How Patti Smith Taught Me to Be Brave
As a child, I was often accused of being shy, and to the credit of my accusers, I really didn’t talk much. But I never thought of myself as shy by my own understanding of the word (which is to say, I didn’t identify with Bashful of the 7 Dwarves).
In truth, I always liked talking. I still do. The first time I can remember ever being disciplined for misbehaving at school was in the second grade when a substitute teacher made me sit in the hallway for talking when I wasn’t supposed to. This would be far from the last time I found myself in trouble for that particular offense.
But, mostly I continued to avoid speaking more than I spoke. I continued to be branded as shy. I continued to be excused and forgiven for my shyness: “Sorry, she’s just shy.”
The same year that substitute banished me to the hallway, the school counselor came to our classroom for our weekly guidance lesson. She stood in front of the class and asked for four volunteers. I eagerly raised my hand (not shyly) and was the fourth student chosen to come to the front of the room. We four participants stood in a row and the counselor explained the demonstration:
She would hold up a card from the stack she had in her hand. Every card had a line. Each of us, from the first student chosen to the last (me!), would tell her if the line was curvy, straight, dotted, solid, etc.
The first card went up – an unmistakably curvy line. Piece of cake, I thought. Then the first volunteer piped up. “Straight.” Oh, how embarrassing for him. The second volunteer spoke. “Straight!” Wait. What’s happening? And number three followed suit definitively. “Straight.” There must be something I’m not understanding. It was my turn. I let out a meek, “Straight?”
This activity carried on for five more cards with each card clearly depicting one thing and adamantly described by my trusted peers as its opposite. Each time I went along with their descriptions, ever more confident that I had misheard or misunderstood the directions.
In fact, the other three participants had been preselected for the activity. The counselor had pulled them aside beforehand and instructed them to state the opposite. One unsuspecting student who was not given this instruction would be chosen at random. I was that lucky pick, and the whole class learned a valuable lesson about the power of peer pressure. But I learned another lesson. I learned that if you raise your hand to volunteer for something in class, you’ll end up looking like a jackass in front of 25 other kids.
And that would be all it took for me to quit raising my hand.
That’s the first time I can remember feeling that nauseating, physically upsetting, hide-in-the-nearest-bathroom-stall reaction that would become so familiar in the years to come – a reaction that would take me over 20 more years to identify by its actual name. I was not shy. I am not shy. But I had then and have now an often-crippling social anxiety.
The older I got, the more frequent and less voluntary my opportunities for social humiliation became. Less and less was I able to dodge a vulnerable moment by keeping my hand down. But, boy, did I try. I put my best foot forward to avoid interaction with strangers, social gathering, performance of any kind, and so on. And while I surely succeeded in dodging a number of would-be moments of embarrassment, I definitely wasn’t able to avoid all of them.
At some point, I outgrew the “shy” qualifier, and graduated into a host of other charming monikers:
By the time I realized how monumentally my attempt to avoid public judgement had backfired, my habits had been long engrained, and I was severely socially stunted by decades of avoidance. I had no idea how to change what about myself had been misinterpreted as hostility.
My dysfunctional relationship with public interaction followed me throughout school. It evolved with the advent of social media – a platform I thought of as just a wider-reaching and more permanent opportunity for public humiliation. It made important decisions for me, forwent opportunities for me, and defined major life moments for me.
So, this seems like the natural place for the pivot to the “success” angle of my social anxiety story. I wish I’d been able to rectify the situation once I recognized what it was. But the pivot in my story is like the slow turn of a barge: I can see change, but I’m still not quite facing the opposite direction.
I’ve recently been extended an opportunity that would involve personal growth and potential benefits for my community. But this opportunity would require me to volunteer for a certain degree of vulnerability on a public platform. Accepting the opportunity would require me to raise my hand in class.
Naturally, I first looked for a way to accept the opportunity while avoiding the social aspects. When that failed, I looked for ways to trick myself out of my social anxiety responses. And when I came up empty there, I watched a Patti Smith performance.
Come back next week for Part 2 of this thrilling saga. Because who doesn’t love longwinded stories about other people’s uncomfortable lives and the random shit they do to cope with them?