Today I made small talk with the girl at the coffee shop and laughed with a bank teller. I welcomed a new Dad to music class with a smile and I looked him right in the eye, too. None of these small actions seems like a big deal, but if you knew me at age twelve or fifteen or even twenty-one, you might be surprised. I’m an introvert who used to be socially awkward with a capital ‘A’, and my discomfort was rooted in a belief I’ve had to excavate and remove from my psyche over the years: other people are better than me.
This belief settled into my bones around junior high, so you can imagine what it was like to go to school, and my after-school job was similarly scary. I started working at a video store at age fourteen, and the customer interaction was terrifying and exhausting. Once home, I would pay for delivery pizza for me and my sisters and then pay one of them to answer the door. Back then, I didn’t know that introverts need time alone to process their social activity and re-energize, and even if I did know that, there was no quiet place for me to go in our little house. And, truthfully, even if I could have found a time and place for quiet, I would likely have eschewed time with myself anyway. Who would want to spend time with me? I certainly didn’t.
I remember the day it started to shift. I was at a work event with my husband’s colleagues and I was maybe twenty-three years old. It was fancy and there was an open bar, which I had never seen before, and I remember everyone was really dressed up and well spoken. One dignified man and his wife approached us to say hello and I got through that greeting okay, but then the couple stuck by us, which was paralyzing. The man asked me questions about my college experience and early career and he listened for my answers. He was interested. And I remember thinking, in exclamatory fully formed sentences,
“I am worth just as much as every person here. My opinion matters. Imagine that!”
I had never consciously confronted the ingrained belief that I was somehow “less-than” every other person in my path. Suddenly feeling and knowing it as a lie was a real revelation.
Today I make a conscious effort to try to see people where they are, to connect with them and lift them up, though some days are more successful than others. I know well the power of engagement and encouragement, especially with my students, but also out in the mundane world. Who knows where a smile or a kind word or a sincere question might land in the life of someone longing to be seen?
I’ll always be an introvert, but now I’m an introvert with a hidden super power. I can use my limited social energy to pour in to the people in my path, and when I do, it always pays off, maybe in ways I can’t see. That man at the work event never knew the reach of his kindness in my life. Imagine the reach of our own.
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