I was born with a uniquely abnormal face.
Forty-two years ago, I was born with a critically severe cleft lip and palate – a large split or “cleft” in the upper lip and roof (palate) of my mouth. My upper lip and palate had not closed the way they normally do when a child is developing inside their mother’s womb, and so I’ve had an enormously large mouth since the day I was born.
From the time I was three weeks old to the time I was twenty-two, I underwent almost forty reconstructive surgeries to repair my cleft lip and palate. I am immensely grateful to the myriad of doctors, nurses, and health care professionals who reshaped both my facial structure and my destiny as a direct result of their clinical expertise. I am equally if not more grateful to the friends and family members who stood by me and ensured that the scars on my face did not become barriers to my dreams.
I met our guest, Scott Donnelly, online a few months ago. His story is so inspiring. His voice is so vulnerable. Many introverts will relate to Scott's story of struggle and triumph! Join me in cheering on Scott Donnelly. -Steve Friedman
I was born an introvert.
Unlike my cleft lip and palate, there are no surgeries I know of that can repair my introversion. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been at home in my own thoughts – perfectly content to pass away hours upon hours in an ethereal world of my own design. An only child, I’d have to be prompted (okay, bribed) by my parents to go and play with the other children on my block. A precocious reader, the possibility of a good book and a few hours of uninterrupted silence was more heavenly to me than any of the team sport or Cub Scout gatherings my parents so earnestly encouraged me to join. Though I wouldn’t know the name for my condition (“introversion”) until my late thirties, I always assumed that I was simply born ‘different’ in more ways than one.
It wasn’t until a sister-in-law encouraged me to read Susan Cain’s seminal book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking that I began to discover that what I had originally labeled a deficit of my character was actually a valuable asset which I share with many intrepid souls. From Albert Einstein (“The monotony and solitude of a quiet life stimulate the creative mind.”) to Maya Angelou (“Nothing can dim the light that shines from within.”) to Pablo Picasso (Without great solitude no serious work is possible”) to even Queen B herself (“I always try to be myself. Ever since I was an introverted kid, I’d get on stage and be able to break out of my shell). The best and brightest of many generations display consistent traits that personify introversion.
As a teenager, I wrestled valiantly against my naturally introverted tendencies. A lifelong student of what makes people tick, I was always watching to see what the “cool kids” were doing to win the admiration of their peers. Some of my classmates were simply born beautiful, genetic, and therefore social inheritors of a level of adoration they had neither earned nor needed to cultivate. Other “cool kids” had parents whose own familial wealth rivaled that of some small towns – and what praise these children did not come by naturally could often be purchased with large birthday parties or front row tickets to the cultural event of their choice.
With neither a personal claim to physical beauty nor to exorbitant natural wealth, I learned to be a world-class mimic. I learned to embody space with confidence, the way a high school quarterback does when he’s taken his team from a come-from-behind victory over a bitter rival. I learned to mirror my conversation partners effectively by watching the drama students hone their dialogue with their fellow stage partners. I learned early that the quickest way to build a friendship was to take interest in what the other person enjoyed. I learned to command an audience’s attention by watching comics like George Carlin and Robin Williams regale their audiences for hours on television.
Because like most introverts I did not gain, but rather spent a considerable amount of energy engaging in direct one-on-one social interactions, I learned a lot about people from watching the triumphs and the tribulations of others. When it came time to engage in social interactions myself, I could appear to be rather socially adept – not because I came by charm naturally but because I had amassed an almost encyclopedic trove of “best practices” from watching others.
Looking back, I wish I had spent less time sitting on the sidelines, “analyzing” what worked for other people, and more time simply learning how to develop my own unique voice in the world. As great of a mimic as I became, whatever I gained from copying others always came off at least a little disingenuous to the careful observer. Even though I developed a quick wit (because “everybody loves a witty comeback”), it’s very hard for me to truly listen to someone else if my mind is always racing to come up with something witty to bring to the conversation. As I learned to let my natural introversion emerge, I learned that while people do love the occasional witty barb, they also almost always love to be in the presence of a really great listener. And introverts can be extraordinary listeners, providing a genuinely attuned presence to our conversation partners even when our mouths remain silent.
When I began giving permission to myself to engage in social interactions as the introvert that I am, the number of relationships I was responsible to show up for dwindled, but the quality of the remaining relationships increased exponentially. Because I gave myself permission to “lose the extrovert” act, the people worthy of my authentic self began to come out of the woodwork. I spent a lot less time (and energy!) trying to convince others of my own importance; began developing what I now call my “unmuted” voice. I don’t always show up to all interactions as my fully unmuted self, after all I spent several decades engaging with others artificially; but it happens a lot more now because I am more intentionally conscious about unmuting my natural, powerful, present introverted voice.
I may have been born with an abnormal face. I may appear to be abnormally tongue-tied or depleted when placed in social situations, and I still may sit on the sidelines of an event for longer than I’d care to admit. But perhaps, because of my introversion, I have an abnormally strong grasp of what it means to be valued by truly genuine people. Perhaps, because of my introversion, I have an abnormally strong desire to articulate well what I’m feeling in the moment – even if the perfect words don’t come out as quickly as I’d like.
Perhaps, not in spite of but because of my introversion, I have the opportunity to create an abnormally large platform through which I can help others “unmute” their own voices.
And that is a conversation I’ll always look forward to.
About Scott Donnelly