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Work & School On embracing shyness in college

Jan. 7, 2020
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I’m going to start this article by doing something that 19-year-old me would have found radical, by describing myself as the one thing I tried so hard to avoid when I first started at the University of Toronto in 2015. I’m going to start by telling you all that I am quiet. In fact, I may be so brave as to say I am shy. Now, while what I have just said may not seem revolutionary, it is only now—more than a year after graduating—that I can say these things without feeling ashamed.

Growing up, I was always the quiet one amongst my group of friends. Until I hit high school, I didn’t really have a problem with that—probably because it didn’t really matter how quiet I was when my biggest concern was figuring out Polly Pocket’s next outfit. Things began to get more complicated in high school. I decided to go to a different high school than most of my friends, for an academic program that wasn’t offered in my area. This meant that for the first time since kindergarten, I had to make new friends. That’s when the whole “quiet shy girl” thing began to get in the way of things. It made it harder for me to connect with people and feel comfortable in social situations. I felt an overwhelming pressure to prove to people that being quiet and shy weren’t synonymous with being uninterested and lame. The lameness I could deal with, but it was the idea that my being shy would be equated with being “too cool” that I found most hurtful. I hated the idea that people thought being quiet somehow meant I wasn’t interested in what they were talking about or doing, or that if I didn’t attend every social event, it was because I was somehow above it all. I went through high school in fear of this, and made a vow to myself that things would be different in college. That I would push myself to be loud and social, and to take more chances. 

When my parents dropped me off at my dorm room for the year, I was overwhelmed by the enthusiasm radiating from orientation week leaders and students alike. There was so much noise. I emphasize the word because to some, the mix of upbeat pop music (think Pharrell’s “Happy”), fervent frosh leaders talking about how this would be the greatest week of our lives, and the hundreds of bright-eyed students saying their goodbyes may have been an important, formative part of starting college. To me, it just sounded like a cacophony of my worst nightmare. I was in the most social situation possible. This was the time for me to swallow my personality, put on a smile, and join my peers. 

I ended up sharing a floor with some of the greatest girls I’ve ever met, two of whom would soon become my best friends. Nonetheless, I remember thinking that I could only ever be accepted and bond with them if I was social, extroverted, and outgoing. During frosh week, I exhausted myself attending all the events on the calendar. Of course I wanted to go to some, but the pressure I put on myself was draining. I wanted to prove to people—myself included—that I could be the cool, fun girl! As frosh week came to an end, I was relieved. I thought to myself, I did it. 

Or so I thought. As the semester went on, I began to realize how much emphasis was placed on networking and socialization. Neither of these things are inherently bad, but the way in which they were fostered on campus was toxic. The relentless push to attend networking events and join every club available made it so that the people who did manage to do all of these things were heralded as superior. There was a tangible division between the “social” part of our college and the rest of us. This was ludicrous to me, yet I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel the pressure to try and fit in. This emphasis on socializing and making connections made me think I would never get anywhere in life if I didn’t rid myself of my shyness. I truly started to believe that unless I magically became an extrovert, I would somehow miss out on life and all opportunities. I saw my shyness as a plague. 

In my freshman year, this made me feel all the more ashamed when someone would say—as if they had discovered something miraculous—“You’re so quiet!” It never fails to amaze me how people posit my quietness as something so exciting or special. Yes, I’m quiet. But I’m also so many other things. It took me four years and a degree to realize that I don’t have to recoil at being described as shy. I learned to embrace my quiet demeanor as part of my identity, rather than forcefully try to evict it from who I fundamentally am. Being social is not an extraordinary character trait. Yes, words like “social,” “extroverted,” “shy,” and “introverted” are ways we describe ourselves—but we’re also more than that. In the end, I’m thankful for giving the whole extroverted thing a go in college. Not everything about it was so bleak. I did learn that great things can come from pushing your own boundaries, from taking risks and chances. But I’m happy that I found the confidence to do these things on my own terms. Let’s embrace our shyness instead of letting society tell us it’s a horrible personality trait. To all my fellow quiet folks out there—here’s to being shy.