Confession? I am incapable of chit chat. It starts all ‘la la la, how’s school going’, then, *sploosh*, we’ve stepped off the shallow shoreline right over the continental shelf.
Kindergarten crafts-chat turns toward the conspiracy of public school privatization or poverty and the achievement gap. Because, you know, if poor kids had access to craft supplies at home, and mom wasn’t working two jobs, she could have been able to help him cut out Valentines for the class party. And we really need to organize—hey…?
Savvy conversation partners tear away from my riptide, clawing back to shore to join the mommies enjoying lattes from biodegradable cups and pleasant, conspiracy-less conversation. The ones who get stuck, politely treading water with me while I work out my progressive politics/emotional exorcism—hey, guys! hi! need a floatie?—aren’t as lucky.
The first clue
Good news, though. Diving deep merely means I am an introvert. Which, again, if you’ve ever had a conversation with me will come as a guffaw-your-tea-out-your-nose surprise. It surprised the shit out of me. But honestly, experimenting with introversion seemed like a good idea when I was depressed. I *hated people*, and wanted a justifiable reason to avoid them. You know, other than depression.
The rest of the time, though, I’ve always identified as an extrovert…I talk a lot, loudly, to anyone. Everyone. In fact, it’s been suggested that I never shut the fuck up, and maybe I should consider it, already.
It’s possible that my chattiness is a manifestation of anxiety. I treasure time alone. I happily read and nap and do a whole lot of nothing. I *need* time by myself, whereas I *enjoy* time with people. Sometimes. People time is generally marked by un-small talk…as wanderers-by who make the mistake of striking up a brief chat during school pick-up have discovered [floaties, seriously. I have some right here].
Extrovert’s world, introvert’s closet
A departure from either/or was difficult to absorb at first. We are stuck in the stereotypes, a binary arrangement for ‘types of people’: quiet/loud, smart/dumb, deep/shallow. It’s more complicated than that, though. Introverts don’t deserve the crap branding extroverts have saddled them with, but they’ve been too busy reading, thinking and creating to bother speaking up. Bias is an issue…introverts are often outnumbered, and sometimes deeply closeted. Introverts may even fake being extroverted to appear ‘friendly’ and ‘normal’.
I fake ‘friendly’ and ‘normal’, regularly. Solid data is gathering quickly, friends.
Thankfully, a few writers are starting to call into question the pervasive view of introverts as nerdy, bookish, anxious, hermited wallflowers. Susan Cain, author of Quiet is arguably the best known. Her Power of Introverts TED talk from February 2012 is fantastic:
She begins with a story about summer camp, and how she had to closet her introversion for the summer to ‘fit in’ and not be the weird kid. She goes on:
I got the message that somehow my quiet and introverted style of being was not necessarily the right way to go, that I should be trying to pass as more of an extrovert. And I always sensed deep down that this was wrong and that introverts were pretty excellent just as they were. But for years I denied this intuition, and so I became a Wall Street lawyer, of all things, instead of the writer that I had always longed to be—partly because I needed to prove to myself that I could be bold and assertive too. And I was always going off to crowded bars when I really would have preferred to just have a nice dinner with friends. And I made these self-negating choices so reflexively, that I wasn’t even aware that I was making them.
Now this is what many introverts do, and it’s our loss for sure, but it is also our colleagues’ loss and our communities’ loss. And at the risk of sounding grandiose, it is the world’s loss. Because when it comes to creativity and to leadership, we need introverts doing what they do best. A third to a half of the population are introverts—a third to a half. So that’s one out of every two or three people you know. So even if you’re an extrovert yourself, I’m talking about your coworkers and your spouses and your children and the person sitting next to you right now—all of them subject to this bias that is pretty deep and real in our society. We all internalize it from a very early age without even having a language for what we’re doing.
This struck a delicate nerve. Unlike Cain, I had been more than willing to get R-O-W-D-I-E at summer camp, leading those same songs myself years later as a counselor. But it gave me pause.
My family hassled me as a child. I was too shy. And too sensitive. Add in the potent shame cocktail of please-let-me-disappear-from-whatever-the-fuck-might-be-going-on-at-my-house-today. I was a little girl with an alliterative trifecta: shy/sensitive/shame-prone. Not super welcome in the 7-and-under set. My hustle began in earnest.
Which leaves me to wonder, did I become an extrovert to avoid harassment?
Denial is always the first stage
So Cain’s TED talk got me wondering. Maybe the anxiety I feel in social situations is a denied introverted nature, calling for quiet. Or more likely, am I just trying to prove that I fit in with the cool kids by talking a slick game? Will they buy the hustle?
I eventually ‘overcame’ my shyness and stopped crying [in front of people, anyway]. I started playing sports and speaking my mind in class. This meant I was an extrovert, right? Not so fast:
You need to understand what introversion is. It’s different from being shy. Shyness is about fear of social judgment. Introversion is more about, how do you respond to stimulation, including social stimulation. So extroverts really crave large amounts of stimulation,whereas introverts feel at their most alive and their most switched-on and their most capable when they’re in quieter, more low-key environments. Not all the time—these things aren’t absolute—but a lot of the time. So the key then to maximizing our talents is for us all to put ourselves in the zone of stimulation that is right for us.
The bit about shyness is true. It is definitely a fear of social judgement, and I think my shyness probably derived from a sense of shame. But the stimulation question is an important one I had *never* considered. As an extremely sensitive person, it’s terribly easily for me to get overstimulated…by emotional drama, exciting debates and conversation, caffeine and sugar.
And oh God, crowds! I sometimes take a full on rebound pose—elbows splayed and ass out—trying to maintain personal space in crowds. Mardi Gras was not the fun it ‘should have’ been for me. Neither are most concerts, fairs, or the subway on my first trip to New York [*shudder*].
Noise tweaks me too. I stuffed my ears with toilet paper at a New Year’s Eve three-set concert a few months back. And I nearly crawled out of my skin during a synchronized swimming show over the weekend. Strobe lights, loud music and garbled dialogue in a hot, echo-y pool. And the glitter. So much glitter. I made it through—barely—but it was a nightmare. Literally. The sleep that followed was un-restful, dreams prickly and sharp. I woke up with what felt like a hangover.
Talking fast, loud and incessantly and finding *something* to control are just a few of my delightful signature traits…which I assumed were common manifestations of extroversion. More and more, I suspect they are signs of overstimulation—introversion begging for some quiet. I’ll even bet that my sugar addiction existed, in part at least, to keep me humming at a certain level. An extrovert/cool kid pace is a demanding one. Really, I probably need a good book and a connecting, deep conversation.
But even that gets tricky.
Art of conversation, not conversation as art
Introversion isn’t the singular revelation, though.
Last year, I noticed that most of my relationships had become suddenly and decidedly strained. I spent a whole lot of time wondering what I was doing wrong. Most people were happy to hold me responsible for the failure, too, and for a while, we all agreed I was the problem. When I eventually got tired of playing the role of goddamn identified patient, I started blaming. This was unhelpful. Blaming others took the pressure off me, but I didn’t bring me any peace.
There were a few friends who stuck with me, nursing me through an exhausting identity overhaul and near-divorce. During one weepy and rambling kitchen conversation with one of my Judys, the door to a new room inside my brain gave way. I burst through it, clutching a moist nugget of Truth.
I am an artist. I have been using the wrong medium.
Deep conversation had become, wrongly, my expressive medium of choice. I was a practiced expert…at choosing and dissecting topics most people prefer to avoid. I would flop up on the shore where they gathered, hoping no one would notice the seaweed tangled in my hair and the crazy look in my eyes and just start ‘expressing myself.’ So arrogant, my version of performance art. And the result? Terrible, embarrassing and terrifically predictable. Depth can be dangerous…I pulled people over the shelf too fast, too often, and with too little notice. Unwillingly. In some cruel twist of justice, I was the one who ended up drowning.
Staking the claim [and screening my calls]
A full circle aside. My shy/sensitivity/shame trifecta from primary school has just been repackaged. In my thirties, I replaced the shyness with floodlit emotional disclosure, and an I-dare-you-to-pity-me stare [I can be asshole, really].
During these attempted conversations—like attempted murder, love, the way you do it—I would bare my soul and *hope* for reciprocation. But can I make someone look at/enjoy/reflect on a painting by pointing at it emphatically? Nope. No more than I can coax you into my interest/cause/passion, or into sharing yours, just by talking at you about it.
But I tried. It got to where I was so used to having one-sided conversations, I didn’t notice that I was the only one still talking. The day came that I finally noticed, and I got hurt. Then I got angry. Then I got clear. I planted the moist nugget of truth someplace safe. Someplace quiet.
The conversation I needed to have was with me. So I started writing.
Call this my personality cotillion, folks…I am an innie. Maybe I lack the courtesy to keep my thoughts to myself, like obediantly-branded introverts who tend toward the shy and polite. Difference is, now I write, instead of demanding audience while I speak. It makes for calmer, clearer waters, and quieter slower days.
Still. Old habits die hard. Beware the riptides.
Postscript: are you, too, secretly an introvert?
If you cruised past the link above that inspired this whole thing…be sure to check it out on The Huffington Post. Here are a few clarifying points I wanted to pull from the article, along with more books to consider:
I said I hated people. Only temporally true. “Introverts do not hate small talk because we dislike people. We hate small talk because we hate the barrier it creates between people,” says Laurie Helgoe in Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life Is Your Hidden Strength.
If you tend to find yourself feeling alone in a crowd, you might be an introvert. [Sigh of relief, anyone else? I’m just glad this falls under the heading Introvert, and not Socially Inept]
If you’ve been called too intense, you are probably an introvert [super true if your hairdresser calls you intense, on your *second appointment*]. “Introverts like to jump into the deep end,” says Sophia Dembling, author of The Introvert’s Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World.
Do you have a constant inner monologue? “Extroverts don’t have the same internal talking as introverts do,” says Olsen Laney. “Most introverts need to think first and talk later.”
Ignore this last detail at your peril, folks. Don’t repeat my mistake…believing your treasured and twisted inner monologue will also pass for ‘great spontaneous conversation topics at Thanksgiving.’ Just—no.
Which do you identify with most, introversion or extroversion? Are you secretly an introvert? Let me know in the comments.1