Time for New Words
This picture was taken on my first day of kindergarten in Southern California, where we lived for a brief time. I can see my trepidation in this photo, and I can remember the nervousness I felt in my stomach. My parents were big movers, so I had to change schools twice before first grade, which gave me many more opportunities to feel anxious. I’m not sure if that was the year I learned what the word “shy” really meant, but I used it for a long time after that to describe myself. Eventually, as an adult in a profession that required standing up in front of classrooms and talking, I realized that “introvert” actually fit me better. I finally clarified it further by saying that I am an introvert with good social skills.
These days, I’m thinking of all the ways I diminish my real experience in the world by summarizing it all in words or short phrases.
Just recently, I told someone that I am an introvert, and they looked at me a little confused. I had been chatting animatedly with the group we were in, so I’m sure they figured I was being sarcastic. That’s when it occurred to me that maybe I’m not really an introvert anymore. Maybe I just like things a little quieter than some people do. But what I knew for sure that day is that I probably don’t match a lot of the words and phrases I have regularly used to describe myself over the years. As my life has progressed, so have I, but I’ve grown so comfortable with my familiar labels and I’ve held on to them, whether they fit or not. In turn, by gripping those descriptive words, I’ve locked myself into some roles that no longer serve me.
We give words a lot of power if we use them to narrow our place in the world. I'm only now seeing that I can create a much bigger view of my world if I paint the whole picture instead of relying on one word or phrase to communicate who I am. I know inside of me that when I say I’m shy or an introvert, I mean a lot of things. I mean I don’t like to cold call people, on the phone or in person. The awkwardness of those first few minutes when they’re trying to place me or figure out what I want is painful. I can live through it, certainly, but it’s not comfortable. Neither do I enjoy small talk. When I’m having to converse with people about the weather or what we’ve each been up to, I feel antsy—like it’s all up to me to keep the conversation going. That’s what I really mean by those words, and putting it in details like this lets me see a much bigger version of myself than clutching to the word introvert.
And really, no one but me cares whether I call myself an introvert or not. These days, I’m thinking of all the ways I diminish my real experience in the world by summarizing it in single words or short phrases. I say I’m tired when I’ve had to participate in a lot of the aforementioned small talk, but I also use that same word when I’ve slept poorly or when I’ve rototilled my back yard or run five miles. Sometimes I use it when I feel depressed. I know, too, that how I identify myself to other people isn’t nearly as important as how I recognize inside myself what I’m really feeling. So, I won’t be boring people with long descriptions of every thought I have about my experience.
What I will be doing is thinking about the power of the words I use as I see myself. A lot of those are outdated—and many were never true. They were my fear of how and who I was, but they weren’t necessarily who I was. Growing up gay but closeted in the 1950s and 1960s, I used to torture myself with shame when I heard the word “queer.” Now, young people are using that word proudly to describe who they are.
I love that words and their meanings can change, and I hope I can be as flexible and resilient when it comes to what I say about myself.