I might be mistaken but I sometimes get the feeling we are living in an era of self-consciousness, self-analysis and self-exploration. In other words, an era of self. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. One of the latest studies about the self concerns shyness. A phenomenon that many suffer from. In some cultures social interaction is taught, encouraged even. The United States is a good example where children have social activities that go beyond school hours. In other cultures school and after school life are completely separated safe for some occasional friends that one might have. When I was young I grew up rather quiet and shy. I always believed had I grown up in the United States, I would have overcome this shyness because I would have been taught to do so. But maybe that is not true at all.
There are two different forms of shyness. One can be introvert and one can be socially anxious. When you are introvert, there is nothing you can do but simply embrace your quiet self. You were born that way, it is who you are. Social anxiety however is something that is forced upon you. Life experiences convince you that people are judgmental, and you begin to believe that if you risk doing something, or be something, people will look down on you. Introversion and social anxiety seem to be one and the same, but the differences are easy to identify. When you are introvert by nature, you enjoy being by yourself or with a small group of close friends. It energizes you. It is what you choose to do. Social anxiety is something completely different.
As I mentioned before, I grew up rather shy. I didn’t have many friends and was happy to be left alone. Or so I thought. Growing older I realized it went much deeper than that. When people started a conversation with me, I’d answer short and avoided eye contact. If I got invited to a party, I often came up with some reason not to go, or to leave early. Company parties are among the worst and I rather text than call someone. These are not the signs of introversion. These are the signs of social anxiety. Something that has contaminated my personality at very young age already, as I knew, unconsciously, that I was different. And so did my peers. I was more sensitive. I was more emotional. I had other interests. Before being sexual active, before even having any knowledge of such, I was growing up becoming a homosexual. And simply that fact set me apart from the other kids. I wasn’t invited to play football, and I didn’t mind because I didn’t like it. Still don’t. I wasn’t asked to play rough games because I was the quiet one. Instead I spent time by myself, drawing, reading, building things. I had a creative spirit and many other children didn’t understand me.
I’d like to think I grew up OK. I made a successful career in the creative sector. I have friends. Not that many but they are close. I go out and meet people though I am more comfortable at events where contact is airy than parties where one is supposed to engage in conversation. I am lucky because I am by nature introvert and thus social anxiety that was “forced” upon me simply became an extension of my personality. Not always easy but easy enough to deal with. But what if your are extrovert and society holds you down. What if you have a natural expressive personality but are cut off from social interaction because you were taught you were different. You might get your energy from people, but be afraid of them at the same time. So you really want to go to lunch with your coworkers, but worry they don’t want you there. Or you’d like to host a dinner party, but be afraid you’ll be judged as being inadequate. This is a no-win situation that we can not let happen to anyone. Installing social anxiety in people is simply a different way of bullying and, now more then ever, we need to teach our children that it is wrong. People are different from each other but that doesn’t make them anything less or less interesting. Everyone has his own right on his own little space in our society and culture. I am glad we are living in the era of self because finally we start to learn what our behaviour does to others, how we influence them, sometimes for life. And if we realize that, maybe we can change that so everyone has a fair chance for a happy life. Welcome to the quiet revolution. –BM-
Cover photography by Kris Micallef, featuring Michal Vavrin.
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