Enigmas, Shame, and the Myth of the Strong Silent Type


Over on the podcast, we just concluded a three-part series with Rachael Clinton and Dan Allender on “Not Doing Well” and our internalized messages about pushing through pain and refusing to acknowledge when we aren’t okay. Here, Beau Denton, Content Curator, writes about his experiences with one particular embodiment of those messages: the strong silent type.

As a teenager who tended toward quiet, had a fondness for naps and books, and often struggled to formulate spoken sentences without long pauses, I realized early on that I might not grow into the sort of outgoing, charismatic man I had seen idealized. So I learned to veer toward another ideal: the strong silent type—like Gary Cooper hunched over a cigarette, or the cowboy who rides into town to kiss his sweetheart and find the man who shot his Pa before disappearing back into the mountains.

My ongoing bouts with depression and social anxiety meant that I often worried others saw me as awkward or strange, so I tried to give the impression that my quiet reserve reflected something of strength and intrigue, that it was an embodiment of the truism about still waters running deep—not something to be pitied or concerned about. To me, the man of few words was wise stoicism incarnate, a perfect shield for my insecurities and what felt like internal voids. I watched Cool Hand Luke win a round of poker with “a handful of nothing” and thought how great that was, to have people presume a fount of substance and power beneath your silence.

I was in college the first time I remember being labeled an enigma. It thrilled me, because it was said with a tone of curiosity by someone I found attractive—the hopes of my childhood ideal coming to pass. But that initial delight would wane over the years, as I continued being described as enigmatic by even the people I most loved. “What am I not seeing?” my dad asked me once, after complimenting my quiet calm. Or, a favorite question from all my therapists: “Where did you go?” Then there’s a line that was sighed again and again in romantic relationships: “I just never know what you’re thinking.” To be forever an enigma, I realized, is to remain unknown.

What I have learned, am learning, and will likely learn again is that my ability to know myself is inextricable from my ability to know others, and to be known in return. That’s another lie of the strong silent type: that we just prefer our own company, or we’re comfortable enough with our own selves that we don’t need others. The truth is that we are, all of us, relational beings, with the need for connection wired into our DNA. Knowing this drains the mystique out of being a permanent enigma; to be puzzled over and wondered about, while it can still be thrilling, is no longer a satisfying end.

My ability to know myself is inextricable from my ability to know others, and to be known in return.

Looking back, I can see that teenaged Beau might have recognized this, too. For all his love of books and solitude, he was a kind boy who knew the longing to be seen and known. But he also knew something of abandonment, and something of the fear that whispers about being unlovable, whispers about the need to hide from the rejection of others. Over the years, as those whispers grew into a mantra, the strong silent type became my refuge.

This is the terrain my mind was wandering after I listened to the podcasts about “not doing well.” When we’re not well, when it feels like the world’s conspiring against us or we’ve reached the end of our rope, we all respond in different ways. Some dig in and fight, shouldering the weight of their pain and misfortune to prove that they don’t need anyone. Some, those fortunate few who are grounded in a secure attachment, might recognize that things are out of balance and reach out for help. Others—myself included—start to disappear. We withdraw and isolate, or vanish into our work, so no one else will be exposed to what feels broken and unsafe inside us. Even after years of therapy and spiritual formation and graduate school, in those moments of withdrawal I once again find myself retreating to the shallow promise of silence.

Part of what I love (and hate) about working in this community—or any place that values vulnerability and truth-telling—is that it makes my disappearing act more difficult. This is reflected in an exchange that has become familiar: One person offers a noncommittal remark in passing about a hard day or a difficult experience, often with a minimizing “It’ll be okay” or “I’m doing fine, though,” and then someone else—someone who knows them and cares to look a little below the surface—will respond with the look.

The look comes in different forms: sometimes it’s squinted eyes and a quizzical expression; sometimes it’s a tilted head and a pregnant pause; sometimes it’s a lowered chin and raised eyebrows (Rachael Clinton is particularly good at that one). But the message is usually the same: I hear you, and I don’t have to pry, but I’ll just let my face acknowledge that we both know there’s more going on.

For my younger, cowboy-idealizing self, that kind of insight was terrifying. Distance and solitude were a coping mechanism, one that was necessary at times and was perhaps the only way I knew to feel some level of control in a large, often chaotic family. When someone peered beneath the surface of my silence and saw even a glimpse of the lonely, anxious little boy inside, I felt naked. And nakedness, when shame is a close companion, feels like a death sentence.

Because that—shame—must eventually be part of these conversations, right? The fear of being exposed, the myth of the strong silent type, our hesitance to admit when we are not doing well: at some point, all these paths intersect with shame. And as I continue unearthing how shame weaves itself through my silence, I have begun to believe—not all the time, but more often than I once thought possible—that nakedness and terror do not have to go hand-in-hand.

Of course, that belief is still in process. The truth is that I wrote this essay a couple weeks ago, and I left it unfinished, not knowing why it felt unresolved. Then I realized I had written most of it in the past tense, while the shame that drives me toward silence is still very much in the present. Even as I was writing this, I found myself isolating from those I loved to hide the sadness and unrest I was carrying. But then I heard Rachael, in the last episode, saying “Look what God can do with dust.” I started to find my voice again, and I re-discovered the wonder that comes when the fear of being exposed gives way to the relief of being seen.

In those moments, I remembered, and am remembering still that to surrender my white-knuckled need to control, to let others peer behind my wall, and to be met not with judgment or shame but with intimacy and care—that is a gift greater than the strongest silence in the world.