Quiet, Yet Not Quiet

Photo by Vladimir Pustovit via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.
Photo of mime by Vladimir Pustovit via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.

I’m told that I was a quiet child. But I’m also told that I was a talkative child. Both are apparently true. This is a contradiction that has continued to this day and that I and others have often found confusing. It’s something that I have in the past found difficult to explain, including when I was in counseling, but I will try to break it down here.

Before I started school, I was a chatterbox. I had a cheerful, sing-song voice and a mild speech impediment (an inability to say the letter L) that adults apparently thought was adorable in a little girl. People called me a “Chatty Cathy” after a popular talking doll from the previous decade. My mom says she used to worry about me because I would go up to complete strangers and talk their ear off. I even once offered some random elderly man a lick of my ice cream cone, which he accepted.

After I started school, I stopped talking as much because of the way my peers responded to me. Adults had enjoyed my chatter, but other children tended to think I was weird and they didn’t understand the things I talked about. I soon learned that not everybody wanted me to talk to them. This made me retreat into my shell. And since I didn’t really understand how to play with the other kids, I was often on the sidelines, quietly observing them.

However, when I would hit it off with someone, I would have great one-on-one conversations with them.  I was still capable of being talkative, I was just far more cautious and selective because I had learned that I needed to be.

But even though I talked a lot, I was never noisy. This was one area where I really differed from other kids. I didn’t yell or scream or shriek the way they did. I used to hear other kids shrieking while playing and wonder why in the world they would want to make such horrible sounds. It’s something I just never, ever did.

There were also times when I wanted to say something and couldn’t. Like the time I was falsely accused of breaking a window and couldn’t make any words come out of my mouth to defend myself. Or like the time in grade 8 when for some reason our girls’ PE class was required to sit in the bleachers and watch boys play basketball. Our teacher was trying to teach us school spirit or something like that, and was telling us to cheer the boys on. I was usually very obedient to my teachers but unlike the other girls I could not bring myself to shout anything. She noticed and got right in my face and started yelling at me, telling me things I should shout, like “Go team” or whatever. I opened my mouth to do so and no sound came out. Selective mutism, I believe this is called, but at the time I had no clue what was going on. My teacher was angry, thinking I was deliberately being difficult, and I was ashamed.

On the other hand, even though I had trouble defending myself, injustice bothers me so much that I’ve never had any problem speaking up in defense of someone else. I have always felt compelled by my own conscience to verbally jump to the defense of anyone being falsely accused, criticized, or being treated unfairly. I have gotten myself in bad situations and incurred the wrath of bullies many times for doing this, both as a child and as an adult.

I still have a note from my grade 3 teacher that I’ve kept all these years, telling me how mature I was for speaking up in defense of another student. This was one of the same teachers who had labelled me socially and emotionally immature and had denied me the opportunity to skip grades, even though my academic performance warranted it. Obviously even she was confused, thinking I was both mature and immature.

Another unusual thing about me as a child was that even though I had crying meltdowns when overstimulated, I never had temper tantrums. I did not have an angry bone in my body. My mom often talks about how lucky she was compared to other moms because of this. If I saw something I wanted in a store, she could say no and I would accept it and carry on.

My odd combination of quiet yet not quiet confuses people to this day. At a family dinner a couple years ago, I was introduced to a new family member (new through marriage, that is) and really hit it off with her. We were sitting next to each other, and the acoustics in the restaurant were ideal enough that despite my usual auditory processing issues in group settings I was able to carry on a conversation with her. We were even laughing and joking, completely in tune with each other’s sense of humour. Suddenly another person present, the person who shall remain nameless, snapped at me, “And you say you’re so quiet!”

Suddenly, I came crashing down to earth. Having my behavior scrutinized and commented on throws me for a loop every time, and this particular person does it a lot. I didn’t know what to say. I felt that I should offer some kind of explanation, but I had none. For starters though, I could be wrong, but I don’t think I ever said I was quiet. That’s what other people say about me, not what I say about myself. I did tell this person once that I am an introvert, as a way to try to explain myself when this person was criticizing me for not yet having made any friends in the new city I’d moved to (trying to offer an explanation in that case was a mistake anyway; this person didn’t understand what I meant by “introvert” and started telling people after that that I “don’t mix well with others”), but I don’t think I ever used the word quiet.

Anyway, that one comment put a damper on my rare experience of carefree socializing with a new person. I went back into my proverbial shell, feeling paralyzed because of the scrutiny.

Perhaps it’s a topic for another post, but that’s one of the hardest things for me to endure: All the scrutiny I seem to attract.

People want to put other people into boxes, and in many ways, including being quiet but not quiet, I am difficult to categorize. This puts me into the position of feeling like I need to explain myself, but that rarely seems to turn out well.

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Self-Defense, Verbal and Otherwise

Creative Commons - Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Photo by Marg, via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.

For much of my life I had problems defending myself. Partly because I didn’t quite know how to and partly because when under pressure I would become paralyzed and/or mute. People just did whatever they wanted to me.

One incident happened when I was in grade one (just to clarify, I’m Canadian; we call it grade one, not first grade). I was outside the school during lunch hour and some teachers came hurrying towards me and firmly told me that I needed to come to the principal’s office.

Apparently, I was being accused of breaking a window. I didn’t know why. I was not aware of having broken any window. But adults were saying I did, and I was completely trusting of adults, so I believed them. I believed that I had somehow broken that window without realizing it. As if maybe I had been running along and accidentally kicked up rocks from my shoes with such force that a window was broken. That sounds really implausible now, but it was the only explanation I could think of at the time.

Not that I expressed such thoughts. I couldn’t make any words come out of my mouth. I sat there silent, bewildered, and waiting to see what would happen.

By some miracle, my name was cleared without me having to do or say anything. I don’t quite remember what happened, but I think the real culprit confessed. I was free to go.

Flash forward 10 years. A bully girl attacked me and proceeded to beat me up really badly. By then I had learned to use my words. I kept saying, “If you have a problem with me, can’t we talk about it? Let’s work this out.” But she just yelled, “Shut up, loser!” The beating continued until an elderly couple came out of a nearby house and yelled that they were going to call the police. She left and the couple took me into their house and talked to me. “Why didn’t you do anything?” the man asked. “Why did you just let her do that to you?” I had no answer.

The problem was, despite having been able to find my words, I was not able to bring myself to physically fight back. I thought about it. I tried to envision it. But my body wouldn’t move. Other kids were cheering on the fight but there was no fight. There was no struggle. It was just one person pounding the other to a pulp. I suppose I looked like a coward but I wasn’t really afraid, just confused, sad, overwhelmed, and inexplicably paralyzed. I didn’t know why, so I couldn’t explain it.

Fortunately, once I was an adult people stopped inflicting violence on me. But I continued to find myself in situations where I was taken advantage of, misunderstood, or falsely accused, and I continued to be really bad at doing anything about it. I did try, but was horribly ineffective. Many times I was told, “You need to learn to stand up for yourself!”

Finally in my thirties I went through a year of counseling, and my counselor and I talked about strategies for standing up for myself if the need arose.

Then when I was 40 years old, one day at work, someone made a false accusation against me which was brought to my attention by my angry boss. I managed to stay calm and I explained to him why I was not guilty. He remained skeptical, as the person who made the accusation was highly regarded. He ended the conversation with, “I just want to get to the bottom of this!”

I knew it would not be difficult to prove my innocence. I compiled documents and e-mail exchanges that did get to the very bottom of the situation and revealed exactly what had happened. Basically, the whole mess was the result of someone requesting to book the facility for a certain date, me rightfully denying the booking because the facility was unavailable on that date, and them showing up anyway, leading to a whole shitstorm of consequences. It was 100% not my fault and the documents I provided proved it.

The following week was my 6-month performance review. I was told that while my work was of a consistently high quality and while I had always demonstrated a conscientious attitude, a courteous demeanor, and a high ethical standard, I was too defensive and had an unhealthy need for vindication. I told my boss that if he was referring to the incident of the previous week, perhaps I had misunderstood, but he’d said he wanted to get to the bottom of the situation. Since I had in my possession everything that could show him exactly what had transpired and why, I thought he would want to be made aware of it. My words only proved his point that I was defensive and he told me this was an area where I needed personal growth. I then made the mistake of blurting out that for much of my life I’d never defended myself, but I’d gotten counseling to learn how, and the fact that I could do so now meant I had achieved personal growth. He just stared at me. Then he made up a reason why I was fired.

It seems that I can’t quite get it right. I’m supposed to stand up for myself, but I’m not supposed to be defensive. I don’t know where the line is, and I still don’t know what I did wrong in the work situation (other than the part where I admitted that I’d had past issues that had required counseling, but things had already gone terribly awry by that point anyway). I know I am socially awkward, but I can’t imagine anyone not defending themselves or providing documents that proved a false accusation false. I’ve observed that most other people in the workplace are not pushovers and do not take any crap. But it seems like when other people do it, it’s accepted, and when I do it, I get it slightly wrong somehow, and it’s not accepted. I would be willing to change, but I’m never sure exactly where I’m going wrong.