I used to be silent. As a child I was extremely shy, thoughtful, observant. As I aged, I didn’t so much change as I adapted to my life circumstances. Once put into the social sphere of public and private schools you could only get away with being extremely quiet nestled away at home, but in a school setting (if you wanted to make friends) you’d need to find a way to speak. I found the best avenue for conversation was to ask a question or two and let those around me do the talking. I would do the listening for the entire group. Gradually I learned that I was pretty good at information retention, and I began to view myself as a walking historical reference of anything I was privy to hearing or witnessing. However almost no one could pull from the annuls of my memory as that would, of course, require speaking on my part. As time went on, I realized I had an insatiable thirst for knowledge and information as if I hadn’t absorbed so much inside of silence already. I asked more questions. Listened even more.
I remember in high school going to parties, indulging as you do, and hearing a friend of mine yell out, “I’ve never seen Rachel drunk. She’s always quiet and in control.” I found it a rather odd thing for him to exclaim to everyone in the house, but realized in that moment that it was the first time anyone had reflected back to me who I was or what I looked like from an outsiders perspective. Upon further reflection I found that on the one hand I took pride in the fact that I’d always been able to handle my alcohol or had the consciousness of mind to excuse myself before embarrassment could set in, even as a young person. On the other hand I truly saw how silent I had been all my life up until that point – the ripe old age of sixteen. People had noticed it. The thing was, I hadn’t noticed it. I knew I didn’t talk all that much publicly, but I never saw myself as silent or quiet. I was just me. Plus how was I silent when there was so much going on in my mind all of the time? I was constantly having entire conversations, dialogues and eloquent speeches with myself….to myself. I was never silent as I understood silence. That’s when I began to realize that your version of you isn’t how other people see you.
Once I entered university I found myself thrust into a a new world, a world where I could begin speaking in a more public manner. In fact it was greatly desired by instructors. Professors actually valued your interaction, feedback and opinion during their instruction. This was new to me. And shockingly, when given the opportunity for everyone around me to say their piece during a class discussion I found very few brave enough to raise a hand or utter a word. The very same people who would have waterfalls of words falling out of their mouths the second they left the room would be dead silent once the professor began. This was odd to me. But I decided this would be my training ground. A place where clearly no one would compete with me for speaking space. A place where the years of built up thought and observation could be presented and rebuffed right in front of me, in real time, by someone I would be thrilled to be critiqued by. So, I began to speak up more and more, learning, growing, being challenged and ever so gently encouraged to confidently own my voice. In the end, I actually changed my primary course of study to Communication. I studied English and writing. I studied broadcasting and theatre. I studied other languages, sociology, political science and public speaking. And in the end I found that this silent observer was a damn good speaker.
Halfway through my university experience I also found God. This is a crucial part of the story because as much as I felt the professors I was honored to learn under encouraged my participation it was truly Jesus that brought my voice to the forefront. There was something about feeling so seen; so deeply loved and accepted by Him that seemed to lure the words right out of my mouth and enrich me with boldness to stand in them. I felt I had nothing to lose when I was loved and accepted by Someone so infinitely important. But I was blessed that this spiritual metamorphosis was occurring in such an open and unrestrictive trial ground like a university campus. I was free to fail here, free to get it wrong, free to speak without large scale consequences as my perspective and intelligence shifted and changed.
Once the cage over my voice was opened it was full steam ahead. I’d earned my sea legs at speaking, maybe years or even decades later than most, but I’d earned them. Now I had to learn how to keep them in a world that wasn’t quite so nice and forgiving as university life. Seven years and many attempts at speaking through fear conjured bravery or nervousness later, and I would find that I would sometimes speak more than anyone else in a group of friends. It still blows my mind to think back on the level of internal evolution that happened in me. I had so much life, knowledge, experiences to share and I desperately wanted to share it. I almost needed to share it. I felt like I had this compulsion within me to pour out any bit of the twenty-eight years of accrued knowledge to anyone who would give me five minutes of their time. Now words were falling out of my mouth in waterfalls. Who was this new person?
The years from twenty-eight to thirty were especially exhilarating. They were years where I saw the wisdom I’d gained from so many years of silent observation, learning and shakily speaking up bear fruit in the lives of others. I had actual thought-out and fully formed opinions and beliefs I could share with inquiring minds on practically any topic. I used my voice to set an example for others more withdrawn or used my words to exhort and build those around me. But I had also learned how to ask thoughtful questions that could lead people to deep levels of internal exploration. I was the most comfortable in my skin that I had ever been. I also learned that I still had a lot of growing to do because the pendulum seemed to have swung from one extreme to the other and I simply could not stop speaking! I was like a massive sink filled with water that had only just had the plug released. The force of words was indeed a force! I remember an acquaintance asking me if I was an extrovert which caused me to recoil from shock. Me, an extrovert?? Never. Literally never. But suddenly I was having flashbacks to that party in high school and my friends comment about my quietness, only this time the person was announcing to me my lack of quietness. In flooded the fear, the shame, the guilt over how much space I had taken up in others peoples lives over those last two years.
Had I said too much? Had I made people listen to me when they had no interest? Was I becoming “that” person? Had I lost something special about myself now that I was speaking so freely?
A barrage of discouragement seemed to suddenly fall on me from my own worst fears and by other people I’d considered close relationships questioning or outright disparaging my new found verbal freedom. It didn’t feel fair. I had spent decades in relative silence only to feel shamed out of speaking just two or three years into using my voice on a daily basis. And the battles continue to this day.
I am telling you this because some people have a funny little need to diminish bright things. And they seem to appear just when some of your greatest growth is manifesting into becoming your nature. It’s as if they’ve been sent on assignment to capsize the person you are called to become just when you have the courage to be yourself. Since the age of thirty I have been fighting to keep the voice I had waited so long to welcome. This fight I am in is a large part of why I have written so little in my blog over the last few years. I didn’t understand how fragile my new voice actually was. The words I spoke out were strong, but true – they were mighty and well thought-out but the woman wielding them was not yet as strong as her words. The words were a sort of sword and shield protecting her still developing inner strength. She was fully exposed and vulnerable to accusation, judgment and diminishment. And the judgment that found its way to my heart all but entirely put my voice back into the cage it had been so painstakingly freed from.
But a little brick was wedged in between the cage and the shutting door. A brick just big enough to make sure that I never go back into that silent little girl I always was. Somedays it’s enticing to fall back into silence. It’s comfortable there. I could easily kick that brick out and close the door myself. I know that space. I was celebrated for being the quiet, well behaved girl. I was beloved for it, endeared over it. Easy to love and easy to forget. But the grown ‘me’, the true me now, is both a passionate communicator and a quiet introvert. It isn’t one or the other, I am both. And I continue to learn how to be both.
In those hard years of first fighting for the voice I had only just found, one of my biggest foes was people who had also been chronically quiet themselves secretly expecting me to bring their voice forward. I felt required to make sure that they spoke and found their voice. As if the fact that I had learned how to speak caused me to owe a debt to others who hadn’t yet. When I wouldn’t lure them out they resented me as if I had secrets I was keeping all for myself. I hoped to inspire people to find their courage and voice through my example, but I didn’t know I would be expected to form them for them. The thing is, no one taught me how to speak. No one but God lured the words from my tongue. I lived through decades of no one making space for my voice or encouraging me to share my thoughts. I simply had to dig deep and decide to speak, decide to take up space, decide to share myself with others. Once I decided to do so all I had to do was speak. If I had waited around for people to make space for me, I would still be waiting! I never felt it was anyone’s responsibility to make room for me or grow me but myself. I never resented people for taking up space during my silent years. I let it inspire me to a place I would one day rest inside of as well. And I found my way there eventually.
So, dear reader, wherever you are I hope you know that everyone’s journey to find their precious voice is different. For some it comes very early in life, for others it doesn’t happen until their very last days. The journey is winding and bumpy and you will fail often, say things that didn’t come out just right, say nothing at all when you wish you had, and every rage of scenario in between. But find your voice you will. If you don’t give up when people diminish you or give in when fear grips your throat, you will find it.
My only words of caution: Speak with intention and with love. Don’t speak just to speak. Acknowledge the duty of care you have to those hearing you to speak in a way that doesn’t hurt or harm where it can be avoided. And always speak the truth. Not “your” truth, the truth. Count your words and count the cost. There are a lot of people in the world so desperately clamoring to speak that they throw facts and truth to the wind. They outright lie, omit truth, steal from others, and/or denigrate the beauty of the written or spoken word just for clout, attention or a false sense of self importance. Don’t fall victim to the lure of being heard by any means necessary. This will always come back to haunt you. Not only could the justice system sort you out, but more importantly you will have to give an account to the God of Heaven one day for every word you’ve spoken and the impacts of those words. (I remind myself of this often!)
If your heart can remain in a noble and honorable place, your true voice will find you and it will pour out to the benefit and enrichment of not only you but those around you and perhaps far beyond. But you have to decide this is your path. If I could transform from being virtually silent for decades to being the woman I am today absolutely anyone can find their voice. It isn’t easy but it is very worth it. So to those who have struggled to find their voice so far in this life, I bless you with courage, confidence and inner strength to speak. Even if it’s shaky, even if it isn’t perfect, even if others would prefer you to be the quiet person they feel more comfortable around, SPEAK. I bless you to speak words of life to your own soul and I bless you to hone your craft of speech into the fine art it was made to be. It is your birthright.
One thought on “The Silent Extrovert”
Very thoughtful, Rachel. Thank you.