When strangers, acquaintances and family members lavish my daughter Sisi with attention, she rarely reciprocates; at least not right away. I find myself making excuses for her lack of charisma. ”Oh, she’s just shy.” ”She’s not very social right now.” ”She’s a little tired/grumpy/out of it today, I’m sorry.” But by now, Sisi can probably understand these excuses I’m making. And even long before she could speak, I am sure she could read my apologetic/exasperated tone and sense my embarrassment.
Just the other day, we were in the supermarket and an old man reached out to her and said, “Hello beautiful baby!!!” Of course, she looked down and clutched her duckie blanket as I prodded her to say, “Hello! Thank you!” to no avail. Then I thought to myself, does she really need to reciprocate affection to a stranger she’s never met?
I’ve started asking myself what kind of lessons I’m teaching Sisi with these encounters. I’m teaching her that it’s not ok to be quiet or reserved. I’m teaching her that she must be charismatic and gregarious at all times, even toward strangers whom she has never met. I’m teaching her that any attention paid to her should be paid right back, and then some.
Those are the pressures I have put upon myself my entire life. I am a somewhat shy, easily overstimulated introvert. I like to be silent. I like to be alone a lot. I can drive for hours by myself without the radio on, just thinking and philosophizing. I used to think that was a nerdy, shameful way to be, but I’m just now accepting that it’s the way God made me. Sure, I can schmooze at a party, make decent small talk, or sell myself to clients if need be, but those activities are not natural to me, and therefore they drain me. I find I need lots of downtime to recharge my batteries.
I remember being so jealous of my older sister, who can light up a room with her energy and storytelling. She never seemed intimidated by crowds. Eloquent conversation came easily to her, and she could improvise and relate well to people she just met.
I am pretty much the opposite. I have a hard time socializing at cocktail parties, and I am much better at listening and asking questions that I am at talking. In fact, I would much rather write my thoughts than say them out loud because it gives me time to think and sort out my ideas in peace. These traits don’t make me the life of the party, but they do make me a thoughtful, reflective person. The world needs introverts.
Still, I’ve spent my whole life striving to be an extrovert. I’ve become really good at faking it. Those who know me might be really confused by my claims of timidity. After all, didn’t I run for student government by doing a song and dance in front of the whole school? Wasn’t I a cheerleader with great stage presence? Didn’t I win the Public Speaking award in 8th grade? Yes, by my sheer willpower to overcome my natural inclinations.
True, sometimes we just have to fake it. Ours is an extroverted society, where charm and first impressions matter, and the squeaky wheel gets the oil. If you stay in your shell where it’s comfortable, you may be overlooked and taken advantage of. You miss opportunities. But a few years ago, I started to realize I may have faked it too much and for too long, because I struggled with feeling like I had two personalities, and that I wasn’t a whole, genuine person. I also felt like my introversion was a fatal flaw to be covered up, like I needed to just get over it and start loving parties and after-church socializing, or else I’d be a bad person. I wasn’t respecting my own style of relating to the world and to others, and therefore I felt burnt out.
I believe Sisi is an introvert. She is thoughtful, incredibly observant, creative, and focused. She can read books in her room or daydream in her sandbox for hours. She is very cautious and conscientious. Loud noises, new people and places can overwhelm her, so she tends to cling to me and look down at the floor when people rush toward her with their kisses and hugs. She’s been this way from Day 1. It used to embarrass me, mostly because I worried that she was hurting others’ feelings. But is it really my two-year-old’s job to care about someone else’s feelings? Not really. It’s not like she’s a bratty, too-cool-for-school kind of kid. She can be very warm and sweet with those in her inner circle.
From now on I’m going to tell her that it’s okay to be quiet, reserved, and soft spoken. Kindness and love take many forms, and they don’t always have to come in a peppy, smiley package, no matter what the world tells us.
*I just read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, which prompted this whole train of thought. It’s really changed my life and my self-esteem. I highly recommend it for introverts and extroverts alike! The more we understand each other, the more we will appreciate each others’ strengths.
Are you an introvert or an extrovert? Are you raising an introvert or an extrovert?