I still remember my parent-teacher conferences and report card comments. Year after year, I heard the same thing: “she’s a great student but she needs to speak up more. She needs to be more outgoing. She needs to stop being so quiet.” These words haunted me. They were a yearly reminder that despite my hard work, I was never going to be successful unless I overcame my quiet nature.
It wasn’t as if I didn’t want to change. I envied the kids who shot up their hands as soon as the teacher asked a question. Who could flawlessly recite math formulas or deftly explain why a certain passage in a book we were reading was thematically significant.
I, on the other hand, was an expert at avoiding the teacher’s eye. I’d play with my eraser, stretch, or rummage through my pencil case in order to look busy. Hoping the teacher would pass me over for another poor, unfortunate victim. If put on the spot, I’d stutter out an answer, anxious to slip back into relative anonymity for the remainder of the class. I’d then berate myself for any mistakes and my awkward delivery. Why couldn’t I be like my more eloquent classmates? I never understood how something could sound so good in my head but would fall apart as soon as I opened my mouth.
I Tried Being More Outgoing
This all lead to a sense of inferiority that began in grade school and continued to the end of my post-secondary years. I developed coping strategies that allowed me to overcome my quiet nature. I started speaking up more in class. I took a public speaking course. I willingly subjected myself to oral presentations and harsh critiques. I forced myself to be social. My circle of friends grew and I attended more social events. This helped create the façade of being an outgoing and self-assured person. No one called me quiet any more. Success, right?
I had finally become the person I had always wanted to be. But all I felt was emptiness. I didn’t enjoy the shallow conversation and gossip of acquaintances. When I was out, I wanted to be home. I wasn’t getting the deep connections I craved—but I was getting burned out. While I was finally getting the approval of others, it was to the detriment of my mental and physical health.
It wasn’t until I finished post-secondary that I discovered a 10-minute personality test that changed my life. The results of the test were so accurate it was scary. I discovered I was a perfectly normal introvert and an INFJ personality. A second test revealed that I was also highly sensitive. Finally my quiet nature made sense. It was a trait to be celebrated, not some fatal flaw.
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Unfortunately, 20 or so years of guilt cannot be erased immediately, but I keep moving forward. Here are a few things I like to remind myself of when I start feeling guilty about being quiet:
1. It’s okay to be quiet. There’s nothing wrong with you. Being quiet is completely normal and nothing to be ashamed of. We often feel pressured to contribute to group conversations, but in reality, we’re not actually obligated to say anything if we don’t want to. If someone else gets frustrated over my lack of participation, that’s their problem, not mine. Introverts tend to like to think about things before commenting, which is something that others should do, too!
2. There are many reasons we’re quiet and all of them are valid. There are so many reasons I might not be saying much. As introverts and/or highly sensitive people, we might be overwhelmed or burned out. We might not be comfortable speaking in front of those particular people. We might be shy. We might have social anxiety. Sometimes the music is too loud, or the lights are too bright. We might be bored by the conversation and planning a way out. Sometimes, we just don’t feel like talking and that’s totally fine too.
3. You don’t have to apologize. I used to apologize for being quiet. I’d say, “sorry for being so quiet, I’m just feeling tired” countless times. Apologizing for my quiet nature propagated the idea in my mind that being quiet was a negative thing. I then felt worse for being quiet and the cycle continued. You don’t need to make excuses or apologize for who you are.
4. Other people’s opinions do not change who you are. People will always make assumptions about you regardless of what you do. Sadly, if you’re quiet, they may think you’re snobby, stuck up, or shy. But I’ve started using the phrase “who cares.” I don’t care if the cashier at the grocery store thinks I’m snobby because I always use the self-checkout. I’m not defined by what others think of me. Their opinion does not reflect on who I am as a person. My value isn’t based on what others think of me.
5. You are important and valued. You are an interesting, unique, and wonderful individual full of so many strengths. You have so much to offer the world and this world is a richer place because you exist.
One of my favorite quotes by Gandhi states, “speak only if it improves on the silence.” As quiet introverts, we’re already doing that. If only more people would take his advice to heart.
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