Hope for the hopelessly shy

Illustration by Neal Alday

Hope for the hopelessly shy

ALWAYS RIGHT NOW - Alex Almario (The Philippine Star) - September 22, 2017 - 4:00pm

This is the worst time to be an introvert. The world is ruled by bluster, noise, populism and whatever the hell Taylor Swift is doing lately that is getting everyone so angry. To be quiet, sensitive and shy is to be rendered irrelevant in this age of grandstanding.  I’m sure our elders didn’t know that it would be turned upside down by overconfident men (mostly men). They couldn’t possibly have foreseen the same assertiveness they extolled revitalizing racism or justifying daily murders. They couldn’t have envisioned a future corrupted by self-assuredness, bravado, or cocksure recklessness. These are the same people, after all, who believed that the meek shall inherit the earth.

I have always been terribly shy. It’s a problem that hounded me in grade school, where the prospect of reciting a poem in class made me cry so much that I couldn’t memorize it anymore, and it’s a problem I still deal with today. I fight nervousness during presentations or when having to meet new people. When I was a kid, my parents always told me to believe in myself whenever they saw me shrinking in the moment. I didn’t understand what that meant at the time. I already had belief in myself, I thought. It wasn’t like I hated myself; I was too young for thoughts like that and Nirvana hadn’t released “Nevermind” yet. What I hated was the glare of others. And I couldn’t really understand why.

There are so many things I know now that I wish I knew then. Shyness, as psychologists have pointed out, isn’t necessarily the result of low self-esteem, but rather of a crippling fear of embarrassment. There’s a world of difference between the two: the former is inward and more deep-seated, while the latter is outward and often imaginary. That is why shyness isn’t an exclusively introverted trait. Extroverts get their energy from interacting with other people but this does not make them impervious to shame.

But introverts are the ones more prone to shyness. They do not rely on the outside world for energy and thus feel less compelled to overcome their fear of embarrassment. As a kid, I didn’t know that’s what shyness was, that the key was just growing immune to being stared at or laughed at. So as a teen I started thinking that maybe there was something wrong with me. Maybe I hated myself after all. On a related note: Nirvana released “Nevermind” around that time.

I don’t hate myself anymore, at least not more than any regular self-aware person does. And I do understand myself better now. I now know that being introverted means being overly sensitive, not necessarily in the you-really-hurt-my-feelings sort of way but more in the I-feel-everything-and-everyone-right-now kind of way. In his essay “E Unibus Pluram,” the notoriously shy David Foster Wallace wrote about television as a refuge for the socially awkward. “Lonely people tend rather to be lonely because they decline to bear the emotional costs associated with being around other humans,” he wrote. “People affect them too strongly. But lonely people, home, alone, still crave sights and scenes.” That’s the introvert’s paradox: interest in other people that’s so genuine and pure, they become terrifying.

The world could definitely use some of this introverted sensitivity now. The same sensitivity that allows us introverts to think inward first before acting outward, that allows us to listen more than we talk, to feel what other people feel, to see equality as a non-negotiable value. Sensitivity and shyness used to be trendy back in the aught when Belle and Sebastian sounded revolutionary and Garden State’s Zach Braff and 500 Days of Summer’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt were the ideal male romantic leads, all that twee hard work became undone by a few elections and a bunch of fake social media posts.

But worry not, my shy brethren. Whatever happens in the outside world, we’re going to be fine. We have richly decorated inner worlds and they were built for times like these. In the apocalypse, only the creatures burrowed deep underground will survive. And if the world does persist, we just need to find our niche amid the loud voices. Maybe this is the perfect time to be an introvert after all. Maybe shyness holds more value in an increasingly brazen world.

I feel like I’m in a position to give useful advice to all shy kids out there, as an extremely shy person who has accomplished some modicum of success. I mean, I’m obviously not a big achiever, but I’m also not an abject failure. I am gainfully employed and I have achieved my childhood dream of becoming a published writer.

Here’s my advice: find that thing that you like about yourself. It’s there, even if you rightfully believe that you hate yourself. There’s this Friedrich Nietzsche quote I got, not from actually reading Nietzsche, but from reading a Juliana Hatfield interview in Spin magazine in the ’90s that I never forgot: “Whoever despises himself still respects himself as one who despises.” What Nietzsche means — or what I think he means — is that hating oneself is ultimately a symptom of a deep love for something else. And that love can inevitably be found within.

You have to look for that thing inside you that you love and hold on to it dearly. That is your truth. That is your lighthouse. Forget what the rest of the world tells you. Every person in history who’s ever mattered has held close to their one true thing — every great artist, scientist, or visionary. I’m not saying that you’ll inevitably be successful like them if you do this. Most weird people fail; otherwise, “weird” wouldn’t even be a word. But what you’ll have in common with the Steven Spielbergs and the Albert Einsteins, even if you’re not as successful, is an unquestioned integrity. And if you have that, if you stay true to yourself, then your definition of “success” will change. It won’t be about being rich or directing a great film or writing an iconic book or being the Voice Of Your Generation. It won’t even be about recognition. It will only be about being loyal to that true thing inside you. Then you’ll be able to tell yourself, on your deathbed, that you never, not once, got lost.

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