Taking Off My Mask

I grew up always trying to fade into the background. In high school I was voted (on an open ballot) as the 2nd-most shy person in the whole school. I was surprised that that many people knew my name! It made me realize that other people actually did see me despite my efforts for them not to, and that they had perceptions of who I was based on my quietness.

I didn’t like it. Being called stoic and shy made me seem unfriendly, unsociable, uninterested in the world and the people around me. The label didn’t really fit me—I had a solid group of friends I hung out with during and after school. I could act silly and laugh louder than any of them. The fact was, I was very social once I was comfortable with someone or a group of someones. The word shy was just what people who didn’t know me called me. I needed a new label.

In college I learned a new word: introversion. Susan Cain, the author of New York Times Bestseller Quiet and the blog Quiet Revolution describes the difference this way:

“Shyness is the fear of negative judgment, and introversion is a preference for quiet, minimally stimulating environments.”

A light dawned! I realized I was both shy and introverted, and I wanted to ditch the first label and learn to wear the second with pride.

I began by taking stock of my personality. I’ve always had a playful side that could be drawn out naturally by my friends, and I’ve always needed to rest after coming home from school or work or parties. I found out that that was an introvert thing rather than a shy thing, and I started to own that aspect of my personality. I’d also noticed that people (introvert and extrovert alike, myself included) are drawn to others who exhibit friendliness, vitality, and love for life.

When I joined a leadership team in college, which meant interacting with a lot of people, I took what I’d learned about introversion and formed a new habit: give people all the vitality, boisterousness, laughter, and friendliness I could manage while I was with them, and then recover by crawling in a hole for hours afterward. It wasn’t my natural style, but something I “put on” for the sake of loving and leading others. Essentially, being an introvert in leadership meant acting like an extrovert when around people, and then indulging in more introverted things like silence and solitude at home.

I operated like this happily. In leadership, in friendship, in romance. I was so good at it in certain contexts that some people who only knew me in public were surprised if they found out I was an introvert.

Over the years my behavior slowly morphed into an uncontrollable pattern of compartmentalizing myself, of wearing and taking off an extroverted mask, of being an introvert only in private.

Until I couldn’t anymore.

I was in China on a 6 week linguistic and cultural exchange, partnered with a Chinese college student who had signed up for the program to become more fluent in English. The program put this student and I together nearly 24 hours a day—as roommates, seat mates in class, bus mates while traveling, and dining hall buddies. The rules of the program made us inseparable, so I had nowhere to go to be alone to recharge, and I couldn’t sustain my extroverted output for 6 weeks. That meant only one thing: I was going to be forced to be an introvert in the presence of other people! I didn’t even know how to make an attempt, it was so unfamiliar. But I didn’t have any other option—I could no longer keep up the charade.

Those 6 weeks were a gift to me. I got a glimpse of who I could be if I started to accept myself, even aspects of myself that make others uncomfortable. When I got back to the US and to my regular routine, I fell back into my old habit, but for the first time, I was repulsed by it. So I began looking for new ways to be an introvert at work, with friends, in romance. I started making decisions and asking for concessions that would free me to be myself with people. Straight-faced, reserved, observant from the sidelines, emailing instead of calling, laughing at people’s jokes and antics only when I actually find it uproariously funny.

Don’t get me wrong, if something important (and temporal) is on the line, like an interview, I’ll definitely up the ante on my sociability. But in normal everyday life and work, I’m trying to let the natural introversion show.

I think it makes some uncomfortable, especially if they knew me “the other way.” But for once I’m learning to become comfortable being and accepting myself. That’s a worthy trade-off.

I hope and I pray that any other introverts out there wearing masks can find that same freedom.