I have always been a shy person, less so now than when I was small. Conviction and assurance elude me. A firm stance of where my life is heading does either.
In elementary school, I wanted to be an artist, obsessively collecting crayons, colored pencils, and pastel colors. I took up drawing classes every weekend. Other times, I wanted to be a doctor. Most often, I wanted to be a novelist, making attempts to write three uncompleted books of various genres at the age of 12. In high school, while my classmates fervently founded clubs and projects for college application extracurricular activities, I was hopping around from interpretation works to food bank volunteer and environmental education. I liked a lot of things, but I wasn’t sure about anything.
Confidence was something that I have always dreamt of having. I had a dream of one day that I could stand in front of a crowd and know exactly what to say. I had a dream of one day that I could firmly declare my five-year-plan with concrete steps of how I’m going to achieve them. My lack of assurance is deep rooted in my past. Growing up in Vietnam, I was often ashamed of myself when people pointed out my weaknesses. I resented when my parents harped on me over again how shy I was. I cried alone in my room after school when my fourth-grade teacher told me I had a terrible reading voice. Once in first grade, a photographer for our elementary school photoshoot grumbled at me and said that I didn’t know how to pose. He almost made me tear up right then and there on the school yard.
It wasn’t until I’m in my twenties that I realized how unreasonably adults had been expecting me to behave—that is, to always be outgoing, happy, Pollyanna cheerful. Vietnam has a more communal culture than America does. Individuals are expected to adhere closely to existing societal norms, from getting the ‘prestigious’ and stable jobs to getting married at a certain age and certainly being ‘social’ enough as a girl.
From the age of six to 16, I harbored the belief that if I had been more cheerful and talkative, I would have had an easier life. For one, my grandparents would have stopped comparing me with my outgoing cousin. Then, my parents would have loved bringing me to their company social gatherings and family’s friends events. If I’m at the hair salon, I would have a fabulous time gossiping with her instead of being talked about while my mouth sealed shut. I was terrified of meeting new people and failing to meet their undue expectations.
In the book Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez, Molly Crockett, a professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University, found that on average, women are expected to be more pro-social than men. Any deviation from that expectation, that is, showing less signs of warmth, openness, or care can shock other people and punish women.
As a girl and a young woman in Vietnam, I was penalized by being more introverted and not wearing my heart on my sleeves. Susan Cain wrote in her bestselling book Quiet, The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, “Don’t think of introversion as something that needs to be cured,” and I agree wholeheartedly. Each of us functions a bit differently, and there is no one right way to express yourself and navigate life.
In my first year of college at a Big 10 university in the U.S., I showed up at every event and said hi to every single person in orientation week. Defying my nature, I posted pictures of myself in the class of 2021 Facebook group of thousands of wild and overly excited freshmen with the hope of finding true friends. In conversations with new friends, I tilted my head back laughing, even if I didn’t find the topic interesting. I said yes to every invitation to hang out without any second thoughts.
It wasn’t long until I exhausted my social battery—precisely a week and a half. I had never been a social butterfly. I recharge by spending time with myself. By pretending to be something I was not, I pushed myself off of cliffs that I wasn’t capable of climbing out of.
After four years of growth and reflection in university and the professional world, I am now a 23-year-old woman working a “big girl” corporate job. I live in the U.S. without my family and traditional culture growing up and finally decide that I’m going to hold my own hands and build up confidence from ground zero. Ground zero doesn’t mean that I had no confidence before this point in time. What I meant is that I will begin building my identity capital and self-assurance from a true understanding of me as a person and not from cultural expectations or societal pressure.
That journey requires me to start over and unlearn everything I know about confidence. I note down the activities I genuinely derive joy from and pursue them with intention instead of following what my peers are chasing. I set yearly reading goals; I start a weekly newsletter to keep a frequent writing cadence; I bake brioche and choux creme. I own my love for my hobbies and I own my introversion. I don’t feel guilty when I decline a party invitation of people I don’t know very well or if I’m already exhausted after a long week. I don’t feel guilty on car rides with people I just met if they get quiet and awkward. (I learned that the experience got much better if I took the third, fourth and fifth ride with new people. It’s a matter of time.) I came as I am and left with the contentment that I have brought my whole and best self.
Some people are afraid of growing old, but I love it. One of the best parts of adulthood is that you can teach yourself the values that resonate and are truly meaningful to yourself instead of adhering to what elders believe is right or what your surrounding community deems appropriate.
And when you do that, it feels freaking amazing.