I am the girl you meet at a party. The one who smiles at you but has nothing to say besides maybe “nice to meet you!” You may wonder what my deal is. Am I stuck-up, or do I just instantly dislike you? You may possibly think I am dull or that I’m rude. Maybe I’m just stupid. Or bored. Or have no social skills.
If you are one of my friends, you have seen me loud and wild and un-inhibited and know I can talk with you for days and never run out of things to say and can stay up all night having fun with a group of people. But those who love and know me well are also well aware of a “flaw” in my character. I feel ashamed of it, I make excuses for it, I try to be different. I have felt the need to apologize for this characteristic most of my adult life – the crime of being an introvert.
“Introverts … may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while wish they were home in their pajamas. They prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues, and family … Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep conversations.” Susan Cain, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking”.
This means that when I meet you at that party, I want so desperately to be able to walk right up to you and small talk you for the next 30 minutes. Heck, I would be happy if I could small talk you for five minutes. Deep down I always thought this was some kind of major flaw in my personality. I would berate myself for my lack of “social skills”, and wonder what was wrong with me. I would watch a friend or my husband effortlessly begin conversations with absolutely any human being on the planet, and I would be stuck with a buzzing head unable to form a single coherent question. I can talk to you for hours on specific subjects (especially the completely inappropriate ones like religion, sex, politics, and pregnancy), but trying to think up a follow-up question to “where do you work?” is like rocket science to me.
As I write this post I am already feeling defensive. Feeling like I must explain myself. Because I am not there yet, to that place of complete acceptance. I am afraid people will read this and think “wow, she sounds like a boatload of fun …” and you know what? Maybe I’m not. But I have been taught that I am supposed to be fun and outgoing and a social butterfly. I have gone through phases of acting incredibly outgoing in my life. Which I admit can be fun, but is just that – acting. It’s not who I am. If I am living my truest, most authentic life, I must come to peace with the fact that my tombstone is unlikely to say “Life of the Party!” or “World’s best Schmoozer”.
It’s not that I am “anti-social” or even that I am shy. For work, I have been required to give presentations to 100+ people at a time, and I thrive. I love speaking in public, I love the attention, I love the opportunity to have a captive audience forced to listen to what I have to say. Which seems at odds with the same girl who after the presentation immediately goes to hide in her hotel room because the idea of the scheduled “fun night”, with all its opportunities for small talk and strangers makes me a little sick to my stomach.
I am the girl who loves working from home. Who goes days, sometimes weeks without ever speaking to a co-worker on the phone or in person. It is my dream come true. Not because I don’t like people, but because this is how I do my best work, alone. My best work comes only when I am completely alone, working within my own brain, my own thoughts and ideas. In group “brainstorming” sessions I freeze up. My brain is over-stimulated by everything around me.
I am the girl who cringed every single time we were forced to learn “teamwork” in school and work in groups on a project. I took a class in grad school where part of our grade depended on how many times we spoke each class period. It was a room of 40+ people and we were discussing literature and its application to education or counseling. I absolutely hated the fight to get in the appropriate number of comments in, competing against students who seemed to think this class was their platform to lecture the rest of us. I hated the idea of having to say something when maybe your idea had already been said. I hated the value it put on being the loudest, most forceful voice.
I am the girl who has to give herself a pep talk before dialing someone’s number on the phone because really, I am hoping they don’t pick up. I am saying a silent prayer of “voicemail please, voicemail please, voicemail please” with every ring.
I am the girl who becomes completely WIPED OUT after being out and about and in new social situations. Our friends regularly get together for weekends or even weeks out of town together and I usually think to myself NO THANK YOU. As much as I love and adore my friends, I am not the girl who can be in a large group of people day in and day out without a break. I am the girl who always gets a hotel room even when visiting friends or family out of town because I can only handle so much togetherness time before I need to just BE ALONE. Even if I completely and totally enjoy myself, I still end up feeling drained. That drained feeling is definitely worth it, but it is unsustainable for me to be that way at all times.
After I had Gia, I knew I was expected to invite lots of visitors over right away. It took me much longer than I anticipated to invite people over, and I did so before I was really ready. I just felt the “pressure” to be social ASAP. As soon as our first visitors left, I collapsed in a pile of tears. It was just too overwhelming for me. I was stressed out by this huge life change and desperately needed to de-stress. And for me, de-stressing is an individual activity. While I love being with friends and being social, those things are very stimulating to me, and over-stimulation is exhausting, not exhilarating. So instead of closing the door after visitors left feeling refreshed, I felt myself 3x more exhausted than before they arrived.
I remember watching friends who had just had babies sending out the “come one, come all!” texts to their entire friend list to come visit. I remember a friend wanting to go out for drinks the week her baby was born. I watched all of these people in awe, and believing there was something very wrong with me. But what I failed to realize was that being social and out and about was actually stress-relieving and enjoyable for these women. Even just typing that sentence I feel the need to explain myself. I feel the need to justify why these same activities are too much for me when I am already over-stimulated.
Our culture holds a blatant and clear extrovert ideal. Being an extrovert is valued, praised, and rewarded. Those of us who are introverts received subtle and not-so-subtle messages that who we are is not acceptable. We should always love parties, people, and socializing. The best people are the most popular, the most well-liked, gregarious, charming, and outgoing.
As some of you know, I recently finished the fantastic book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain. And I cannot tell you how validating it is to see every little quirk about you that others have labeled crazy or weird written in a book, backed up with research, and given a voice. As I was reading the book, I felt completely and totally understood. I felt that the writer and the research findings had finally told me what I have always felt. I am different from extroverts. But being an introvert comes with its own special gifts. I have talents and strengths that extroverts don’t have. As I was reading I felt validated. And then I had to stop and wonder why it took me reading a New York Times Bestseller and leaning on the research of well-respected doctors, neuroscientists, psychologists, and behavioral scientists in order to feel like I could be proud of who I am. To stop feeling the need to apologize for the things that make me uniquely me. To stop feeling like I have to act my way through life, playing the outgoing extrovert in order to be liked, respected, and praised.
I’m not there yet – it’s hard to be proud of being an introvert when I compare myself to extroverts. It’s hard hearing that I need to make a bigger effort to attend and make friends at professional social events because that’s the only way my career will advance. It’s hard to be criticized for not being more social after my baby was born. It’s hard to feel anxiety every time I step out of my comfort zone and pretend that I’m enjoying myself when sometimes I’m not.
BUT – I am getting there. If you are a proud introvert, let me know! Sing it from the rooftops! Let me learn from you! And if you are like me, a secret introvert, know you are not alone. And if I see you at a party, we can exchange some secret introvert password so that we know we don’t have to make small talk with eachother.