"Extroverts like to experience a lot, and introverts like to know a lot about what they experience." -Marti Olsen Laney, Psy.D
I don't like labels, and I especially dislike being labeled an introvert, because it tends to have so many negative connotations in this society. But at the suggestion of my therapist, I started reading a book called "The Introvert Advantage", by Marti Olsen Laney, Psy.D. It's been helping me sort out a lot of issues that I have been struggling with due to working in an overwhelmingly extrovert-dominated workplace, and existing in an extrovert-praising society. As a person who deeply values silence, time to write, and "alone-time", I often find myself very out-of-step with most of society. It's difficult to navigate through an extroverted world as someone whose richest, deepest life resides internally, in my heart and mind, rather than through a collection of external stimuli.
The book points out that:
"Introverts have increased blood flow in the brain and it follows a different pathway, engaging memory, problem solving, and planning. The pathway is long and complex, activated by the neurotransmitter, acetycholine, which stimulates a good feeling when thinking or feeling. The extrovert path is activated by dopamine, fired by adrenaline – they need external stimulation to feel good."
Reading this book has engendered some real "a-ha" moments, and this one of them. Primarily, it's helping me to understand why I seem to get overwhelmed so much faster by external stimuli than other people do. For a long time I thought it was because I was just dumb, or lacking in vitality, or both. But I realize now that it's actually because, among other reasons, introverts absorb far more, and far more subtle, information from their environments than extroverts, and they need time to process and make sense of that information. (I'm also someone who, as introverts often are, falls into the category of "The Highly Sensitive Person", so that definitely adds to my overload--what I like to call "antennae syndrome", where I pick up on subtle energy very easily and can often get drained by it.)
It's also helping to explain why I have a difficult time speaking, especially when I haven't had time to think and process first. It has nothing to do with a lack of spontaneity, and everything to do with the need have integrity in my communication--an innate understanding that our words have impact, and that before speaking, we should know--really know--how we feel and what we think. And again, that sort of processing takes time. There is nothing more stressful for me than being put on the spot to answer a question or give my opinion before I've had time to fully process and integrate the information I'm being asked to respond to. I prefer to listen, take in, absorb, reflect, and examine from different angles--quietly, and with focused concentration. I dislike speaking for the most part, and I very much dislike noisy, chattery environments and gatherings. I find group meals, outings, and other big, chaotic gatherings nerve-wracking rather than "fun"--no matter how much I like the people involved. I get overwhelmed when conversations flit from topic to topic when I am still expanding in my mind on the topic that was raised just before. And because I tend to be able to extrapolate all of the possible ramifications of each decision that is made, I'm get very anxious when I feel that decisions I'm responsible for reside outside of my control.
I don't hate people. I'm very interested in new experiences, I'm not anti-social, and I do deeply need and value friends. But I am someone who is absolutely drained by shallow, frequent interactions with large numbers of people, or constantly shifting external stimuli. Being required to flit around at a party and make small talk is high up on my list of worst nightmares. I am much more likely to want to engage one or two different people in richer conversations, getting to know them on a deeper level, rather than dash around catching snippets of conversations for "stimulus".
I have worked really hard to try to change my natural personality, to adapt more to my conditions, or at least be able pretend to when I have to. But it's not easy. I feel constantly misunderstood and often de-valued. With this book, I'm finally starting to understand why certain things are so hard, and that it's not about something being wrong with me. Only about 20-25% of the population are introverts. Introverts tend to be the listeners, the compassionate advisers, and the observer/preceptors of subtleties--the ones who can support the extroverts, who can then take their own gifts into the world and use them wisely.
We live in a culture that worships and rewards extroversion, and traditionally pathologizes introversion. Introverts are mis-labeled as aloof, uncaring, timid, shy, mysterious, stingy with their opinions, "unenthusiastic" or closed off. But introverts have many gifts, among others--deep powers of concentration, the ability to see things from many sides and viewpoints, patience, creativity, and the ability to form deep and long-lasting connections.
I'm going to stop trying to fight off this label and instead, embrace it and own it.