How Theater Taught Me the Difference Between ‘Introverted’ Vs. ‘Shy’

a stage represents an introvert actor overcoming shyness

I will always be an introvert — someone who prefers quiet alone time — but shyness was something I could overcome with the help of the stage.

“You’re so quiet.” 

“Oh, she’s just shy.”

At a parent-teacher conference, one teacher told my parents I should “smile more.” 

Yes, really.

Since the “quiet revolution” of Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, and the subsequent attention on introversion, people have shared stories about how stigma surrounds introverts, and about how “introverted” and “shy” are two very different things

And yet there are still introverts — and/or shy people — who think there’s something “wrong” with them. Who read “extroverted” as a required trait on a job description. Who fear they’re boring because they’d rather stay home, alone, than go to a party. Who berate themselves when they think of the perfect comeback three hours later. 

For years, I struggled with confidence, fear of missing out, and others’ opinions, without truly understanding myself. I will always be an introvert, but shyness can come and go — and people should not see either as a negative trait. 

Yet there was an ironic way I accepted my introversion and figured out that it was separate from my shyness.

I got up on a stage. 

Stay with me here as I back up a bit.

A Creative Introvert in Elementary School

Growing up in the ‘90s, people didn’t talk about introversion. People like me were “quiet” and “shy” and on the edges a lot. Social groups, sports teams — I wasn’t gregarious or aggressive, and was always a bit timid. 

And a bookworm. Early on in elementary school, I got in trouble for this. I’d propped my latest library find safely — or so I thought — under my desk. And my teacher caught me. 

Never mind that I was reading above grade level, or that I’d already finished the assignment. What else was I supposed to do? Talk to my neighbor? (Not allowed — and I wasn’t really a talker anyway.) Jump ahead in the workbook? (Also not allowed — plus, I’d already done that.) Nap? (Yeah, probably not.) 

Reading helped me recharge, I realized in retrospect, after whatever social interactions I’d had that day. Group projects, circle time, and desk pods were king in elementary school. (I can see some of you fellow introverts cringing right now.) Quiet reading or writing time was my favorite part of every school day; I’d take as much of it as I could get.

The point is: Though I had some wonderful teachers, school didn’t lend itself to my introversion until fifth grade. That year, there was plenty of time to read, write, or listen to my teacher read aloud. And my teacher recognized that I could write. She read one of my writing prompt responses to the class as an example of a quality essay, gave me a copy of a young writers’ magazine, and encouraged me to keep writing stories. In short, she recognized that I was this quiet, creative kid.

But then she gave me the lead in the class play. (I know!)

How Performing Turned Shyness Into Confidence

Believe it or not, I was more excited than nervous. (And I was definitely nervous.) But someone thought that I, the “quiet” girl, could be the lead! I’d had a small, three-line role in the fourth-grade play (my extroverted, outgoing friends got the big parts). Much as I cheered them on, I envied them. I wanted the bigger roles. Not just to be “cool” and prove that I wasn’t shy or quiet, but because theater was fun for me: bringing a story to life and entertaining people with it. 

And I could become someone else on stage; I wasn’t in the role of “Shy Girl 1” or “Awkward Kid 2,” as I sometimes felt in real life. Through theater, I wanted to prove myself while pretending to be someone else. 

So I learned my lines, reminded myself not to say “like” or “um,” and summoned the courage to look the other actors in the eye. Bit by the theater bug, summer theater camp and a supporting role in the school play followed in seventh grade. 

And then I got voted “Most Quiet” for eighth-grade superlatives, which stung after my recent confidence boosts. I was still pretty insecure about the label “quiet” as I rolled on into high school (as I hadn’t learned to embrace it yet).

Outside of school, I joined community theater and made friends with other theater kids. At rehearsals, we’d hang out and chat quietly, play cards, read, or watch the scene on stage (introvert-friendly activities, now that I think about it). I wasn’t “shy” around them. 

In that comfortable setting, my confidence grew: When I hit a high note among a chorus of singers, I became less afraid to sing alone. When I nailed a choreography step in rehearsal, I knew I could dance in front of other people (I’m not exactly coordinated). And when I projected my voice to hit the back wall of the theater, I dared anyone to call me “quiet.”

But at home, before or after rehearsals, and on off days, you could find me chilling in a hammock with a book. That “recharge time” again.

When my drama teacher gave me the lead in the high school play, it was fifth grade all over again; I was just a little freshman auditioning among the veteran drama club kids. But this role with 200-plus lines meant I had a big responsibility to crush it. Yet if my teacher thought I could do it, I had to start believing I could do it, too.

My introvert self got up on stage again, which fueled my confidence. I did more shows throughout high school and joined my college’s Broadway revue group. By then, nobody would have guessed that I’d once been the “quiet” or “shy” kid. And I liked it that way. I even wrote my college admissions essay about how theater “brought me out of my shell.”

But there was a big problem with this: I was lying to myself a little. 

an introvert acting on stage
Me, an introvert on stage

Introversion Vs. Fake Extroversion Vs. Myself

Here’s the thing: I was kind of exhausted. I’ll admit I was more extroverted in college, at least early on; perhaps an extroverted introvert. I wasn’t all that shy anymore, largely because of theater, yet I still viewed “shy” as a negative thing. But back then, I also conflated shyness and introversion. Theater both helped me with my shyness and confused me. 

So I often took up the extrovert mantle of expectations for behavior. Enter “fear of missing out,” stage left. I felt guilty sometimes for saying, no, I didn’t want to go out and be social. I hated seeming boring or uncool, determined for people not to see me as the shy kid. But my introversion protested. 

That fear and guilt started to dissipate after I entered post-college adult life; I started to care less about what others thought. I appreciated how much I enjoyed spending time on my own, whether reading, traveling, writing, or walking. After a workday at an “extroverted” job, I loved Friday nights when I could curl up with a glass of wine and watch a movie. And I didn’t feel uncool for not socializing. 

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The Lightbulb Moment: Introversion Wins (So to Speak)

Fast forward to three years after college. It was the 25th anniversary of the founding of my college’s Broadway revue group. My best friend and I planned to go together. I was excited to sit back and enjoy the show, because I’d never actually seen it as an audience member; I’d always been in it. 

Several people had organized an alumni musical number, however, and I contemplated joining in. That little flicker of guilt was back. But I fought it off this time. All I really wanted was to watch the whole show quietly with my friend, who’d been one of our most loyal fans throughout college, without having to be “on” at all. 

Did I finally appreciate that I was having an introverted moment, so to speak, and that it was okay to “miss out”? Yes! The truth was, I wasn’t “missing out” at all — I was exactly where I wanted to be. And, ultimately, theater helped me figure that out. I’d become confident enough with myself to say “no.” 

Theater also helped me understand the difference between introversion and shyness; it helped me become less shy … but it also taught me that I needed to embrace my introversion. (And I didn’t need to “smile more” to do that.)

In learning that the two traits are separate, I figured out how to embrace them, not shun them. (I’m still shy in some situations, and now I know that there’s nothing wrong with that!)

I recognize and appreciate the kid that my fifth grade teacher had seen, the quiet, creative, writerly type who could bring energy to a stage, but who was also fine — and happy — just the way she was.

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