Victoria Kennefick discovers the joys of introversion and why – in particular – it’s not a child’s job to be extroverted unnecessarily
‘Sedatephobia’ is an intense aversion to silence. It originates from Greek, ‘sedate’ meaning ‘silent or sleeping or dead’ and until 50 years ago it was relatively unheard of, excuse the pun.
For as long as I can remember I have feared silence, getting anxious and upset until noise, music or even just the sound of distant bells ringing saved me from myself and reminded me that I was breathing, that I was still on earth. The description of sedatephobia is the closest I’ve come to this experience of crashing into a wall of silence. Or maybe it’s more like falling into a trench of silence, because it felt like I was being buried alive, suffocated by the thick awareness of unavoidable isolation. And we all are alone and isolated, aren’t we?
Now more than ever as we continue to live with/in/despite this pandemic. We did try to drown out the nothing, the unavoidable lack, with Zoom quizzes and endless rewatching of Normal People. Or maybe that was just me. But silence is also golden, so we’re told – something we must learn to ‘sit with,’ as my yoga teacher tried to remind me of so often. I couldn’t sit still however, I squirmed with discomfort until I realised that I could hear others’ inhalations and exhalations and the distant thrum of traffic and then was somewhat more at ease.
Have I always suffered from this phobia of silence? I recall with some amusement the phrase, ‘children should be seen and not heard,’ to describe little ones hanging off their parents, trying to include themselves in adult conversation. I was one of those children, fascinated by what the grown-ups were talking about, fully aware that there was so much behind their whispers that I didn’t understand yet, but I wanted to. The irony is that parents simultaneously want their children to speak up for themselves, to be extroverted, which is often aligned with being assertive and strong, but also to be biddable and quiet when it suits, which demonstrates obedience. It is a confusing space for a child to navigate, when to speak up, when to keep schtum. I navigated this dynamic with characteristic intensity, taking each role far too seriously, far too literally, and polarising them, polarising myself in the process.
I was granted access to this world of adult conversation and company because my premeditated chat served a purpose. In the good old days, my parents frequently entertained at home, so I was ushered into rooms of relatives, friends, work colleagues to amuse them while my mother readied food and my father mixed drinks. I’d like to think my parents thought me charming and winning, but unless the guests were related to me, and probably even still, I imagine I was very tiresome, especially my interpretation of Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw, aged ten. Can you imagine? I even had some of my uncle’s blue rope from the farm to bind my ankles. It was my job to perform, to recite poems, to sing and generally distract everyone until everything was ready. No silence here. Not on my watch.
I hated this role, until I loved it. This sense of purpose became a part of my education. I was afraid of the custard-scented silence of my convent school. I didn’t want to hear my own thoughts, give credence to my anxiety, a word I didn’t know then. I remember feeling so ill-at-ease when the teacher asked a question and was met with nothing from my fellow classmates, save the odd sigh. I answered, no matter whether I was right or wrong, to put an end to the quiet. Break times proved much more difficult to navigate with all that free unstructured time. I never knew what to do with myself. I often thought of myself as being split in two – quiet and terrified inside and loud and confident on the outside, a perverse, overstimulated armadillo.
I would do anything to prevent that sick, boundless quiet that untethered me from reality from taking over. It made me float away in ways I couldn’t predict, whole hours wasted daydreaming, losing any connection with myself and the real world without the anchor of noise to ground me. If I kept talking, then this wouldn’t happen. I imagined I was being incredibly useful answering questions, giving my opinion, that I was making a difference somehow, removing the threat of silence from all around me. I kept music on in the background so I could focus on tasks I needed to complete, even listening to matches on Sundays (I am not a sports fan) while I got ready for a new week. When studying at university, I had to go to the library to try and concentrate, the communal sounds of rustling paper, hacking coughs, and shuffling shoes proving incredibly comforting and necessary for me to even attempt to finish an essay.
In terms of friendship, I struggled, particularly as I now see it, by not valuing and appreciating the comradeship of quieter, more introverted pals. I am ashamed to say I found such loyal friends hard work; they didn’t seem to want to chase the noise like I did. I thought there might be something wrong with me in their company, they seemed so calm and centred while I was unstable and desperate for engagement of any kind. Even if I didn’t want to speak with someone, I would force myself to, all the time nervously pushing back against the void in myself. I sought out friends who were more outgoing, wilder, and not so meek. I felt that it was each person’s job to speak, to entertain, to be ‘fun’ constantly. I was frustrated when my companions didn’t put in enough effort. Isn’t this what we’re here for? I’d think. Don’t they know how hard I’m trying? It was exhausting. I was exhausted.
And of course, I crashed, badly, expending all my energy without having any way to fill myself back up. You know what they say, empty vessels make the most noise. That saying used to grate on me. There is nothing wrong with talking, being a ‘talker’ but didn’t I think there was something lacking in those who chose their words more carefully or didn’t say anything at all? The only time I could really tolerate silence was when I was writing, and that busy part of my brain was occupied so didn’t have time or space for any pesky existential angst. I was equally pacified if I took a walk by the sea, probably because it is rarely truly silent there. And in my job as a teacher too, the bustle and chatter echoing down the corridors in my place of work, a large and bright secondary school, should have suited me perfectly, but I struggled in this environment in ways I didn’t understand. If I couldn’t bear silence, then why did noise begin to rattle me in the same way?
Being a teacher is a great privilege, supporting young people as they learn and grow into young adults. But it is also a profession I find hugely challenging. It is a job where you are required to perform sometimes six or more separate ‘shows’ a day, to entertain, cajole, praise, and motivate. It is essential to recognise who is way ahead and who is falling behind in a class of thirty you might only get to see twice a week. What a perfect job for me, I thought, to speak to students about my love of English, to help them see what a joy it is to have an appreciation and love of literature, to show them my enthusiasm. I talked, I acted, I sang, I debated, and I learned very quickly that this method is not sustainable, or practical, or necessarily enjoyable for me or for them, especially as the aim I have for my classes is that my students don’t dread them. I remember that feeling. I never want to replicate that.
So, while teaching most certainly requires some level of performance, especially in English class, it is ideally a collaborative and constantly evolving conversation between students and teacher, and ultimately between the students themselves. But that requires the students to participate. They need to fill the silence themselves, to enter into it willingly and break it up. I have my own biases, of course, so I am grateful for the students who take this chance and answer a question or make a comment and help me to move the class along. I like students to take part, contribute, do their bit, perhaps because they remind me of me, and I know how hard they are working, how much energy it burns up, burns through.
I must admit that I was often frustrated when students didn’t do this, particularly when a whole class stayed silent (a much more common occurrence during the pandemic as we can’t do group work or collaborative projects in the same way as before and everyone’s face is hidden with a mask). It requires professionalism and maturity to not take this personally. Happily, I am a professional, until I realised that I was taking it personally. I got over that too. Then I got angry, angry that I was ‘carrying’ the class, just like I had carried conversations and workshops my whole life. But that wasn’t entirely true either, nobody had asked me to speak and keep speaking, and maybe in doing so I had prevented others from adding their voices to the discourse, leaving no space for the students to have a moment of peace or contemplation during a busy day.
At parent-teacher meetings I have empathised with parents who worried about their quieter child who doesn’t ‘speak up,’ promising that I would work on it with them in class, push them into contributing. But I have changed my tune. It is a mistake to assume that someone quieter isn’t strong or doesn’t have leadership potential. It is a mistake to assume that quieter students are timid or shy or aren’t trying hard enough. I say this because these were my unconscious biases and I am appalled that I held them, but they were buried so deep. As an English teacher, I have the privilege to read students’ personal essays and creative reflections, and these, more than anything else, are what changed everything for me. They write beautifully and so honestly that I have been taken aback by their bravery, resilience, wit, and insight.
I cannot presume they want to share these details with me in front of their peers, or indeed that doing so would necessarily be preferable. Now I endeavour to meet the needs of all students no matter what their processing style. Introversion in students, whether this is an integral part of their unique personalities, or a byproduct of their age or situation, is as valuable and precious as the extroversion of the students who ‘play ball.’ I have learned how to welcome and accommodate their quietness, and to see it as such an important part of my classroom practice and the collective classroom environment.
Now, at parent-teacher meetings I say that a child is a good listener, thoughtful, and insightful as evidenced from their written work, our one-to-one discussions in class and out, and because I have noticed. I have made it my business to. They contribute by being present, by listening and thinking, and by encouraging me to look inward too, to question my addiction to noise. The relief is palpable on the parents’ faces when I say it isn’t the child’s job to be an extrovert. That their contribution is seen and acknowledged, that they can stand up for themselves and be noticed without shouting about it, that the option to speak is always there, even if it is after class or in writing, and if they choose not to contribute at this time, that is fine. That is their choice. Silence is golden.
I admit I still struggle with silence, often mistaking it for disapproval or resenting it because it sometimes drains me or lends itself to extreme existential angst. Then I remember that my more introverted students, friends, and relatives similarly struggle with too much noise. But during the pandemic, I have made a very interesting discovery, that is I can be introverted too. I expend so much energy when I am with people, I give it everything whether it is necessary or not. I can’t help myself. I try so hard (again, this isn’t me saying this is the best option, far from it. It’s a bore, often) that I need time, sometimes days or even weeks to recover and reset my equilibrium.
I have spent time in lockdown recalling how overwhelmed I was at gigs and festivals, at debates and meetings, in classrooms and on stage, and how my response, just like it was when I was a child, was to mask this anxiety and discomfort, the sense of losing control, of being boundaryless, with talk – fast, loud and often stream-of-consciousness. Distraction is a powerful tool! So, here’s to the introverts, the ‘quiet’ people, I am so sorry I ever underestimated you. And here’s to the recovering extroverts who are finding, as they grow in wisdom, that they might have been secret introverts all along. And that’s perfectly fine.
Both are valid ways of processing the intensity of this crazy world, as are any variations or mixtures of the two. As an introverted extrovert (or maybe extroverted introvert?!) I’d like to take this moment to reveal that I wrote this whole column without music or the radio, with only the sounds being the dishwasher gurgling in the background, my cat, Jasper purring beside me and the hands of the clock tick, tick, ticking. Not quietness per se, but something close. Later, I might go for a walk around the wetlands and watch the mute swans on the water. Alone, and in silence.