I am an introvert. I have worked hard to overcome shyness so debilitating that I couldn’t speak to people. I was voted “shyest” in my graduating class. I preferred the company of animals and spent hours walking or bicycling alone in the woods or along the shores with my dogs. By the time I got to college, I knew it was sink or swim. I had to force myself to look others in the eye and say “hi”. It was like walking into a tunnel and seeing the train’s headlight.
I was saved by a sprite; a tiny, mop-topped bundle, half Puerto Rican, who was plunked into my sophomore year at LSSC. The college assigned her as my roommate. When I walked into our dorm, she wasn’t there. But her photos were already up: mountains, waterfalls and hiking trails. She had stacks of vinyl albums and eight-track tapes; John Denver, Gordon Lightfoot, Bread, Fleetwood Mac.
I knew we would be okay.
Indeed, we clicked instantly and it took all the energy I had just to keep up with her. She liked to run; everywhere. She shouted epithets in Spanish. She wore plaid flannel shirts, a navy blue vest and thick hiking boots, and she clomped up and down the hallways in them. She was studying biology and she knew the names of all the plants and flowers. She had a collection of animal skulls lined up on our window sill. She was quick to laugh, and just as quick to get angry. Her brown eyes snapped ferociously. She could play the guitar, and she sang as well as any current contender on the Voice. She was magnetic, irresistible, and she changed me forever.
Thirty-six years later, Sylvia is still a glowing presence in my days. But.during the first months I spent with her, accompanying her on amiable jaunts and observing her intrepid curiosity, I had an epiphany. I understood the cure for shyness:
If you are looking at someone, they aren’t usually assessing you. They are wondering what you’re thinking about them.
People are afraid of judgment. They move in herds. Most of them just want to be liked and accepted, and to feel as if they fit in.
This may not be completely accurate, but as a blanket concept, it worked wonders. It was a fiery blast of confidence. Better yet, it deepened my empathy. I knew suddenly that I was not alone in my self-consciousness. We all were suffering from varying degrees of awkwardness.
That old cure for stage fright — picturing the audience in their underwear — actually has a lot of truth to it.
Those who grasp this theory can overcome their shyness pretty quickly when they see it in action.
This revelation led me to the stage, to public speaking with my animals, to a completely different realm of artistic expression.
But a true introvert never changes. I still can’t tolerate a lot of contact with people. I radiate energy into a party or gathering, but then I have to go back into the woods and recharge. Unless I am fully prepared, and concentrating on my speech, I harbor a stammer. I am not glib and quick-witted like others I know. I am a much better conversationalist in writing.
Even after all these years, my first preference is to be left alone, or to be in the company of the few people I trust enough to relax with.
And, there are the animals.
There were always the animals. I don’t think anyone has yet fully explained the therapeutic power of animal companionship. Our pets are certainly compared to people often enough, with their individualistic behaviors and various idiosyncrasies. I sometimes wonder if the unfettered affection and tempered calm that they create is simply because they are cuter than we are. Let’s face it: Whose face would you rather see in the morning: Some sleep-infested pre-coffee grouchy primate, or your cat?
Or maybe it’s similar to the charm we find in human babies. They are different from us; they harbor no treacherous agenda. But we recognize that sameness: the yawn, the stretch, the enthusiasm over a meal.
The trust is the bottom line. You can tell anything to your dog. You can spend years confiding in him, and when his time ends, it is pure agony. But you can get another dog, wriggling into your heart with innocuous warmth, and be guaranteed a similar type of confidante.
The same is not true of a friend like Sylvia. She stands alone among the masses in my personal history, one of just a handful of human companions able to maintain a lifetime of intimate confidence.
Perhaps better than anyone else, introverts understand the difference.