I am an introvert. I didn’t always know it though.
In fact, if you had asked most people when I was in growing up, or in college and grad school, or in the years following school, they probably wouldn’t have guessed that. I was into the performing arts and performed in front of large audiences. I was a frequent public speaker. I loved to talk, spending hours on the phone with friends many evenings sharing stories or discussing ideas.
In fact when I was first given a Myers Briggs personality test, my results came out slightly more extroverted than introverted. Of course a test like that depends on you having enough self-awareness to answer the questions accurately, and even if I tried, it’s clear to me now that I didn’t quite succeed.
My epiphany came back in the early 2000s when articles began to come out about the misunderstandings around what it means to be an introvert. (Here was one of the articles that was shared with me: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2003/03/caring-for-your-introvert/302696/. I think it’s a great article, although even it has the potential to paint a more extreme image than the reality of some introverts.)
So essentially, the misconceptions boil down to the following. The image many have of an introvert as somebody shy, maybe lacks social skills, certainly isn’t talkative, doesn’t like to be around people, and so forth.
In my case this never felt like this fit, other than a tendency to be shy at times. I really like people and I’m fairly confident in my social skills. It just turns out I do better one-on-one or in small groups. I love to talk, but I enjoy deeper, more meaningful conversations and don’t particularly enjoy small talk.
The real defining characteristic is this: when I’m around people especially for sustained periods of time, I become drained and need to recharge. Extroverts, on the other hand, are energized by people. That really is the key difference between introverts and extroverts.
One of the challenges for introverts in general is that we live in a very extroverted world. Increasingly so.
There are obvious examples of this. Companies everywhere are changing their office layouts to open, shared spaces. Cubicle walls are being lowered. In some cases personal space is even being done away with in favor of “hoteling” – come in, find an open spot at a table, and that’s where you should hang for the day. Even in schools, we are seeing a shift away from individual work at desks toward more group projects.
Somehow our society has gotten it into its collective head that if people aren’t constantly forced to work together, emotional intelligence will suffer, collaboration won’t organically happen, or who knows what else.
And then there is the perpetually connected life we live when we introduce the ability for people to call or text us any time on the mobile phones we have with us at all times, social media, and so on. This can contribute to the plight of the introvert.
Meanwhile, I have found that my own world is very extroverted one indeed.
My more-than-full-time-job tends to be quite meeting-happy among other extroverted tendencies. I married an extrovert. (She happens to be very sensitive to this particular introvert’s needs, but nonetheless.) And perhaps it’s just a toddler thing, but my son acts more extroverted than some of the most extroverted people I’ve met (read: he is like a radio without an off switch).
So from the moment everyone is up in my house, my time for quiet or reflection or recharging is through. And generally it isn’t until after work and after my son goes to bed before there is a real chance to recharge again. Between those goal posts, I am ON. And more often than I’d like to admit, I do feel like it has the tendency to get the better of me.
What I find in my life is that there is this dynamic tension between having enough time to myself and meeting the needs of my extroverted world.
If you need a lot of “me time” to recharge and restore yourself, it’s not always easy for your more extroverted family, friends and coworkers to understand this. Even as I write this at this unusual time for me – the middle of the day on a weekend while my family is home – I have had to pause about a dozen times as my son has come to me multiple times, my wife has asked me to do a couple things and has pressed me to finish, and I received a call from my boss at work.
That’s no fault of theirs of course, and I hope it doesn’t come across as a complaint. All of the interruptions have been for good reasons. What I’m illustrating is this: It can also feel selfish, or can be judged as such, when you need more than the average amount of time for yourself.
Of course most extroverts would tell you, and quite fairly, “Hey, I need ‘me time’ too, when do I get that?” No doubt they do.
I think the difference for an introvert is that they may just need an above-average amount of time because the demands of an extroverted workplace, family life, social life, and so on, depletes them more or they have fewer reserves. My wife would be the first to tell you that she sometimes only needs an hour at the gym, or twenty minutes by herself and she’s back in action.
I, on the other hand, sometimes need multiple hours. And at this stage of my life it is not always easy to come by multiple hours.
Do I wish it was otherwise? In my own case, absolutely. I often wish I didn’t need so much time for myself. I don’t like feeling selfish, or the occasional feeling of walking on eggshells as to whether or not I’m within the bounds of what’s reasonable. I’d love to be able to just roll with whatever, wherever. But the reality is sometimes I’m able to do this, but sometimes I simply can’t. And I’m not sure it’s healthy to deny yourself of that, even if it’s uncomfortable to honor those needs or if others don’t understand it.
I’ll be the first to admit I have definitely not found the perfect balance. This dynamic tension I referenced earlier is a balancing act that may take me a lifetime to master, and I may never get there.
I have found a few things that have helped over the years.
Waking up early – This is by far the most beneficial practice for me. It could just as easily be “staying up late,” but for reasons I’ve mentioned before, I personally do better when my alone time is in the morning. I’d likely squander evening time watching television because I’d be too fried or tired to use it well. The important thing about waking up early is that I’m creating “me time” at a time where it doesn’t take away from other responsibilities or other people. This helps me balance things and avoids those feelings of being too self-centered.
Saying no – If I were giving someone this as advice, this would be one of those “do as I say, not as I do” kind of things. I need a lot of help in this department. But on occasion I say no to something, such as a social gathering at a time I know I’m far from in the mood. The people-pleaser in me has an incredibly hard time with this, but sometimes it can really help.
Taking breaks – I’m often at my best when I force myself to take regular breaks. I often use those breaks for a little meditation or mindfulness practice – it’s like a quick cleanse for the mind and emotions. It’s really important I find a place that’s completely alone and interruption-free though, because taking a break and having it interrupted by others multiple times can have the opposite effect.
Not trying to force small talk – Sometimes I’m with other people and conversation is just natural. But sometimes it isn’t. We all know what awkward silence feels like. And like so many other people, I feel compelled to try to fill it when it comes about. The problem is, this is exactly what contributes to my tendency to feel depleted around others. I become concerned about what others might think about me, I feel the need to ask questions or generate conversation, and the result is this self-conscious, forced conversation that ends up taxing me. (Ironically, this can sometimes be at its worst when I’m with another introvert – I’m more moderate in my introversion so I default to the role of the extrovert when someone is more introverted than me. You’d think I’d understand the situation and the other person more and not do this but…)
On occasion, I have allowed myself to just be quiet with someone rather than force small talk when it wasn’t naturally flowing. I’d be lying if I said that sometimes this wasn’t really uncomfortable. But if I wasn’t layering this self-conscious judgment on top, then all it would be is just a moment of silence. I think we could all benefit from a few more of those…
Not worrying about being understood – I think many people, introverts and extroverts alike, fall into the trap of wanting to be understood by those around them. But what I am specifically speaking to here is that it helps not to worry about being misunderstood as an introvert. Occasionally I’m quiet… no big deal, right? Occasionally I don’t navigate a social setting as expertly as I would’ve liked… who doesn’t experience that? Occasionally I’d rather do something quiet or alone versus join the party… hasn’t everyone been there? It’s not always one way anyway. And most people don’t actually notice or don’t care as much as I might fear anyway.
I am certainly no expert on this subject. I have much to learn about living as an introvert in an extroverted world. But I’ll keep trying things out, experimenting, and learning, and I’m also always interested in hearing what has worked for others…
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