A few months ago, during a t’ai chi class, my teacher singled me out to show the class how not to perform a certain movement. While he may have been right about my mistake, I felt an immediate physical reaction to this attention. My face flushed, my heart began to pound, and I stifled the urge to say something I’d later regret. My reaction seemed way out of proportion to the events taking place; the teacher was not being unkind, but was fulfilling his role as someone trying to help me get better at my t’ai chi practice. Still, the embarrassed anger I felt seemed to come from a deep place; it reminded me of similar incidents in childhood where I felt powerless and upset about being corrected in front of other people.
The potential for this kind of humiliation was especially high in situations involving athletic activity, and in school I dreaded gym class more than anything. I feared being made fun of, of ending up in last place, of simply making a fool of myself. When my husband and I started dating, it was a sign of our clear compatibility when we both admitted to loathing gym class. I always thought gym class was torture because I had no athletic ability, but now I realize that it was my introverted nature that held me back. My fear of being embarrassed or humiliated kept me from jumping in wholeheartedly, and meant that I didn’t learn what I needed to learn in order to succeed.
I think if there had been more understanding from the adults involved, it would have helped me enormously. I find it so valuable that writers like Marti Olsen Laney are now trying to provide parents and educators with information about how to deal specifically with introverted children (see her book, The Hidden Gifts of the Introverted Child). On her Web site Laney advises parents of introverted children to “Never correct your child in front of others,” and to “Let them watch before entering an activity.” I think these are both helpful ideas for any adult working with introverted children.
While it was hard as a child to escape these kinds of situations, as an adult I like to think that I have more control over my environment. And now that I know my own tendencies, perhaps I can be a little easier on myself when embarrassing things happen. I also take comfort in the fact that I’m not alone; as Nancy Fenn notes in another of her Top 10 Ways to Market to Introverts, “Introverts are greatly afraid of making mistakes in public and of humiliation in public during a learning period.”
Armed with this knowledge, I hope that I can make the best out of the current “learning period” I’m in. Although I have taken French classes in the past, our move to Paris has meant dusting off those skills, and realizing how much I have to relearn. Before we moved here I was greatly looking forward to this process, but now that we are here, I feel as if I’ve hit a wall. Making conversation with strangers is not always easy for me in English, and it is accordingly harder in a language I’m unsure in. I dread saying the wrong thing, or drawing a blank during an important conversation, or most horrifyingly of all, being ridiculed for my mistakes. With all this in mind, it’s definitely easier for me not to make the effort than to dive in and do it. So how do I honor my introverted nature while still working towards my goal of becoming more fluent in French?
I think I have to remember to breathe, and to give myself time to collect my thoughts in the moment, without feeling pressured to respond immediately. This may annoy those I’m speaking to (whose words are coming at me in a nonstop barrage), but I think it’s the only way I can stay calm enough to remain engaged and active in the conversation. But it’s easier said than done.