Essay – Acquired Shyness

I am an introvert, of that I am absolutely certain.

Solitude is absolutely necessary for my survival. Due to a combination of my introversion and magnetic empathy, sometimes I just need total physical separation from all living humans beings just to keep my sanity.

The thing is while I have always been an introvert, I haven’t always been shy. I didn’t always suffer from the desire to be invisible. That part of my personality was acquired.

From what I’ve been told of my childhood, I was a pretty outgoing child. I talked a lot, I loved to be the center of attention, I was the organizer of my siblings. In home videos (particularly humiliating ones), I was the “look at me, look at me” child.

I only had the capacity for one or two friends at a time but I was usually in the initiator. I would find the other loners, the other kids who didn’t quite fit in and I would collect them. From what I remember, I might have even been a bit bossy. Assigning my friends rolls from the books I read that we would reenact on the play ground.

This all changed when I was going to start 7th grade. I have an older sister. Not from anything she did on purpose, she had a drastic effect on the course of my life. This is not a biography of my sister but I have to give some detail for the context of how her behavior affected me.

She has always been a rebel. She was stubborn and hated to follow rules. She wanted to do whatever she wanted (which was usually what her friends wanted her to do) without any concern for consequences. She wanted to be a grown up at 13 and nothing my parents did could stop her.

She had a particular bad streak when she entered junior high.

My mother decided that because this happened to my sister, that it would make sense to keep me at home for junior high. To keep the same thing from happening to me.

I was not a rebel. I was stubborn but I was a stubborn rule follower. I am to this day. I did not want to be a grown up. I wanted to stay a child forever. To never have to grow up and deal with the responsibilities of adulthood. This is the basis for my lifelong obsession with Peter Pan.

My sister and I could hardly have been more different. I was Wendy Darling and my sister was Rufio.

So I was homeschooled for all of 7th grade. Being an introvert and a bookworm, without the intrusion of going to school, my isolation was complete. I was a hermit. My school friends forgot me and I them.

I don’t remember much from this time except for all the reading I did. That’s pretty much all I did. Read and read and read and not have to talk to anyone.

Except for going to church with my family every Sunday, I had no social interactions for about a year. For 8th grade my mom found out that I could go to school for just PE and be home schooled for the rest of my classes. For the first half of the year this is what I did. For some reason, my mom re-enrolled me in public school for the second half of 8th grade. I don’t know what changed her mind.

Unfortunately, her preventative measure made no difference. The corrupting influence was not to be found at the school. It lived with me. My sister gave me my first cigarette when I was 12. My sister took me on shoplifting sprees with her friends under the guise of “walking the dog”. I was still being homeschooled when my sister and her friends were introducing me to the screwdriver (vodka and orange juice). I didn’t drink it. I was the confidant she used to admit that she might be pregnant. I hid her pregnancy tests. I was the one she showed the cigarette burn in her arm to, when she wanted to show her boyfriend how tough she was.

I might not have been a rebel but I certainly wasn’t a tattle tale either. She would have killed me if I’d told. I didn’t like her but I lied for her.

So in the end, the homeschooling was useless for it’s intended purpose. But it was effectual in other ways.

When I went back to public school, the differences between me and my classmates were startlingly obvious. I was still a 6th grader trying to fit in with almost high school kids. My mind had advanced due to all my reading but I was emotionally and imaginatively immature. I was even more of an outlier than I was before.

And I was painfully shy. Debilitatingly shy. I was scared of other people and the attention that they might pay me. I hated to be looked at. People talking to me terrified me. I didn’t know how to talk to people and didn’t know how to make friends anymore. My friends picked me instead of the other way around.

Somehow that year and a half of homeschool ignited and fueled the desire to be invisible that remains with me to this day.

I am not a “look at me, look at me” adult. That acquired shyness has stuck with me to some degree no matter how much I’ve tried to kill it.

It has changed a bit though. I’m a determined person who doesn’t have it in me to give up. So it’s something I’ve worked on for the last 20ish years (how old are 8th graders anyway?).

My shyness and hardship communicating with strangers is one of the biggest reasons I didn’t go to Cosmetology school right after high school. As much as I loved doing hair and makeup (and was naturally very good at it), I thought I would never be able to handle the social aspect. But when I needed a new career at 28, I had overcome my fear of people enough to give it a chance. I wasn’t scared of people anymore but I still didn’t talk to them much unless necessary.

Now that I think of it, having manic episodes regularly as part of my bipolar disorder probably helped me get past the paralyzing aspect of my shyness. Because it put me in the chatty and fearless mania that would come upon me for days, weeks or months at a time. That probably made quite a difference. Look at that silver lining.

I made a concerted effort in school to fix this defect. I approached it as I would any other problem. I analyzed it, made a plan and then worked my ass off. I went outside my comfort zone everyday. I initiated conversations by complimenting people. I tried to get to know everyone I could instead of clinging to one friend as a life preserver as was my tendency. I invited people to my house for parties (the drinking made me a different, happier, chattier person) where the social lubrication enabled me to turn my acquaintances into my friends. I made lists of conversation topics and even a script of questions to trigger conversation with clients. I learned how to small talk, little by little.

By now I might not even say I’m shy. I’m more reserved.

I can talk when I need to. But I don’t often. I still don’t like being looked at, and don’t much like attention from strangers. But it doesn’t keep me from going out. It doesn’t keep me from looking how I want to. (A essay topic for another day but having a multicolored Mohawk, double nose piercings and several obvious tattoos in a suburb of Salt Lake City Utah guarantees a certain amount of attention) I do wear hats on particularly sensitive days if I need to go out. But it doesn’t bother me as much as it used to. I’d prefer invisibility but I settle for blending in when I need to.

I guess the thing is, I don’t think it’s a defect anymore. I’ve always been very sensitive of my flaws and have worked to change those as much as I am able. And I think I’ve worked hard enough to turn this acquired flaw into just another personality trait. One that does not negatively affect my life.

I’m shy but not scared. I’m reserved but able to be social.

And now, I’m okay with that.










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