I’m reading Laurie Helgoe’s Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life Is Your Hidden Strength (Amazon affiliate link) and it is making me think and remember.
I’m definitely an introvert, recharged in time alone or with close friends and not necessarily a great conversationalist, especially not with new folks. And I usually saw this as a fault, something shameful. It went beyond a reticence to speak, there was a blankness on social settings that I fought against but could not overcome.
The Backstory – my Introvert confession
As a child, when I was lost in thought and a well-meaning relative offered a penny for my thoughts, the interruption rubbed out my thoughts and I had nothing to share.
When I was young, especially in my teenage years, but really into my 30s, I was essentially struck dumb in bigger social groups and with new people. Something about a large group interaction just left me speechless. I knew that I needed to show up to participate, but honestly, the harder I tried, the blanker my brain.
Being noticed as silent in a group was painful, because of course at the moment someone pointed out how quiet I was, everyone would look at me and I’d have to respond about my quietness, participate in some way, and the attention erased my brain even more than it already was and I’d be dumb and embarrassed, shocked and stressed, and just want to run.
In college, wanted to go to parties, to meet people, have fun, and fit in. I’d hear nearby parties from my dorm room and fret, fearing I was missing out, but when I got there, I was inept and uncomfortable. I kept on trying, thinking I’d get better or less uncomfortable. I am sure I radiated discomfort and unease and was not someone anyone would want to seek out. I never met anyone I became close to in that setting. Instead, I became close to people I met through activities and got to know over a longer contact (such as the hiking camping group at college, or in classes).
I struggled with this same blank quietness in my undergraduate classes. Thinking back to my Political Theory course, I knew participation in the discussion sections was a contributor to my grades. So, I followed the discussion raptly, looking for a place to contribute, but again…blank brain, no thoughts. Which is odd, because I’m a thoughtful person.
In college, I was outright jealous of those who could prattle on/debate/discuss. I’ve always been amazed by people who can just talk. I have several of them in my family, and honestly, I really have no idea where the river of speech emerges. I can write forever, and I like quiet more.
What was wrong with me? Stage fright, I thought, or maybe I’m just not cut out for social sciences. I ended up majoring in Biology (no discussion sections, we had labs instead) and dabbled a lot in English (where I could write my way out of my poor discussion section participation).
I was uncomfortable and I made others uncomfortable with my spooky silence. I called it shyness, and I thought I had to fix my self-esteem or otherwise change to get over it.
Things I tried that covered, but didn’t fix
Long ago, I decided that the way for me to be a better conversationalist was to cultivate “active listening” where you ask open ended questions, reflect back the other person’s thoughts. I decided the way to be in conversation was to listen. It got me by socially for a while. So I recognized myself in Helgoe’s description of “accessible introvert”. Someone who fakes being a little more open than she actually is. And, Helgoe remarks that this is just playing along, not really participating. Oops. Revealed!
Things that helped
I don’t know what I’d say to my youthful self, except that bullying myself to be more social is a mean choice with a poor chance of success. Instead, I would encourage my youthful self to be gentler and not to fight my nature so hard. Maybe I’d send this book back in time to myself and give myself permission to just be.
I’d tell my college self that I’m not broken. It’s OK not to like parties. Dragging myself to all of those parties and being miserable was no way to attract friends or romance. Instead of judging my lack of animation at these events as a failure, I could reframe it as a lack of fit. I would reassure myself that I would find true love and make wonderful friends in other ways.
Really, a big part of coming out of my shell was love and acceptance from people I valued. I recall in the early days of my relationship with my now husband, when it came time to discuss something important, I’d simply lose my words. I would have such an intensity and need to speak, and I’d be blocked and dithering. And he had the wisdom or motivation to just wait me out, and eventually, with time, I’d speak my truth.
I’m pretty porous, and I absorb whatever’s around me and let it distract from my inner voice. A regular meditation practice helped me inhabit my own body and not wish I was different or elsewhere.
Of course, reading and writing. I found when I was writing the Internet Marketing book, I would start the writing process kind of stressed out from the effort it took to carve out the time from my day to day activities, and yet emerge from a day or two of writing refreshed and restored, happier to return to the work I’d left to write and better at my job. And of course my journal and this blog help me think.
Allow myself to restore rather than expend energy. This comes in many forms, giving myself breaks and engaging in activities that energize me. Mostly I gain energy from something that looks like nothing – just being alone, taking a breather.
Allow myself time to warm up. I know I take longer than some to get started socially. When I have to be present and lead a group, I give myself the time I’ll need to prepare and be confident and ready.
Some of what Helgoe recommends I was happy to see I’d happened upon quite naturally. There were a few ideas, like ‘fessing up and being open about not wanting to engage sometimes, that I’ll try to implement.
Where things are now
I’ve come a long way, and I can be outgoing at work (with familiar colleagues and clients) relatively naturally. But, my introversion manifests as some social aversion or awkwardness in little ways.
This book argues against judging these behaviors, and encourages the reader to find ways to recharge and participate on favorable terms – finding retreats during the week and during the workday, setting up personal space at home, asking for the space I crave in conversations – and the affirmation that it’s worth it to allow myself to really show up and participate.