Coming out of my shell: tortoise troubles

Confronting my inability to be assertive

Emily Xia

If I had to compare myself to an animal, I would be a tortoise.

To be completely honest, admitting that is quite embarrassing, as tortoises aren’t exactly the most celebrated role models of the animal kingdom. But I’ve found it to be true — not in the sense that I move slowly (although this is true at times), but rather from the invisible shell on my back, my psychological security blanket.

Illustration by Emily Xia

When tortoises are frightened, they retract their heads and let their shells protect them, like a full suit of armor. Similarly, when I’m challenged or unconfident, I retreat into my comfortable shell and stay there until I feel safe enough to emerge, completely avoiding any potential threat. I’m not adventurous in the slightest, and I’m perfectly content staying in my shell.

Well, I used to be.

You see, periodically, tortoises will shed their old shells to replace the weakest points. And although I’ve been able to get by staying inside of my shell for the past 15 years, I’ve come to realize I need to start letting go of it.

In short, I’m on a mission of self-growth. I’m coming out of my shell.


“I’m sorry.”

This might be my most frequently-used phrase. I apologize for everything and anything. I’m terrified of social confrontation and will do anything to avoid an argument. Thus, “I’m sorry” is one of my favorite sentences from my shell, because if I take the blame, everyone else will be satisfied, right?

In the past, I always thought of this as a worthy sacrifice. In any social situation, if I was worried tensions would increase, I would apologize, even if the problem didn’t have anything to do with me. I always glorified the meaning behind these two words, believing they could solve any problem, when in reality, they didn’t mean much at all unless I acted upon my words.

In fact, by apologizing more, I made real apologies seem less significant.

While I realize that I over-apologize, I can’t fix this issue until I tackle the larger issue: I’m afraid to be assertive.

The ideal me would balance assertiveness with passiveness. In a perfect world, I would be able to speak my mind with confidence while still staying humble and conscious of my faults. However, this has never been me. My bumbling tortoise-self has always been too self-conscious and afraid of being wrong. As soon as I sense the threat of being challenged and possibly ridiculed, I’m back in my shell, unable to approach the outside world.

In my defense, society has completely distorted the definition of assertiveness. I’m constantly worried that my opinions will be completely disregarded because frankly, they have been. I’m “too young” and my brain hasn’t developed enough to fully understand the subject, or I’m “too innocent” to comprehend the true meaning.

The demands are completely contradictory — it’s good to speak your mind and be confident, but you cannot, under any circumstances, overstep boundaries. Oh, and also make sure to contribute your thoughts, but don’t disagree with others and cause conflict. My entire life has been a supposed paradox, and I am constantly forced to translate these clashing sentiments into sensible behavior. What am I supposed to believe?

News flash: just because my opinions might change in the future doesn’t mean the ones that I have now are meaningless.

I have ideas. I have opinions. I have meaningful thoughts. I’m just too much of a coward to express them. But I am a writer, and as a writer, it’s my duty to shed light on the opinions of others. How am I supposed to do that if I can’t properly assert my own? The answer lays outside my comfort zone — I have to actively share my opinions. I can’t spend my life hiding in the dark, waiting for the opportune moment for me to jump out and share my thoughts. No, that’s what the hare does. And we all know that the hare didn’t win.

Instead, I have to start introducing my ideas, patiently letting them absorb into the minds of my peers. And if they disagree, that’s just more room for growth. I will welcome change and debate, and I will expect others to do the same for me. After all, slow and steady wins the race.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m nowhere near completely shedding my shell. But I’m starting to poke my head into the world, and I’m not planning to bring it back in.