Confessions of a non-recovering introvert

I’m an introvert. When I said it to friends a few times over the last couple of weeks, I’ve gotten responses like, “You? You’re so talkative” or “I remember you as so outgoing” but almost always, “You’re not an introvert.”

Really? How would you know?

You probably base your idea of who I am on what you see on the outside, without knowing what’s going on inside of me most of the time. Sure, I can put together a party and play the happy hostess. But inside, I’m usually freaking out, because I have a difficult time talking to lots of people at once. You see me as talkative because I try to go out into social situations only when I’ve built up enough social energy to carry on a conversation; you don’t see me in my alone times, just me and the dogs, walking in the cemetery and recharging my batteries.

I can talk at length, and even in front of a crowd, about a topic dear to my heart. But it’s impossible for me to speak when I don’t believe what I’m saying. Want to talk about human trafficking or positive dog training methods? I’m all about it. Which girl should get a rose on “The Bachelor”? I’m out – or rather, I end up musing about why women would value themselves so little that they’d compete for some guy on a game show and throw their emotions around so trivially; usually everyone else wants to talk about which girl is the biggest bitch.

I’m always asking questions to strangers, like “why do you believe that” and “how did that make you feel”, surrounding myself with gads of acquaintances but few real friends, avoiding conflict and loud noises (and people who wear copious amounts of perfume or cologne), always aware that there is a social line that, once crossed, can throw me into panic or drain me to the point of physical exhaustion.

I get it. I sound cuckoo. In fact, for years (and years) I thought there was something wrong with me. Let’s face it. In our culture, we revere the outgoing, bold, confident risk takers, those who set goals and go after them with wild abandon. Those of us who spend a lot of time thinking and wondering but not always doing are viewed as weak.

That’s why I was so relieved to read Susan Cain’s “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.” The book could have been subtitled “Joanne: An Owner’s Manual.”

For the first time, someone has taken the side of the introvert and shown how important they (we) are in an American culture, dispelling the myth that all introverts are recluses who avoid human interaction or that extrovertism is the ideal. And she uses neuroscience and research to back it all up.

Newsflash: there’s nothing wrong with me.

One of the things Cain talks about is the difference in the nervous systems of introverts and extroverts. Research has shown that introverts simply can’t handle too much stimulation, which is why we tend to shy away from … well, too much stimulation. It’s not that we don’t occasionally enjoy social outings, but the reality is that we can tolerate only so much before we’re overloaded: too much talking, too much music, too many smells or bright lights, too many people, too many conversations. I like a night out once in a while, but overall? I’d rather be in my jammies, watching PBS or reruns of my favorite comedies on Netflix, or reading an interesting book. I prefer coffee with one close friend over a large party of acquaintances. I try and maintain an even emotional state; not that I don’t feel emotions (I’m a wee bit of a crier, especially when it comes to my dogs) but too much up and down wears me out quickly.

It makes for some difficulties with personal relationships. Your typical introvert, Cain writes, “would rather spend her vacation reading on the beach than partying on a cruise ship.” Ironically, I’ve had family members try to get me to go on a cruise and they think they’re helping by extolling the virtues of a city on the sea – the activities, the stops at different ports, the various buffets, the shows, so much to do. But with every word they reinforce my belief that a cruise would simply be hell on the water.

The problem, of course, is that no one wants to plan a family vacation with the girl who wants to sit under a palm tree for a week, sipping pina coladas, reading a book, and contemplating the meaning of life. But for me? Heaven. I don’t need to be alone; I just need to be calm, peaceful, relaxed, left to enjoy one glorious thing at a time.

Introverts avoid conflict, so imagine being an introvert married to a spouse for whom cathartic emotional eruptions are a way of expressing everything from love to anger. The introvert tries to minimize the aggression, distancing herself from the situation. The extrovert sees it as closing off emotionally and so amps up the volume. “Pretty soon they’re locked in a destructive cycle from which they can’t escape,” writes Cain, “partly because both spouses believe they’re arguing in the appropriate manner.”

The key isn’t to determine which is better – introvert or extrovert – but to recognize that we’re all different people with different ways of dealing with the world, with different purposes and ways of fulfilling those purposes.

The problem, of course, is that in our culture we don’t recognize the value of the introvert, and so most of us are always trying to live up to the extrovert ideal. Just do it, we’re told. Be happy, set goals, live like there’s no tomorrow, speak up, put away the books. In other words, try not to be so damned introverted. The problem, though, is that “acting out of character for too long and without restorative niches” will eventually take a toll.

“When your conscientiousness impels you to take on more than you can really handle,” Cain writes, “you begin to lose interest, even in tasks that normally engage you.” She calls it “emotional labor”, or the effort we make to control and change our own emotions, and it’s associated with stress, burnout and other physical symptoms. Too much energy spent trying to naviagate the emotional storms, and wham. You’re sidelined with every tank on empty.

Been there, done that. “Empty” is how I spent the entire year of 2011.

Other introvert traits, according to Cain: they get sick more easily in highly stressful situations; don’t handle information overload well; are not good at multitasking (which is not doing two things at once but being able to quickly switch between multiple tasks); prefer deep, meaningful conversations to chit chat; are less driven by rewards like cash or “top dog” status; and are often exhausted after being around other people. Yup, that’s me.

But here’s the thing to remember: those are not bad traits to have. The world needs introverts. Cain talks a lot about the power of introverts in business and finance, citing the success of people like Bill Gates, Charles Schwab, Warren Buffet, and Steve Wozniak, introverted leaders and innovators often described as quiet, humble, shy, gracious, modest and understated.

Managers put a lot of emphasis on hiring employees who can multitask, but multitasking “reduces productivity and increases mistakes by up to 50 percent”. Cain suggests that managers “Make the most of introverts’ strengths – these are the people who can help you think deeply, strategize, solve complex problems, and spot canaries in your coal mines.”

The world needs those quiet innovators like Marie Curie, who work in solitude but make contributions from which we all benefit. Much can be accomplished with quiet strength – think Rosa Parks, Ghandi. There’s something to be said for people who are driven by internal gratification rather than external rewards.

And never forget that you can change the world without necessarily having to play host to everyone in it. Cain quotes Theodore Geisel, otherwise known as Dr. Seuss, an introvert who rarely ventured out to meet his merry bands of young fans. “In mass,” Geisel has said, “[children] terrify me.”

I don’t think I needed Cain to tell me that introverts are important or make significant contributions to society. I know that. What I did need was for someone to explain that being introverted is OK; that being shy in some situations and social in others is normal for someone like me; that it’s OK to not strive to be rich or famous (or want shiny new things); that someone understands that being alone is not the same as being lonely; that for people like me, solitude can be invigorating and shouldn’t be viewed as anti-social.

The key, writes Cain, is to “put yourself in the right lighting … Use your natural powers – of persistence, concentration, insight, sensitivity – to do work you love and work that matters. Solve problems, make art, think deeply. Figure out what you are meant to contribute to the world and make sure you contribute it.”

And that’s what I really needed to hear.

 You can learn more about “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Won’t Stop Talking” on the book’s website.

  • Robin Frisella

    Thank you for this! I guess I had a need to feel validated. “You? Shy? You? Introverted? That’s impossible!” I have heard it all my adult life. I have the twice-as-nice combo of Introvert and painfully shy. If these people had known me as a silent, wide-eyed child, they’d have believed it. I love your party story–people don’t get the sometimes Herculean effort that’s required to do the crowded social scene.

    • Joanne Brokaw

      Here’s the thing to remember: shy and introverted you were created for a purpose only you can fulfill, and you were created exactly the way you are in order to do it! You trying to be someone else would only muck up the whole thing. You’re perfect just the way you are. How’s that for empowering? ;)

  • agricola

    Learning how to manage and enjoy (yes, enjoy – sometimes, in small doses) socializing is something we have to LEARN. And if I don’t get a piece of ‘alone time’ to sit down at the end of the day, woe to all around: meltdown imminent.

    The only ‘cruise’ activity that sounded good to me, last year when we were talking ‘cruise’ (which we did NOT take) is the ‘private stateroom with balcony overlooking the (empty) ocean’ part!

    • Joanne Brokaw

      Hmm. An empty stateroom overlooking the vast, gorgeous ocean? I could handle that! LOL

  • Debra Watson

    THANK YOU for writing this wonderful piece! I felt as though you were writing about me. It is so refreshing to read an insightful article which values those who are what I call “real people” who care about things that truly matter in life and not the things that get all of the attention in our culture.

    • Joanne Brokaw

      Thanks so much for the kind words! It helps to know we’re not alone, doesn’t it? When I said last week to some friends that I wouldn’t know Beyonce if she knocked on my front door, they were aghast. As if being up on pop culture really is all that matters in life … ;)

  • Bholter

    Thank you so much for writing this! I plan to get the book. I feel as if I wrote this, right down to preferring dogs to people, and believing a cruise would be hellish. (Also, I disapprove of the ships dumping their waste in the ocean) I was a teacher for 35 years, and it was a daily challenge to face the masses. I will also avoid gymnasiums for the rest of my life! Fortunately, I am married to another introvert, who has been known to leave parties and stand in the yard behind a tree. We are happily retired, socializing with small groups when we feel like it. Like you, people are amazed when I say I am shy or socially anxious.

    • Joanne Brokaw

      I think you’ll love the book – there’s so much more in there than I could blog about! Let me know what you think about it!

  • Shawne Randlett

    What I find frustrating is the assumption commonly held by extroverts that introversion is synonymous with social anxiety. When people hear “introvert” they think “shy.” What’s worse, though, is that I have encountered other introverts who believe the same fallacy because they, themselves are shy or suffer from social anxiety! I am an introvert who is neither shy, nor socially anxious, nor am I a stranger to emotional outbursts and declarations of strong reactions and opinions. I hate parties because of all the banal, shallow conversation (such as all the blah blah blah about Dancing With the Stars or whatever the hell Michelle Obama wore to whatever the heck it was… GAWDDDD someone shoot me now). People use me up; I must absolutely be alone to recharge and tend to live inside my own head much of the time, revealing myself to a very small number of people and could live for days inside or alone without ever really missing going out. But imagine my irritation when not only extroverts think I’m off my rocker for being a non-shy introvert, but many shy, socially-awkward introverts think I should be just like them. Grrrrr.

  • Maureen

    Great post, Joanne!
    I loved Susan Cain’s book when I read it last year, and had many of the same epiphanies you mention here (I love the retitle idea – ha!). While I can hold my own socially now (was very shy as a child/young adult), it takes a lot out of me, and I do tend to keep people at arm’s length. Weekends are short because I spend half of them recovering from the prior week and recharging for the coming week. I loved the points Cain made about how everything from schools to businesses are set up for the rah-rah extrovert mentality (group think – nothing makes me cringe more than when I go to a workshop or seminar and the instructor has us students/attendees pair up, or break up into groups to work on an exercise – I want to leave every time). I’d be interested to see if there’s any correlation between extroverts and morning people, too. It’s another place where I don’t fit into society, being somewhat nocturnal by nature. Sigh.

    • Heather Shank

      I would love to know the answer to your last question as well, because I am a total night owl and an introvert. Probably because I am alone at night.

      • Maureen

        I am alone (at home) all the time, Heather, by choice! I love not having to answer to anyone when I get an energy surge at 11:30 pm and vacuum or do the dishes (my ex, a wonderful person, was total morning person and had a very hard time with this). My sister, however, rarely returns a call before 9 pm, often 10 pm or later (which = emergency in my mind), and I usually don’t answer. This nocturnal time is NOT to socialize or yak on the phone for an hour (though she’s very pointed/sharp about telling me (teasing? I’m not so sure) that I’M the night owl, so I should be good with late night phone calls), it’s for settling the jangled nerves of the day, and soothing body and soul before bedtime. And maybe knocking off a few chores along the way.

        The dogs are wonderful companions so I am rarely, if ever, lonely and the world is so deliciously quiet at night, with all those morning people unconcious and not yammering away, or leaf blowing or playing loud music, etc. heehee

  • Heather Shank

    Thank you SO much for posting this. I am definitely not a shy person by any means, but I am painfully introverted, and I posted this link on my fb page along with a lot of notes for all my family and friends to read. Because they just don’t get it. I’m almost in tears because there really is someone else in the world who understands.
    My husband “understands” but he is an extrovert so his understanding is that after being around a lot of people that I need to go for a drive usually with my camera and I may be gone for a while. (usually I go to a little off the road lake where it is totally quiet)
    But people think think that because I am loud and opinionated and talkative that there is no way that being around people is torture for me. That after church or a meeting, I have to go home and sleep because I am mentally exhausted. Thank you thank you thank you for putting into words what I have always wanted to say.

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  • Rebamjr

    Thank you so much for writing this. Just ordered Susan’s book on Amazon and cannot wait to read it. All my life people have ‘worried’ about me b/c I preferred to be by myself. So I learned early in life to fake being an extrovert and thus spent 42 miserable years in outside sales dreading each new month when quotas started all over again. That meant I had to make more calls, knock on more doors and deal with more people. No way to live pretending to be something you are not and believing that what you are is not right.

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