I’ve known for a long time that there is a word to describe what I am. Introvert. Even before I knew the word, I knew even longer what I was. There are other descriptions people have used on me. Shy. Anti-social. Keeps to herself. Not outgoing. These are the words I overheard as I was growing up. Some people have blamed my upbringing, saying I wasn’t adequately socialized because I was home-schooled. But that is not the reason. Not to take a stand on the whole “Nature vs. Nurture” debate, but I knew that I was introverted before I was school-age. I didn’t call myself that. I called myself “Laura.” But I knew that I did not “need” to be around kids my own age. I didn’t rely on others to have fun. I had me.
About a year ago I was talking to my manager at my work, and said something about how I often felt exhausted and wanted to be by myself after a long day of taking calls or assisting customers. He pointed out—he was apparently paraphrasing Jung though I didn’t know it at the time—that introverts often “recharge” by being in solitude, and being around people can be “draining” of that energy supply. Extroverts, on the other hand, find loneliness fatiguing and are energized by being around people.
Recently I was recommended the book Quiet, and it helped elaborate on what my manager was saying. It really helped me understand a lot more about the way the two different personalities function mentally, emotionally, and socially. It made me rethink the way I’d always felt about myself. All my life people have talked about introversion as if it’s an inhibition, a lacking in my character that needs to be overcome. For example:
When I was in pre-K nursery, I was put in time-out because I didn’t want to participate in some game the other kids were doing. The teacher told me when I was older that I had been very difficult about it, and even when she punished me by separating me from the others, I didn’t seem to mind. Unbeknownst to this teacher when she recounted the story to me as an adult, I actually remember this event. I remember sitting on the hard plastic chair, it was creamy yellow and had a soft texture like Tupperware. There was a hole in the back of the seat that I traced my finger on. In my imagination, the chair’s back was a high dam or some such construction, and imaginary characters climbed all over it. I had an immensely good time, in that time-out.
Another example: I went to kindergarten at a private school for my first year of schooling. My mom had taken me to an orientation for the public schools first, but decided against it before enrolling me because amongst other reservations the teacher who had watched me during orientation had said I was antisocial. The reason? Because I refused to play Legos with my peers. Again this is something I actually remember. The real reason I refused to play Legos was not that I did not like my peers—actually one of those peers was my next-door neighbor with whom I played regularly—but that I did not want to play Legos. I had Legos at home. What I did not have at home at my beck and call were wooden blocks, which I found to my delight were in great quantity in the playroom of the kindergarten. Again I had a very good time playing blocks by myself. I would have shared had any of the kids come over to play with me, but they wanted to play Legos. This was fine, too. It was a free country. The only annoyance was some grown up lady kept coming over and interrupting my tower-making and demanding that I join the other children.
I had therefore been comfortable with my own, solitary company for as long as I can remember. Somewhere along the line, though, the word “introvert” came to mean something negative. I try to be a polite, friendly person, but that is not enough. I’ve had people insist I need to smile more. I’ve been told I need to make more of an effort to have lots of friends. Introverts are regularly ordered to “get out of your comfort zone” to mingle, make small talk, and to ignore the advice of our parents and talk to strangers. We’re told to try out for things and participate in class, and if we balk we’re called “antisocial.” It’s all a very unbalanced view of society.
If introverts should just "open up a little," sometimes extroverts should try "closing down" a little. How many confrontations, arguments, insults, and little foolishnesses might have been avoided if the speaker had just taken a bit of time for some personal introspection? Yet nobody asks an extrovert to get out of their comfort zone, to spend time alone reading or contemplating quietly. Just saying.
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain is a book that helps introverts like me cope with living in a culture that carries an Extrovert Ideal of how a person is supposed to act. She traces back to when culture prized character above personality, and how that changed into the present ideal of a gregarious, popular person who is more out-going than inward-thinking.
She gathers statistics of how introversion and extroversion can be genetic traits, how people can be well or ill-adjusted to both, how some introverts can behave like extroverts in some situations, and how introverts could also be called More Sensitive because it takes less stimulation to exhaust our senses and overwhelm us with noise and lights and changes to our environment.
And she gives hints on how to practically implement our inclinations toward solitude and quiet in a loud and crowded world, how maintaining a balance of our comfort zone and stretching ourselves to try new experiences, as well as how to function best in the workplace, in relationships, and in parenting introverted children.
All of these pointers were helpful to me as I went through a sort of introvert revelation. I can still be “me.” Knowing how my emotions and thoughts are organized will help me to stretch beyond my shyness and limitations when it really matters, and not to feel guilty or afraid that people will judge me according to some Extrovert Ideal standard that is impossible for me to achieve. In a world that does seem to constantly talk, where the pressure to be constantly “logged on” to some sort of social media is overwhelming, the concept of Quiet is something that resonates not just with introverts, but with all humans who are exhausted and seek a little peace.