The Persecution Complex of the Modern Introvert

The Persecution Complex of the Modern Introvert February 11, 2013

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne.

According to some, extraverts have taken over our churches and our culture, marginalizing introverts in the process. But what if there is no grand conspiracy against introverts? 

Hello, my name is Jason Morehead and I’m an introvert.

That means pretty much what you think it means. If left to my druthers, I will almost always choose solitude over social engagements. Extensive interactions can be very exhausting for me, even if I truly like and appreciate the people with whom I’m interacting.

After a large, long gathering (e.g, family reunion, church service, extended meeting), I want nothing so much as to find a favorite book or my headphones, retreat to my couch or desk, and be left alone for the rest of the day. And at work, I can usually be found at my desk, hunched over my computer, headphones on and music turned up, and doing my best to block out the world.

Even as I type these words, I’m preparing for a much-anticipated “bachelor weekend.” My lovely, gracious wife is taking the kids and spending a couple of days at her parents, and giving me the house to myself. And I mean “myself.” No wild parties will be thrown, nor will I venture past my front porch. I’ll spend the entire weekend watching movies, reading books, writing, and not talking to anyone. Which is all I need.

If this seems like a wry, self-deprecating confession, let me assure you otherwise. I’m quite comfortable with my introversion; it’s a fundamental aspect of who I am and how I function.

Now, there might be some out there (i.e., extraverts) who would have you believe that such behavior is antisocial, quirky, unfathomable, and perhaps even just plain wrong. That doesn’t concern me.

What does concern me is that there are some out there who want you to think that there exists some sort of conspiracy to keep introverts down, a conspiracy that believes introverts are some sort of subhuman species that needs to dealt with and fixed.

Here, I’m referring to my fellow introverts and some of the things they’ve said in recent years about our extraverted friends and neighbors. And while I’m being a little hyperbolic, it’s less so than you might think.

Image: Voka – Kamer van Koophandel Limburg via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The last few years have been pretty good for introverts. Researchers have found that activities usually regarded as “extraverted”—meetings, brainstorming, group work—are not nearly as effective or productive as people think they are, and that better results occur if you just leave people alone and let them work. A host of books, including Susan Cain’s acclaimed Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, have been published in recent years that proclaim the value that introverts bring to the world, and offer advice to introverts on how to be better and happier. There’s even a book—Adam S. McHugh’s Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture—on ministering to introverts in the Church and recognizing their unique gifts.

I’ve detected an underlying theme in these things: It’s an extravert’s world out there, and we introverts are just passing through as best we can, and hoping nobody talks to us along the way. Extraverts rule the world because, well, they’re extraverts, and they put themselves out there more often. What’s more, many of the economic, social, and power structures in place reward extraversion. Meanwhile, because introverts prefer to sit on the sidelines and in the shadows, we are marginalized and forgotten along with any gifts and contributions that we might bring to the table.

In his extremely popular 2003 piece “Caring for Your Introvert”, Jonathan Rauch claims that introverts are “among the most misunderstood and aggrieved groups in America, possibly the world.” He writes:

With their endless appetite for talk and attention, extroverts also dominate social life, so they tend to set expectations. In our extrovertist society, being outgoing is considered normal and therefore desirable, a mark of happiness, confidence, leadership. Extroverts are seen as bighearted, vibrant, warm, empathic. “People person” is a compliment. Introverts are described with words like “guarded,” “loner,” “reserved,” “taciturn,” “self-contained,” “private”—narrow, ungenerous words, words that suggest emotional parsimony and smallness of personality. Female introverts, I suspect, must suffer especially. In certain circles, particularly in the Midwest, a man can still sometimes get away with being what they used to call a strong and silent type; introverted women, lacking that alternative, are even more likely than men to be perceived as timid, withdrawn, haughty.

What’s more, extraverts need to change their behavior around introverts; they need to change how they interact with us because they’re “tormenting” us. Perhaps there even needs to be a civil rights-esque movement of some kind.

The worst of it is that extroverts have no idea of the torment they put us through. Sometimes, as we gasp for air amid the fog of their 98-percent-content-free talk, we wonder if extroverts even bother to listen to themselves. Still, we endure stoically, because the etiquette books—written, no doubt, by extroverts—regard declining to banter as rude and gaps in conversation as awkward. We can only dream that someday, when our condition is more widely understood, when perhaps an Introverts’ Rights movement has blossomed and borne fruit, it will not be impolite to say “I’m an introvert. You are a wonderful person and I like you. But now please shush.”

More recently, Alan Jacobs suggested the following New Year’s resolution for extraverts:

So, extraverts of the world, I invite you to make a New Year’s resolution: Refrain from organizing stuff. Don’t plan parties or outings or, God forbid, “team-building exercises.” Just don’t call meetings. (I would ask you to refrain from calling unnecessary meetings, but so many of you think almost all meetings necessary that it’s best you not call them at all.) Leave people alone and let them get their work done. Those who want to socialize can do it after work. I’ll not tell you you’ll enjoy it: you won’t. You’ll be miserable, at least at first, because you won’t be pulling others’ puppet-strings. But everyone will be more productive, and many people will be happier. Give it a try. Let go for a year. Just leave us alone.

When I read articles like these, my first reaction is to shout a good, hearty “Amen.” (Of course, I don’t really shout “Amen.” Rather, I deeply internalize a feeling of gleeful agreement that is akin to shouting out a good, hearty “Amen.” You get the idea.) Finally, I think, those mean ol’ extraverts are getting their comeuppance and now they’ll realize the agony they’re always putting me through. They’ll finally realize that they need to come to me on my terms, they need to respect my hamster ball and wait for my invitation before brusquely forcing themselves inside. (Trust me, just read the comic.)

But then that feeling passes, and I realize that I find this sentiment as exhausting as any four-hour-long team-building or group-sharing exercise. But not because there’s no truth in it. There have been many times where I’ve left some social event practically gasping for air because I needed to be alone in order to regroup and recharge; times when engaging with a person possessing a very outspoken, dominant, “Type A” personality had me wanting to crawl out of my skin; times when I’ve found myself hoping and praying that everyone would just shut up for five minutes so that I could develop my points and contribute something meaningful to the conversation.

What I find exhausting about the sentiment in Rauch and Jacobs’ articles, and others like them, is that it often feels like little more than a pity party, or perhaps more accurately, some sort of martyr’s complex. In the process, we introverts confirm some of the worst stereotypes that people have about us: that we’re anti-social; that we just leer from the sidelines; that when we’re aloof and unengaged, we’re not “recharging” so much as sitting in quiet judgment of these loudmouth extraverts surrounding us; that we think others are loud, stupid, boorish, and only capable of “98-percent-content-free speech.”

When I give into that, my introversion becomes little more than a vehicle for pride and self-righteousness. What’s more, I completely disregard how such a sentiment comes across to those extraverts in my life whom I love and value.

When I asked one my friends, who is one of the most extraverted people I know, about Jacobs’ article, her response was anger. And I don’t blame her. Such pieces, and the sentiment they engender, are demeaning and judgmental while allowing introverts to puff themselves up and take a moral high ground: “We would never be so disrespectful as to think that we should force ourselves on to people and engage them against their will. Not like those extraverts over there.”

What’s needed is a sense of mutual grace and appreciation. I learned this firsthand while getting to know my wife’s mother. Mind you, I’m extremely blessed with a wonderful mother-in-law. One of her most well-known traits is that she is the consummate hostess: She will bend over backwards to make you absolutely comfortable while you’re in her home. She’s also quite extraverted. This was a dangerous combination for me in the early stages of our relationship.

One experience remains quite vivid. I had just spent the night at their house for the first time, and stumbled to the table for breakfast. In addition to being an introvert, I’m not a morning person. Indeed, my introversion is directly proportional to how early it is. However, my mother-in-law was a flurry of activity in the kitchen and bombarded me with question after question about what I wanted for breakfast, regardless of how much I demurred and told her not to bother.

I confess I found the fussing rather annoying. What I was too blind (and sleepy) to see was that this was her way of showing me that she was accepting me into the family. It took me warming up and coming out my shell—and her learning to set a boundary or two—for us to come to the lovely relationship that we now have. Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate her hostess’ ways and her flurry of activity. (I’ve never seen someone who can put a house in order faster.) If I had responded simply out of defense for my introversion, I would’ve missed the relationship that we have now, and I would undoubtedly be a source of frustration and hurt for her.

Image: Ed Yourdon via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

To my extraverted friends, please recognize that, sometimes, you really can be too much for us to handle. You do need to give us time, space, and quiet to think and process. When we ask to be alone, it’s not because we dislike you, but rather, because we just need to be alone. And we really would appreciate fewer meetings, brainstorming sessions, group projects, etc. If you can be patient and give us some space and time to think on our own, you might be pleasantly surprised by what we come up with.

To my fellow introverts, stop acting like there’s some sort of global extravert conspiracy out there to keep us down. Stop writing rants about how you’re being run roughshod over by extraverted meanies. You might be surprised at the extraverts in your life that love you, and that those things that drive you crazy—perhaps legitimately so—are the very things they’re using to try and display that love. I know I need my extraverted friends to sometimes drag me, however kicking and screaming, from the brooding headspace that I can easily sink into. I hope I can repay that favor by offering reflections, views, and information that they might overlook.

We need each other, and the sooner introverts and extraverts stop referring to each other in simple, dualistic terms—extraverts need quiet and reflection too, and I’ve know some introverts who can get plenty crazy in the right situation—the better off we’ll all be. The more respectful and appreciative of each other we can become, and the more we’ll be able to enjoy and marvel at the unique gifts that our differing and varied personalities have to offer.

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out his graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.

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