The secret to life is to put yourself in the right lighting. Susan Cain wrote this in her book, Quiet, all about the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. After filling 365 pages with the truth that there are many different powers in the world for introverts and extroverts, Cain writes in her conclusion, “The trick is not to amass all the different kinds of available power, but to use well the kind you’ve been granted.”
Through reading her book, I discovered something crucial about myself. My quietness and shyness were a gorgeous unlocking of my potential, not a disruption. I just needed to redirect the way I was thinking about them. I wasn’t awkward—I was insightful. I wasn’t weak—I was sensitive. I had a key that could unlock access to a private garden full of riches. I found power in observation and empathy and couldn’t beat myself up for lacking the desire to find it in public speaking and extensive conversation.
So, what else was I missing about who I was? What negative truths were actually constructive opportunities?
Societal expectations are overwhelming; the way we see ourselves does not and should not align with the ideal. Unrightfully labeled “bad traits” can be good.
Society sees the world a certain way. Humans are supposed to be desperate multitaskers, hustlers, dreamers, underdogs, and the exquisite pairing to the American dream. Women are supposed to be quiet, compliant, and, at the same time, humble and effortlessly sexual. Societal expectations are overwhelming; the way we see ourselves does not and should not align with the ideal. Unrightfully labeled “bad traits” can be good. If we observe them in a new light, we can gain power from them and ourselves.
So, I came up with six personality traits (about myself) that I’ve always found negative; I explored how they can be my secret yet palpable superpowers.
I’ve been envious more times than I can count. Until I became a writer, I felt envy for other writers deeply. I wanted to be an author. I wanted to read my book in a bookstore. In every early 2000s romantic comedy that featured the main character as a magazine editor (Writer’s Note: basically all of them), I wanted to have that life. That envy came in an interesting form. Wanting to be a writer so badly made me feel incompetent and overwhelmed by the possibility. I feared the envy and the prospect of failure.
Recently, someone at work told me that envy in my professional life could indicate what I wanted. Being envious exposed a desire and an unspeakable need. What a constructive way to look at emotion! If I start to feel like I want something someone else has, I need to use it as an indication to pursue said appetite; break down the seed of that desire. Envy may be an ugly emotion, but it tells the truth. If we observe our wants objectively, we can better define how to reach them.
Envy may be an ugly emotion, but it tells the truth. If we observe our wants objectively, we can better define how to reach them.
I want to note here that envy is different than jealousy. I learned this from Brené Brown, the coveted emotions researcher and TED Talk extraordinaire. Jealousy and envy are not the same things. Envy is between two people and wanting something that someone else has. Jealousy, on the other hand, is between three people and it’s the fear of losing something we already have to someone else. I have found this benefit in envy specifically and realizing I want something, versus being afraid of losing something I already have.
As a writer, I go back and read what I’ve written a lot. I find myself on old Instagram posts, online articles, and journal entries—critiquing what I’ve shared in the past. When I first started keeping a journal (around first grade) I became obsessed with going back and rereading year by year. I was intrigued by how much things had changed; by how my telling of those things had changed.
So, it makes sense that I often come across previous write-ups that I hate. I cringe at my style and tone, how I place words, and beliefs or thoughts I had. On the bright side of this negative self-critique, when I look back on my art and dislike it, I think it’s because I’ve grown beyond a past self. Change can be uncomfortable—but discomfort often leads to deeper growth. And being self-critical is one way to identify that growth happening.
3. Messing up
I mess up ALL the time. I mess up at work. I mess up with my friends. I mess up with my family. I mess up when it comes to saving money, cooking, driving, loving, and being sad. Messing up is in our nature.
However, making mistakes in all those realms indicates we may need to rest. We need to slow down and, figuratively, stop trying to pat our heads and rub our stomachs at the same time. I hit burnout early in the year at my job. My work was sloppy and I didn’t have the headspace to write. I made mistakes that felt amateur. So, I took some time off to rest. Going dormant doesn’t mean I’m weak. And messing up certainly doesn’t mean I’m stupid or incapable. Imagine that, millennial perfectionist! (Writer’s Note: I’m mocking myself but blink twice if you feel the same.)
Contrary to hustle culture, moving slowly—only completing one important task a day—is a luxury. When forced to multitask, our brains have a more challenging time with recall. We become overwhelmed. I also read somewhere that people who walk slowly are happier. That resonated with me. Why was I in a rush to do all of the things, all of the time?
I want to make laziness my battle cry. I am not unwilling to do work or use up a lot of energy, but I want to be willing to let things move slowly. And not hate myself for it. My sister gave me a book recently called How to Be More Tree and the first page said it best: “As a wise person once said, patience isn’t in the waiting, it’s how you deal with having to wait. And Japanese maples have this all worked out. These little trees grow in the mountains, where the pace of life is slow, winters can be hard, and it’s not a great idea to overstretch yourself.”
So, be like a Japanese maple. You’ll be filled with stunning bronze foliage eventually.
Until I was in college, I was conditioned to think that swearing made me foul. I didn’t swear in front of my parents until I was in my late twenties and still cringe when I do so now (I am thirty-four). Despite being afraid of the word f*ck for so long, when I started swearing it made me feel satisfied. It felt good to yell a hefty “damn it” Hail Mary into the air. Despite thinking I was a foul-mouthed sailor, swearing makes me feel… calm.
A Keele University study recently came out and showed swearing has a benefit for your pain response. The details of the research showed that swearing allowed people to hold their hands under cold water for a longer amount of time, compared to the group of people who weren’t allowed to swear. I think what I’m writing here is that sometimes, saying “fuck it, I quit” can be a healing balm.
A quote by Anaïs Nin: “Our culture made a virtue of living only as extroverts. We discouraged the inner journey, the quest for a center. So we lost our center and have to find it again.”
I can shine as an introvert because it’s that personality trait that allows me to be a better listener and a compassionate storyteller. Understanding this bit of myself allowed me to give myself more grace.
In Susan Cain’s book, she writes to bear in mind that appearance is not reality. We don’t know what’s going on inside people’s minds. They could be writing a sonnet, imagining a fear, or thinking about what they’re going to say next. But, we can’t assume extroversion is the only type of power. Being an introvert is too. Quiet is compelling.
I didn’t understand before reading her book, Quiet, that the Extrovert Ideal had overshadowed my life for so long. While reading, it quickly became apparent to me that my truth was the introvert mentality. I was overly sensitive. I didn’t like loud noises. I always felt empathetic. And when I stifled the idea of being an introvert, I stifled those things too. I lost a part of myself while trying to pride myself on being able to be a stunning public speaker and hated myself when I shut down and felt deeply awkward in conversation. I can shine as an introvert because it’s that personality trait that allows me to be a better listener and a compassionate storyteller. Understanding this bit of myself allowed me to give myself more grace.
The lesson here is this. If we are curious and open to how negative personal traits can become applicable lessons in self-definement, we can use lemons to make lemonade.
Ending with this perfect quote from Susan Cain: “Find out what you are meant to contribute to the world and make sure you contribute it. If this requires public speaking or networking or other activities that make you uncomfortable, do them anyway. But accept that they’re difficult, get the training you need to make them easier, and reward yourself when you’re done.”
Susan Cain quotes always make me want to mic drop. Now, tell me your negative truths that are actually beneficial. We can all learn from them.
Brittany Chaffee is an avid storyteller, professional empath, and author. On the daily, she gets paid to strategize and create content for brands. Off work hours, it’s all about a well-lit place, warm bread, and good company. She lives in St.Paul with her baby brother cats, Rami and Monkey. Follow her on Instagram, read more about her latest book, Borderline, and (most importantly) go hug your mother.