The best gift I ever received as a child was a piece of technology called the Speak & Spell. It was a hand-held, electronic device created by Texas Instruments that consisted of a speech synthesizer, keyboard, and visual display. I’m sure most kids growing up in the late 1980’s owned a Speak & Spell at one point or another, but to me, this was more than just a toy. This was a way to communicate without words, a way to speak without using my voice.
I used that device to talk to my brother, my parents, and I even tried to take it to school. I was in 1st grade the Christmas I got my Speak & Spell, and at age 6, I was already painfully aware that my actual voice wasn’t something a lot of people were interested in hearing. I was a quiet child. I wasn’t aggressive or competitive like so many members of my immediate family. I wasn’t keen on being the center of attention or surrounding myself with hordes of friends. I liked to learn and listen. I didn’t like unnecessary chatter, and I felt more comfortable on the outskirts of interaction than I did amidst the synergy of socializing.
I wanted to observe, take information in, process it, and speak only when I felt I had something meaningful to say. When I did want to speak, it was important to me that people wanted to listen. I wanted the same respect I gave others when I listened to them, but I found that it wasn’t always so easy obtaining the floor or securing a captive audience. I wasn’t even sure how you went about gaining an audience’s attention. Did you clear your throat and wait for everyone else in the room to stop talking? Did you raise your hand and hope someone would notice you? Did you go up and tap each individual on the shoulder and deliver your message in a series of one-on-one conversations? I tried all of these methods, and sometimes I’d get my point across, but a lot of the time I was talked over, interrupted, or met with quizzical expressions. Communication, and the casual conversation that seemed to be second nature to everyone else, felt exhausting to me. I talked less and less, and there were days that I am certain I spoke a sentence or less to anyone.
The year I got my Speak & Spell I learned that a robotic, imitation of voice was often more affective at gaining people’s attention than my own voice. I used this information to my advantage, and I would type questions, requests, and general observations to anyone willing to listen. My family and friends liked the novelty of it at first, but quickly that mode of communication wore on everyone’s nerves. Eventually the battery died and was never replaced, and I had to rely on my own “timid” voice once again.
Throughout my childhood, I would find other “Speak & Spell” methods of expressing my words. I discovered in 4th grade, that I had a knack for writing short stories. My teachers and friends would beg me to write for them. I would pen outrageous tales in the solace of my bedroom at night, and then bring them to school the next day for someone else to read aloud. The stories were purely nonsensical at first, and I loved that I could make people laugh. I became bored with writing nonsense, however, and I eventually started slipping messages and morals into my stories. When I did this, I was told to go back to being funny, and some people stopped listening to my writing all together. From this experience, I learned that if you want people to listen, then you better write about what they want to hear. My perception was that people preferred entertainment to thinking, so from the age of nine to eleven, I wrote almost exclusively for myself. My voice existed in the form of words on pages that only I read.
In my adolescent and teenage years, I wrote regularly, still keeping the pages all to myself. In college and in my early adulthood years, I found myself a group of similarly “misunderstood” people to share my words with. We would go to poetry readings, sit around and talk until the early morning hours, and sometimes quietly exchange our writing in tattered notebooks or via an email only to be digested when we were alone. While this was was better than silence, there was still this feeling I lived with that most of the world didn’t really care about what I had to say, a notion that most of the world didn’t really want to hear my voice. Because of this, I put up walls. I didn’t want to take the risk of being ridiculed for my ideas, and it was easier to just stay inside myself.
This “inside myself” feeling eventually carried over to all aspects of my life. I didn’t share my voice at work. I didn’t always speak my mind in personal relationships, and I always felt a bit like that quiet six-year-old walking around hoping to get someone to listen to my feelings in the form of fake, robotic voice. I know that this fostered a sense of isolation for me, and it reinforced my belief that I was destined to be misunderstood by the masses. It contributed to days of depression and heightened feelings of anxiety in social situations.
The misunderstood artistic type is kind of cliche, maybe cool sounding in your early twenties, but over time, that label wears on you. Like most people, I have always had the desire to just be heard and understood. I have never felt, however, like my voice was anything worthy of sharing. I have never felt like my words really mattered to anyone but myself, so that’s were I let them live, inside myself.
I went on like this for most of my life, and then one day I came across something that changed my perception of myself and others like me. I picked up a copy of Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. The title alone was an open invitation for someone like me, and I read the entire book in a weekend. It literally changed my life. I hadn’t really understood what the term introvert meant prior to reading her work, but everything about my communication style suddenly made sense. I didn’t feel like I was fundamentally flawed for how I operated anymore, and I was anxious to talk with people about her ideas. Some of the teachers I worked with had read the book also, and we formed a book study group. We felt that as teachers it might benefit some of our introverted students to discuss incorporating what we learned about introverts into the classroom during these conversations. I got discouraged though when I realized only introverts signed up for the group, and the people that could really benefit from hearing about how to respect and support introverts were high-fiving each other by the water cooler instead of sitting down and listening to our voice.s Our little group slowly dissolved, but Susan Cain’s voice was permanently stuck inside my head.
After this, I independently researched and sought out additional information on topics discussed in the book. Of particular interest to me was a woman she talked about by the name of Dr. Elaine Aron. I started reading the research of Aron, and once again I found myself in tears thinking about the descriptions of people on her pages. These were my people. I internalized her words, and occasionally I would approach the topic of introversion and highly sensitive people with those that I felt would be receptive to the idea. I still operated with my usual caution, and I never really went too far out on a limb when it came to sharing my voice. It was my little secret. It was what I would think about when the world overwhelmed me, or I felt like I really didn’t fit in. I knew that somewhere out there people like me really did exist, and that somehow made it temporarily feel a little better.
Up until this year, I’d say my life has been pretty status-quo. I’ve continued to write, and I’ve continued to desperately work on improving myself. I’ve tried to open up more to people I trust, as I’ve seen the cost of pushing one’s voice beneath the surface for too long. I’m still a very cautious person, and when good friends have urged me to share my story or voice, I blush and assure them that no one would be interested in hearing what I have to say.
A positive step I’ve made recently is trying to surround myself with people that take the time to know and appreciate my true nature. One such person is Brian “The Captain” Kovacs, the reluctant leader of this podcast. He’s not an introvert, but he is a highly sensitive person. I’ve been impressed with his enthusiasm to make a difference, and as a professional singer and former radio announcer, he’s someone that has a lot more experience with voice than I do. I’ve learned a lot from him about the importance of using one’s voice to promote positive change, and I respect his sensitive extroversion greatly. There aren’t a lot of people like him in this world.
Perhaps that’s why I took one of the biggest risks of my life last May, and I sheepishly asked him if he’d let me talk to him about Elaine Aron’s book The Highly Sensitive Person on his podcast. I’m pretty sure he thought I was joking, and he didn’t want to pressure me to do anything I didn’t want to do. I reassured him that I wanted to talk, because I felt like it was a really important message. I gave him Elaine Aron’s HSP assessment on Episode #25 of The Captain’s Pod, and that single night has been the catalyst for something greater. The response to that episode was so positive that Brian immediately suggested I do my own segment. I honestly was scared about the prospect of talking every week at first, and I did not want to accept his offer. I thought about Susan Cain and Dr. Elaine Aron’s work, however, and I realized that their message wasn’t that introverts and HSP’s should shy away from what’s important to them.
Introverts and sensitive people have a lot to say. Even though our voice isn’t the majority, our voices need to be heard. I am by no means a dynamic speaker. I’m much better with written word than I am with spoken word. I still get panic attacks sometimes prior to recording, and I break down in tears out of frustration when I feel my words recoiling or I struggle with making my point as I prepare for an episode. There are times when I’d prefer not to talk, and I wish I still had that old Speak & Spell to communicate for me. The difference now, however, is that I know it doesn’t matter if your voice shakes when you speak. It doesn’t matter if you initially get everyone’s attention. If you have a message, you have a voice. I don’t want anyone to ever feel alone as that sad, silent six-year-old little girl using a Speak & Spell to talk for her, and that’s why I do this show. Everyone’s voice matters, and sometimes all it takes is a gentle scream to shake the world. I’m gently screaming, and it is liberating.
Thank you for finally being my audience. I love you with all the feelz!
Listen to Michelle weekly on HSP S.O.S. via The Captain’s Pod for all your introvert & highly sensitive needs! thecaptainspod.com