Lately, I've found myself listening to a slew of commencement speeches. There's something energizing about listening to the words of outstanding individuals who've experienced tremendous setbacks yet have still managed to craft extraordinary lives for themselves. Steve Jobs' advice in his address to Stanford's class of 2005 -- "Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life ... Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice" -- struck a deep chord, as did Sheryl Sandberg's admission in her speech to Barnard's class of 2011: "I know I need to believe in myself and raise my hand." This concept of raising one's hand and following one's heart despite the noise of others' opinions reminded me of when I was a little kid plagued by shyness.
I barely spoke when I first entered elementary school. In fact, I sometimes wondered if my teachers thought I lacked the capacity to speak. On those rare occasions when I did venture to open my mouth, my voice would emerge from the depths as a gravelly presence sputtering and struggling to find its groove. So, needless to say, my class participation back in the day was pretty negligible.
At the time, I was seeing a therapist because of a family issue, and I remember telling him that I was too scared to raise my hand in class. Looking back, I'm able to articulate why I must have felt that way. What if my question or comment elicited laughter or scowls from the other kids? What if they thought my remarks were stupid, redundant, or obvious? I couldn't take that risk. At most, when a particularly interesting question came to mind, I'd go so far as to raise my hand halfway in the air, but no one ever noticed these halfhearted hand-raising attempts. And so I stayed silent, feeling frustrated and sorry for myself.
My therapist listened to what I had to say and then declared matter-of-factly that I was being selfish in not raising my hand or participating in class. He said that if I have a question, then at least one other student in the class most likely has the same question, and that person is probably too scared to speak up. If no one in the class is even remotely thinking what I'm thinking, then I'd be depriving the entire class of my question, thought process, and ideas. I'd be depriving them of something valuable, that what I have to say has value, even if I didn't think that it did.
In an instant, he completely reframed the way I viewed the situation. It had never occurred to me that my not speaking up could affect anyone other than me. His response gave me the courage I needed to break through my self-imposed sound barrier. I certainly didn't undergo an immediate transformation after that session, but I gradually become more willing to raise my hand all the way up in the air, allow the teachers to call on me, and share the questions or thoughts that popped into my head. My voice continued to sound like a foreign entity, but once I started participating more regularly, it started to even itself out. No one ever did laugh at my questions, at least to the best of my knowledge, which made me realize how distorted my perceptions really were.
As an adult, I still sometimes question the value of what I have to say. In all honesty, I wondered whether this blog would serve a useful purpose. But whenever I catch myself reverting to a place of doubt, I latch onto certain markers like my therapist's feedback as a reminder that my thoughts do indeed have their rightful place and that somebody somewhere is interested in what I have to say. Learning to raise my hand has been the springboard that's spurred me to step out from the sidelines and participate more fully in life. And that has made all the difference.
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