I have always thought of myself as shy.
People who know me online don’t quite believe this. Even people who know me in person don’t believe this.
So I describe myself as a shy person who just hides it well.
I’ve even described it as social anxiety.
Really, it’s none of these things. Looking back, I’m not shy. I’ve never been shy. I’ve always been outgoing, performative, and generally gregarious. As a small child, I did hide behind my mother when strange adults came around, but I’m beginning to suspect that had more to do with weird attachment issues based on my mother’s emotional instability. With kids my own age, I was fearless – often to my detriment, because I did get mocked and bullied at both my primary schools. At my second school, I often didn’t know whether I’d have friends that day, or whether the girls who had been my friends the day before would turn around and start picking on me.
It’s not social anxiety, either. Social anxiety is a real condition based on an irrational fear. When you’re on the spectrum, the fear of making a social error and being bullied and shamed and ostracised is very rational. We miss cues. We don’t work out what’s appropriate (well, not at the same rate – we work hard at it and often get there in the end, but not before we mess it up). We’re blunt and tactless and we often try to do and say and joke the way other people do, but get the context and timing wrong…
And the worry about being shut out, the reality of never fitting in or being accepted, the horror of knowing that you can’t seem to really connect with or communicate with people? That grows, and becomes overwhelming.
Because it happens, and it will happen again.
(unless they’re extremely patient and warm and take the time, or are a bit spectrummy themselves, or just happen to like your quirks and are willing to put up with some of the tricky parts of being your friend)
People scare the shit out of me because they can hurt me. I’ve been bullied in the past and I’m a survivor of parental abuse (from a parent, by the way, who very strongly taught me that “standing out” in any way was bad: wear bland colours; be quiet; blend in; don’t draw attention; it’s bad when people look at you… Navy blue. Light blue. Brown).
So: I have abandonment issues. I will always react badly to any form of social rejection, because there are traumatic associations there.
Sometimes I get brain fog from low blood pressure, or ADHD factors, or sensory overstimulation and I can’t think, and I don’t know what to say or how to respond, and my head is full of white noise-
But that’s not social anxiety. And it’s not shyness, either. It’s just that my brain isn’t able to deal with socialising at that time and in that state.
Fact is, I’m not shy. I like to talk, and tell stories, and babble; I like being onstage, whether singing or acting (admittedly my last amateur theatre experience was a while ago, and let’s be honest: my strength is comedic). I genuinely adore giving presentations.
I have what a friend once called “the gift of the gab.”
I didn’t realise this before that point. I was in undergrad then, and for many of my subjects, we had to give tutorial class presentations. These were generally short, 10-15 minutes, maybe 1000-1500 words, and were worth maybe 5-10% of the mark. I essentially considered these a hurdle requirement.
Remember that, as an ADHDer, I leave things until the last minute, and also pull out high-scoring essays the night before deadline – so that length of reflection, for a low percentage of my mark, was not a real issue for me. And – after my first year – I had zero problems giving these presentations.
Do a bit of research. Knock out a decent response. Explain it in class the next day, using the written component (later to be given to the tutor) as a prompt. Depending on the class, manage the subsequent class discussion.
So I was quite surprised when I asked a friend if she wanted to grab coffee after class, and she declined. “I have to go and get a start on this presentation,” she said apologetically. “I’m giving it next week.”
I think I stared at her, blinking. Remember that I’m not always the most tactful person. “It’s not a big deal,” I said, in a way I probably imagined was comforting. “Just knock something out, you’ll be right.”
“It’s a presentation. I’m going to have to practice it.”
Wait, what? Practice a tutorial presentation?
That’s a thing? That’s a thing people actually do?
“Oh,” I said, again looking a bit blank. “Uh. I don’t?”
She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, Kate, but you’ve got the gift of the gab. You just do this sort of thing.”
Over the years, I’ve given my fair share of tutorial discussions, PhD departmental presentations, my final talk, various conference presentations and a few public science talks. I really love the latter, because I get to be enthusiastic about science and there are less constraints on the formality of my behaviour. So I can speak at a layperson level and get excitable.
Fact is, I get excitable anyway. My conference presentations, for the most part, tend to run that way. I’ve only had a few where I freaked out and flubbed them.
And I… can’t practice. Not really. I can check the timing by practicing it in my head. I’ll mutter my way through it to make sure the ideas flow the way they should. But I can’t force myself to stand up, practice in front of a mirror, or the cats, in a real sense. Ugh. It’s the worst. Why am I practicing this? I know all this stuff. I can talk about it forever. I’ve got the slides to prompt me if I forget what comes next. I’ve done my obligatory muttering to check that the structure makes sense.
Every time I get up to deliver my un-practiced talk (pseudo-practiced?), I have a moment where I stare out at the lecture theatre, and think, “What the fuck am I doing? Why are these people even listening to me?”
Then I look at the first slide, and I say hello, and introduce the concepts-
“Oh,” I think. “That’s right. I know this shit. I just have to talk about it. And tell the story.”
Turns out I’m good at talking. I’m good at telling the story. I’m good at sharing the excitement of discovery.
And I always think about what my friend said, a little frustrated, and very patient with my cluelessness about the fact that everyone has difficulty with different things – because I do have it. I have the Gift of the Gab.
I recently gave a one hour presentation for my dive club. I stayed up most of the night before getting the slides together, really excited about the ideas I wanted to communicate, the stories I wanted to tell, and the underlying theme. There were things I really wanted people to think about, and I knew how to make that happen.
I even scripted parts of it, although I barely stuck to the script.
When I got up, and started giving this talk, I was exhausted. I was a bit anxious.
The moment clicked in, and suddenly I was on. And the whole thing was a performance, and I just kept going.
This is the gift of the gab, the enthusiasm that punches out without warning and somehow compensates for my usual awkwardness, the creativity, the high speed brain spinning the whole time, and the ability to rely on that. You know that the words will be there when you need them, they’ll be there to catch you when you take the leap.
It’s like singing, when you know the melody and the words and your throat is soft and responsive and the air responds to every little nudge in your lungs and palate to shape the note and the tone-
It’s like acting, when you’ve learned the lines by heart, and you just throw yourself into the scene, bouncing off the energy of your fellow performers, reacting to the audience-
After the talk, I was high. I was wired. I was bouncing off the walls as Husband drove us home.
I was thinking that this was one of the good things about ADHD – because the Gift of the Gab is very much an ADHD quality (although obviously not confined to ADHD, and obviously not all ADHDers have it). It’s one potential consequence of a brain that spins without stopping. A good number of us – even those of us who are socially awkward the rest of the time – are performers. As I get older, it’s easier to appreciate and enjoy that aspect of my personality, especially because I’m less scared of rejection by new people. I have a solid foundation of friends in my world, I have Husband, I have a safety net that can catch me if I fall.
I’m still socially awkward, but mostly this is because I still get overstimulated and my sensory processing is borked, or because my blood pressure has tanked and my brain is enveloped in fog. It’s harder for me to overcome that in a social situation, because social interaction requires more effort and thought for me than it does for most people. Those phrases and responses that are instinctive for others just aren’t there for me. When I need to switch off, there’s no social reflex to catch me.
This is very similar to one of the problems I face with hypermobility syndrome. My stabilising impulses kick in late, if they kick in at all; which means I end up (1) with overloaded muscle groups, (2) with inflammation (3) with poor balance and – occasionally – (4) just plain falling on my arse.
Then again, I’ve landed on my backside so frequently throughout my life (both literally and metaphorically) that it really doesn’t scare me anymore.
Without my ADHD diagnosis, I wouldn’t have been able to figure out my apparent “shyness”, or how it interacts with my desire to perform.
And I might not have been able to see the positives of ADHD – because there are real advantages.
ADHD brains spin at a higher RPM than most brains. Thoughts bloom and race at a higher speed and intensity. There’s a volume control, but it’s not very responsive. The car has brakes, but they kick into late if they work at all. That spin churns out ideas and thoughts and solutions so quickly that it’s sometimes hard to grab onto them before they race out of reach – and disappear forever.
But we do get those ideas spinning out, and that’s no small advantage. Studies have shown that ADHD brains are better at coming up with creative solutions. When we get the appropriate amount of positive feedback (which starts up a nice dopamine cycle), ADHD kids often outperform their neurotypical classmates. There’s a real chemical component to encouragement.
We see and respond to the world differently – that world is mostly built for people who don’t work the way we do, and that can be really difficult. The world wants us to sit still and not fidget (fidgeting helps us focus); to spend a lot of time on repetitive, tedious tasks (like paperwork); to tolerate interruptions, to swap between tasks, to remember a laundry list of small things, to be on time always…
And we’re not good at those things, as a rule.
But we’re also powerhouses in our own areas of strength, and when we can harness that, we can do great things.