Often as a child I wondered why my mind spoke more than my mouth.
I could talk all day inside my head but verbalising was sometimes impossible, except to some closest to me.
Even teachers would say to my mum that I was a good kid academically but they wish I spoke more. The truth was even being asked a question in class knowing everyone’s eyes were on me (or at least thinking they were) would set my heart beating out of chest and my face would turn beetroot red.
This did not change into my teenage years. If I had to present anything or speak in front of more than a few people, I crumbled. I was far more at home and “safe” in my room reading or learning how to master a particular football computer game. Often I was weak and did my best to fake it to fit in, whatever that was.
My first adult job in a large insurance brokerage in London saw a whole new challenge. I could get through the interview and get enough of my personality across. But “presenting” in front of my peers meant I found every excuse not to, even calling in sick once (I rarely took days off). One of my colleagues used to sarcastically say, “Terry, will you keep your voice down mate, you are so loud”. Talk about drawing attention to it.
University saw a similar pattern. Outside of my, making eye contact with those in my halls of residence was hard enough.
But of course this changed with alcohol on nights out. I could fake it and give an alternative impression.
It gave me confidence to talk to people a little more but naturally the outcome was a world of anxious pain and clouds the next day.
When I entered the world of recruitment it could have been seen / was as a sadistic choice. For 10 hours a day you were rarely not talking to people, externally or internally and for an hour a day at least meeting face to face with people you did not know.
I look back now and realise the “script” I was taught of how to talk to people in these moments was not as effective as just being me. It was discouraged not to be “personable” and relaxed. Occasionally I let that character come out and was people opened up.
Since I moved to Australia almost a decade ago, there has been a bigger shift. When I arrived I dreaded going to a party or gathering where I knew no-one, which was often.
I clung to my now wife or someone I knew. I probably came across as weird or awkward and no doubt that’s what people thought, as they did in my education days. But when I had my work head switched back on I again had to put the face back on and deliver commercial results. So it felt unnatural.
Now all I need is a coffee and I can talk for England when people ask me my views on something. I do however still prefer to do this in an intimate setting. Ask me about things that I care about or that are truly important and some refuse to believe I was ever socially anxious.
I still get horribly anxious before a meeting or similar and tell myself I should cancel. But once I am there I just be me as best I can and usually it results in a true connection, be it a commercial meeting or otherwise.
Charting my mental health journey and all its intricacies, naturally when I hit the dark spells, being sociable or just turning up is difficult.
I still crave my alone time. I still need those moments to reflect or just to attempt to lessen the noise in solitude. I still get uncomfortable being the “face” of Mr. Perfect but, as I said at a panel seminar recently to a group of lawyers, “There’s no going back since I “came out”. It is what it is. I am me”.
The good news is there’s a balance now. When I have energy I try to time my actions accordingly. But it does not stop the pondering.
So recently I was left with this conundrum. I fall back into the generic human urge to diagnose or label.
Am I just an introvert by nature, like most of my family? If I had never experienced what I did as a child and dealing with my battles to this point, would my character be any different? Would I still be “quiet” or thoughtful? Is it a mixture of factors? Does being an introvert mean you have some form of mental issue? Does it actually matter?
What I do respect now is everyone’s right to be who they are. I cringe when I see social gatherings and other situations where people force others or draw attention to that person knowing it makes them uncomfortable. Mental struggles or otherwise.
You have no idea whether that person is suffering, has suffered, truly has an impediment or is just someone that speaks when it’s something of value.
So just be you. It is always enough.