account side of advertising. I talk to strangers almost every day. It still makes me squirm inside (that loathing of small talk). I give presentations regularly for work, and in my personal life, I’m the person called upon to deliver speeches at weddings and funerals. Still, each time I speak in public, anxiety and nausea precede the calm that allows me to perform.
So why court the anxiety? Years ago, I participated in a cognitive behavioural therapy trial for people with social anxiety disorder. The psychiatrists weren’t quite sure what to make of me. I defied their neat and tidy profile by regularly and voluntarily putting myself into situations that the socially anxious avoid. I do it for that performance high. Except it comes at a high cost – something writer Rosa Brooks describes (albeit from a different angle) in a recent Washington Post article entitled Recline, don’t ‘Lean In’ (Why I hate Sheryl Sandberg).
When ‘leaning in’ leaves me hollowed out, I – a learned ambivert – lean back, and tap into the introvert within. I sit in silence with my dogs curled beside me, keeping me tethered to the real world as I let my thoughts fly to imaginary ones. I retreat into the rich tapestry of my mind, pulling at thoughts like loose threads, and weaving others together. Some of my best and most creative ideas are born in those moments of quiet introspection. Other times, I shed the outside world and lose myself in a book, or take the time to write. And I am whole again.
To quote Susan Cain once more: “The next time you see a person with a composed face and a soft voice, remember that inside her mind, she might be solving an equation, composing a sonnet, designing a hat. She might, that is, be deploying the powers of quiet.”