As someone with a very big family, I grew up with a collection of nicknames.
“Erry-Scary” and “Twiggy” were the two that stuck, though all of these nicknames alluded to the fact that I was a very small child. I was small not, only in stature, but in temperament as well. I was (and still am) very shy.
The term “shy” is defined as being nervous or timid in the company of other people. This definition makes sense because that’s exactly what happens to me in new social situations. I am overwhelmed and my prefrontal cortex seems to abandon me in new relationships, taking my confidence and ability to speak with it! I typically slip into the background and quietly observe. I become quite small.
My shyness is something I’ve grappled with for most of my life, not only because it makes navigating life somewhat challenging but because I am constantly labeled it. Shyness is not a new concept and I can confidently say that everyone has experienced it at some point in their lives. It really is normal.
But, why then, are we viewed as being less capable or “less than” when compared to those who either don’t get shy or are simply better at hiding it?
This label made high school an infuriating experience for me. I attended a small private school in South Africa. Like so many others, my school seemed to hold loudness and confidence at the top of their criteria for what supposedly makes a good leader. Leadership was recognized with titles like captain, head of house or a prefect. High school felt a bit like a race in this way – competing to be the best, the fastest, the most charismatic. As an overachieving perfectionist, I nothing more than to be one of those three things. But the reality was that those positions had already been filled within the first month of school, the race merely a show to make it look fair.
By the time I was in my final year, I had begrudgingly accepted that I had been placed in a box labeled “shy.”
Unfortunately, this box meant that I supposedly didn’t have what it took to lead and I was never made captain or a prefect.
Funnily enough, though, I was made head of house (much to everyone’s surprise). Head of house was the “ugly stepsister” of leadership roles. Our job was to create spirit and organize inter-house events. It was a big responsibility but it wasn’t announced in an assembly like the others. A few of us were nominated by our peers and the leaders were chosen by a show of hands.
Prior to this, I had been flirting with a very cute boy in the year below me. This particular boy belonged to the box labeled “cheeky and confident” and when he put up his hand to vote for me, everyone seemed to follow. Before I knew it, it was announced that I was head of house.
My best friend and I found this to be completely hilarious.
I had rigged the system without any effort at all. What at first seemed like a bit of a joke, turned out to be something I absolutely loved. I was never going to be the girl who stood in front of 100 children screaming, “we’ve got spirit yes we do!”
But I was the girl that managed to get every kid to their sports event on time. I was the girl who organized and made hundreds of costumes and float decorations. I was the girl that people felt safe coming to when they were uncomfortable or uneasy. I was a good leader…much to my surprise!
Looking back, this shouldn’t have been such a shock to me.
I like being in control and helping others achieve something and I have always been this way. But in high school, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I didn’t deserve that position or that “Erry-Scary” wasn’t and wouldn’t be enough. I had internalized all of the negative connotations that had come to be associated with my timid nature.
We need to challenge the assumptions we make about shy people; those who are labeled and categorized as quiet and “less than” because we are so much more. We are the ones who listen and who watch – we take in all the nuances.
It’s high time we began embracing these qualities in people instead of forcing them into boxes we are clearly too big for.