Thursday, April 7, 2011

Poem-A-Day Interlude: An Introvert in an Extroverted World

An Introvert in an Extroverted World

"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.

--Kristen McHenry


Dale said...

I go to maybe one party a year, in a social year. A few years ago I adopted a strategy which I've used ever since. I look for the shyest-seeming person in the room, go introduce myself to them, and try to have a real conversation. And I don't pressure myself to interact with anyone else at all. It's not what you're supposed to do at parties; you're supposed to flit; but it works better for me. I do the hard part (introducing myself to a stranger) early, when I still have some oomph. Hopefully they're someone like you who would rather have a real conversation than just chat brightly about nothing. And then, when I'm tired, I just go home. The extroverts can soldier on without me :-)

Kristen McHenry said...

I love your strategy, Dale! I probably integrate some of that myself, in fact, without realizing it. I tend to look for the person who seems the most apt to be shy, or the person who seems the most apt to have nerdy interests...they will always, it seems to me, be the most interesting to talk to, and will tend to do most of the conversational work when properly prompted. ;)

Isabel Doyle said...

oh god ... I think I may be your clone ...
can I borrow the book (and the therapist) when you've finished with them?

Isabel Doyle said...

see what I mean?

Isabel Doyle said...

thanks for coming to visit the Exile

Sophie said...

I know this post is old but I just realized I have the same book about four feet away from me right now. Looking forward to reading it. I am invited to an open house type party over the holidays and it is a friend that I really want to please; but said friend will be busy with party goers and I will be on my own to "mix". I am seriously stressed out about whether to stay home and honour my nature and avoid the energy drain when the holidays are already draining enough or to show up to please my friend and endure the small talk and awkward moments of nothing to say.

Introverts do indeed get a bad rap in our society. I recently left a job because I was close to a mental break down. When I took time to analyze what went wrong I realized that the workspace was torture to someone like me. All open cubicles, people speaking loudly to each other in your space. Anyone dropping into your cubicle to use your phone or borrow some supplies. No control over who could just interrupt and ask questions, regardless of what you were in the middle of. Eight bloody hours a day of in an atmosphere like a chaotic cocktail party. I was so nervous and stressed I was getting physically ill. Had to go. Feel like a failure but now I know what to avoid in my next assignment.

Great blog. I'll be dropping by often.

Kristen McHenry said...

Sophie, thanks so much for reading my humble little blog! I'm glad you liked the post. Some advice? If you really have to go to the party, go late, put in an appearance, stay for 30 minutes, and exit unobstrusively. There's no reason to put yourself through that on top of everything else going on with enforced "Holiday Cheer".

If I had a job like you describe, they would have to carry me out in a stretcher! That sounds just torturous for an introvert. I just started a job managing a staff of 175 volunteers at a hospital, and the first few months were a nightmare...never a second alone to get my thoughts together, and a group of folks who were very used to my super-extroverted predecessor, and constantly expected me to have long, chatty lunches with them. I finally had to instill closed office hours a few times a week just so I could have some time to myself to think and process information.

Anyway, welcome, and here's to peaceful, introverted-friendly holiday season!

Poet Laundry said...

Hi Kristen,
Your blog came up when I was looking for blog posts about introversion. I know it's a dated post, but it's still a good one! Susan Cain has a new book "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking" which is also a good read.

Kristen McHenry said...

Thanks for reading my blog, Poet Laundry! I have read Susan Cain's fantastic book, and I have a review up here:

AtSunnyside said...