It is a year today since I saw a TED talk which changed my life. OK, “changed my life” may be a bit strong but it certainly changed my sense of self-identity and self-worth.
Having spent my life thinking that I fell squarely into the extrovert camp, twelve months ago I discovered, that I am in fact, an introvert.
It started with Susan Cain’s TED talk…
I have since read more widely on the topic, realising that I was embarrassingly ignorant. The more I read and reflected, the more I realised that I had forced myself to “act out of preference” for most of my life, and beat myself up quite unfairly when my square peg didn’t fit into society’s round hole.
At the risk of sounding melodramatic, it was a perhaps a little like someone with same-sex attraction discovering that there are many others just like them in the big, wide world, and that their feelings are not shameful or wrong.
In case you are not au fait with what an introvert actually is, let’s start with a definition / description:
Contrary to what most people think, an introvert is not simply a person who is shy. In fact, being shy has little to do with being an introvert! Shyness has an element of apprehension, nervousness and anxiety, and while an introvert may also be shy, introversion itself is not shyness. Basically, an introvert is a person who is energized by being alone and whose energy is drained by being around other people.
Introverts are more concerned with the inner world of the mind. They enjoy thinking, exploring their thoughts and feelings. They often avoid social situations because being around people drains their energy. This is true even if they have good social skills. After being with people for any length of time, such as at a party, they need time alone to “recharge” When introverts want to be alone, it is not, by itself, a sign of depression. It means that they either need to regain their energy from being around people or that they simply want the time to be with their own thoughts. Being with people, even people they like and are comfortable with, can prevent them from their desire to be quietly introspective. Being introspective, though, does not mean that an introvert never has conversations. However, those conversations are generally about ideas and concepts, not about what they consider the trivial matters of social small talk.
Like so many people, I associated introversion with less developed social/ communication skills and an element of shyness / discomfort / not fitting in certain social situations (large groups, new people etc.). People with Asperger’s tendencies for example. So when I kept coming up as an introvert on any psychological test I took, I totally dismissed it.
A particularly memorably instance springs to mind. The owner of a medical practice I worked for as a registrar paid for a psychologist to come and test everyone’s personality as part of a staff development program. The psychologist then made suggestions as to how the workplace could be improved based on the results. The rationale was that we would be able to better work together if we understood how each of us ticked. Not unreasonable, but I came out as strongly introverted and had a big argument with the psychologist about it. I then totally bagged the whole process. I’m embarrassed about it now, in retrospect. Mind you, the psychologist obviously didn’t understand what introversion really meant, as he just doggedly stuck to the line about how valid the tests were without trying to explore or explain I got the result I did.
I’m not in the least bit shy, but the truth is, the deep truth that I’ve been hiding for as long as I can remember, is that I find being around people for long periods draining, and if I don’t regularly recharge by having time alone, I get very edgy. I never feel lonely. Ever. In fact, I’m at my happiest when I’m by myself. If I think of my 10 most satisfying and enjoyable days of the past 5 years, they’d all be ones I spent alone.
I learned social skills and got very good at wearing a mask – fitting in, being a good communicator, friendly and generally well liked. I spent my life trying to convince myself that I wanted to do “normal” social things, like going out for drinks or to a party with friends. I’ve tried to tell myself that engaging in evenings of social chit chat should be relaxing and enjoyable, rather than frustrating and draining. I’d feel relieved when I had a legitimate excuse to avoid social functions, but then feel guilty about my relief.
There have always been social things I enjoy, don’t get me wrong, like rehearsing for a theatre show/ orchestra/ choir, and interactions when the conversation is deep/ meaningful and engaging. I get a real buzz from performing in front of a crowd, whether that be through teaching/ presenting, acting or performing musically. I adore working with small groups as a medical educator. However, I need to have my down time beforehand and afterwards to be able to do these things successfully and pleasurably. I also prefer to do most of my day to day activities alone, if I’m given the option. I always thought there was something wrong with me because of this. But not anymore. Not for the past year. I have been given the entitlement, in my own mind, to be who I am.
Since my lightbulb moment, I have become far more accepting of myself. I no longer pressure myself into socialising when I’m not feeling so inclined, and don’t feel guilty when choosing my own company over others. I’m honest with my friends and family about needing “me” time, no longer feeling the need to give rationalisations or excuses. They have all been tremendously supportive, and not taken my “rejections” at all personally, understanding that the “It’s not you, it’s me” cliché actually rings true in these instances.
Interestingly, I’m enjoying socialising more and feeling less drained by it in general. While the overall numbers of hours I spend socialising has decreased a little, the number of hours I’ve spent enjoying social interactions has increased significantly. Understanding and self-acceptance has banished the pressure and guilt, making for a much happier camper all round. I’m not at risk of becoming a crazy hermit cat lady anytime soon. Not that there is anything wrong with being a crazy hermit cat lady if one is being true to oneself.
I’ll finish with two quotes. Firstly, from Susan Cain, to whom I owe a great deal,
“When psychologists look at the lives of the most creative people, what they find are people who are very good at exchanging ideas and advancing ideas but who also have a serious streak of introversion in them. This is because solitude is often an essential ingredient in creativity/”
And lastly from Ralph Waldo Emerson,
“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment”