Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Introduction to Introverts

At church the other day, as part of a conversation I mentioned that some of my sisters and I are introverts. "No, you're not!" my friend said, as if this were a horrible insult. 

At a family reunion, I sat beside the campfire reading a library book entitled "The Introvert Advantage". One of my uncle's friends started lecturing me. "Don't you believe that book," he said. "You have to be bold to survive in this world. You can't be an introvert." I wondered if his attack was meant to force me to stand up for myself. I was tempted to lose my temper and tell him that he didn't understand introversion, or me, and in fact, he might well be one himself. I didn't. 

At a social gathering, two women were discussing their friendship. "It's not that I dislike people," one said, "I just forget that I'm supposed to contact my friends from time to time. Having friends is so much work!"  
Her partner responded: "Well, then, let's be friends, and we won't worry about contacting each other." 
I shared the exchange with my husband. His favorite part of the story was that I listened to the whole thing and said nothing. 

In a very introverted way, I missed an opportunity in those situations. Now I'm going to take it. 

What is an introvert? Knowledge and theories have been increasing in recent years, but misunderstanding remains. We’re not shy; we're not sad. We can't just change the way our brains work. We make up about a quarter of the population of the United States.  Part of the difficulty is that introverts tend to be especially interested in learning about themselves and how minds work, so those who are learning and studying about introversion are by and large introverts themselves. So, for interested introverts and empathetic extroverts, please enjoy the following explanation 

At its most basic, introverts are people who gain "social energy" from within, while extroverts are people who gain energy from without. An introvert is not necessarily shy: I have a great friend who is outgoing and connects with people, but then needs time to herself to "recharge" once people are gone. Extroverts can enjoy alone time, but then you need human interaction to feel complete. Introverts need to figure out themselves on their own in order to connect with people. We still like other people. We still need other people. But we need more time alone in between. Like most things, introversion-extroversion is a scale, not an on-off switch. I am very firmly on the introvert camp, but I have friends and family who are more introverted than I am, or who are introverted in different ways. My husband is pretty close to the middle. 

I heard of a study that defined extroversion as a requirement for happiness. However, they determined how happy people were by rating statements like "I have lots of friends" or "People say I'm fun to be around." That's not happiness to an introvert. A better statement would be "I am comfortable with who I am". A more interesting study suggested that introvert brains are more sensitive to dopamine and other brain chemicals. Therefore, we need less stimulation, and are overwhelmed by too much of it. If my husband and son are trying to talk at the same time while music is playing, I want to hide under a pillow until at least two of those competing things go away. I don't like loud noise, big crowds, or complications. If someone confronts me with strong emotion, my first instinct is to withdraw, and flee if possible. Often in social situations, our brains move too slow: once we're comfortable, we'll think of all the things we wish we'd said if only we'd thought of it at the time. If I feel comfortableor even able!to argue, tease, or debate with you, consider it the highest of compliments.  

Innies (my affectionate nickname for introverts) do have things to learn from our extrovert friends. These skills will take effort, but we can learn them: Talking to strangers. Making phone calls. Keeping in contact. Taking initiative. We also need to take care of ourselves (and extroverts can use it too!). It's okay to open up to people and tell them what you need. It's okay to take breaks. It's okay to be alone sometimes. Find what activities help you recharge—writing, reading, crafting, anything that fulfills you. I find scripture reading to be particularly helpful. Insider's tip: Social media may not be as demanding as other interactions, but it doesn't count as a break 

Introverts still need friends. We make great listeners. We make great talkers, too, if we trust you and are discussing something we've already thought about. We might prefer social media or texting to visits or (shudder) phone calls. We definitely prefer small groups to large crowds. If an Innie calls you a friend, consider it a huge honor. My number of close, non-family friends is... let me think. One. Two... I can think of other people I like to be around, but for people I feel more or less comfortable with... I'm going to stick with two. I like enthusiastic people. I admire them. But come up to me too eagerly and I'm going to feel like you're a St. Bernard puppy who's been left alone for three days—jumping, barking, licking my face... Yikes! Space, please! Sit down, let's find some common ground and we'll talk. Let me learn to trust you. Get too personal before I'm comfortable and I'm going to clam up, dodge or give empty answers, and wish you would go away. Check out this poem I wrote when I was fourteen, long before I knew of introverts and extroverts. If I've been hurt before, or have reason to mistrust you, this will be a very long, difficult journey. But give me time, give me space, give me breaks, give me opportunities to prove that I can be myself around you without judgment... give me these, and I will prove that I can be a great friend. I can also be a listening ear and a better support to others who still need friendship and trust.

I am an introvert, and I'm proud of it. I may think differently than you do. I'm learning to balance people-time and alone-time. I bet you are too, whether you are Innie or Exie. Give me space and I would love to be your friend. I need to express myself, and if conversations are too uncomfortable, a blog will do. Thanks for reading!