“Do you mind if I sit here?”
I didn’t mind. She seemed like a nice person, and I was occupying a four-person table in one of the most popular restaurants on campus, so unless I was a complete asshole, of course I was going to share.
She sits down and we both do what college students do when sitting across from a seemingly friendly stranger: we opened our computers and promptly ignored each other. Everything was going great. I tapped away at the assignment I had promised myself I would finish yesterday. She looked smart, so I assume she was studying neuroscience.
And then it happened.
Our peaceful cohabitation was disturbed by the unwelcome presence of two very kind looking students who were sure to ruin my day. Miss Neuroscience had friends. She chatted with them briefly about classes and probably brains (I wasn’t really listening) and then she welcomed them to sit down. At my table. (Insert Red Ross impression: MY TABLE? AT MYYYYYYY TABLE??)
I sat there, headphones in place, bunkered down in my chair, watching Christopher Columbus weigh anchor at the table I once loved. I depended on my headphones to be the lifeline that would keep the strangers at bay. If I couldn’t hear them, I wasn’t under any obligation to speak to them, right?
Not quite. I started to feel their eyes wander over me, that weird stranger that’s occupying the final seat at their table. I knew I should just break the ice, introduce myself, and make a funny joke about brains, but as each painfully slow second ticks by, my window for a casual introduction closes, and all that’s left is the unending void of awkward glances.
But why? Why is the idea of talking to strangers so terrifying to me?
I could cite the general introversion and shyness that follows me everywhere. The way my heart races whenever I’m around too many people. My desire to be completely invisible when I’m out in society.
I could track all the way back to Barney and “Stranger Danger.”
I might even blame it all on the hell that houses every Insecurity’s origin story: high school. The time I went on a field trip to Stanford and didn’t know anyone else going, so I pieced together every fragment of my courage to introduce myself to someone, and was quickly rejected and ignored.
And yes. All of those reasons are accurate.
The reason I went to the Stanford library and read a book about Einstein and the atomic bomb instead of exploring the campus was a direct result of my failed attempt to make friends at the beginning of the trip.
But every tangible incident I can cite on my timeline boils down to one simple fact: I’m quiet because I’m terrified of strangers meeting and rejecting me. And it’s exhausting.
I know myself well enough to know that that will never go away. I’ll always second guess a friendly glance, I’ll wince when I should smile. I’ll always fear the rejection. It will always sting when it hits me. A part of me is nervous to even put this article out on the World Wide Web for the sea of Internet trolls to get their claws on.
But it’s my decision whether the rejection that inevitably soaks through to my bones will be the poison or the vaccine.
I’ve built my walls to protect myself from that one nine-letter word. Rejection. And it’s time that I start chipping away at the walls. It’ll be a slow process. If I attack the battlements with a wrecking ball, all that’ll be left of me will be a pile of rubble. So I’ll Shawshank my way out of this prison with a tiny rock hammer, and the first chip? To take my headphones off at lunch and talk about brains.