Dec 10, 2012

I, Introvert

To be great is to be bold. Charisma, a certain powerful presence, moves money, hearts, and nations. On the smaller scale, those charming folk, we all know one or two at least, have a certain knack for social interaction. It may manifest in many ways: perhaps they seamlessly transition from one conversation to the next, seem to just “hit it off” right with new people all the time, make contacts and friends easily, score dates and jobs, or just generally leave good impressions on people everywhere.

In college, for me, it was Nathan. Nate was a roommate. This was 2004 or so and he was your average emo-ish nerdcore fellow. He played lots of video games. A lot. He was quite versed in indie music and even sung (he was actually pretty good too). He ate like a pig, either Kid Cuisine or just a bucket of chicken from McDonald’s (he worked there so got to bring home left-overs). He was selfish and would sleep odd hours and through any noise. He was a lot of fun and aggravation to be around. And he never failed to hit on women at parties or shows. Successfully. Every damn time. He was so good at it. We’d even kinda make bets. I’ll never figure out how he did it.

Because that world, one where you are confident and charming, is foreign to me.

When describing said folk, these “extroverts”, we often attribute a lot of positive qualities:

  • outgoing
  • natural leaders
  • comfortable in the spotlight
  • works well with teams and groups

So, the antonym, the “introvert”, surely that has the opposite qualities?

  • wallflower
  • follower
  • shy
  • solitary

Our society puts a lot of pressure on people to be strong and assertive and sociable, and it is true this can often lead to good things. Woe be to any for whom these traits do not come naturally. Is it any wonder that most self-described introverts lament their state, consider it a burden and a handicap, to be so self-absorbed? Ah, there it is again: a negative quality attribute!

We introverts grow up in a world that constantly apologizes for our behavior. Our parents just tell everyone we are shy. Our teachers encourage us to come out of our shells. Constantly we are bombarded with incentives, whether explicit or implicit, to change. But it is likely impossible to truly change something that is so deeply ingrained in our core being.

I am an introvert. For the most part, I’m rather okay with that. But I will readily admit that it has been nothing but a constant obstacle to my social life, family, friends, and significant others. But also co-workers, interviews, parties, public speaking, or calling people on the phone. Little moments, when the receptionist greets me, when the hairdresser tries to strike up conversation as she cuts my hair, or when extended family ask me what I’ve been up to lately. Anything that involves interacting with other humans you can bet I must fight my introversion. And when I lose, when I stumble through awkward chit-chat and whatnot, the shame and embarrassment that lingers for hours and sometimes days after, as I replay the scene in my head and come up with a zillion better things to say, should have said.

In a lot of ways, I am the textbook introvert. I have few close friends and prefer to interact with one or two of them at a time. While they can still be fun from time to time, generally I don’t care much for big social get-togethers. My preferred method of relaxing is to be alone on the computer. I am good at focusing and concentrating on single tasks. I dislike small talk but love to rant about topics (or listen/read others’ rants). I communicate better in writing than off-the-cuff.

When around friends I know well, I am a totally different person. I talk a lot more, make far more ribald quips, and am much more active and engaging. Alcohol enhances this effect (I am far from an angry drunk, in fact more like an amorous one). The more strangers you add into the mix, the more I retreat socially. I lose confidence, somehow…

I also find that it feels draining. I have to work really hard to be friendly and personable and fight my introversion. And it is exhausting after awhile. Which is why after several hours I am usually ready to go home and be in my private comfort zone to recharge. I can only take so much.

And it isn’t that I truly dislike the social stuff. I like friends, I like spending time at other places, seeing new things, making memories and so on. These are important. But while a rock climber loves scaling mountains, it is a lot of exertion to do it. Same for me. It takes a lot of effort and it gets to wear me out, mentally at least.

Because none of these things come naturally. I have to spend a lot of mental energy thinking about what to say, how to stand, where my eyes are, how my mouth is contorted, is it a smile or a frown? I need to be friendly and positive so try not to look glum. It isn’t that I feel glum but I’m worried, see, that if I don’t keep mental tabs on my face I will accidentally let it rest into an indifferent or bored expression. Maybe it won’t but I’m worried that it will. Where are my hands? How is my posture? My tone of voice? Volume? What was their name again? Need to remember everyone’s name, else it would look really bad. Damn, I already forgot hers. So now, what do I say? What are they saying to me? How should I respond? A million things are going on at once and I feel I must stay on top of it to succeed, to beat the introversion. Remember how I said I was best at focusing on single tasks? Multi-threading is not my strong suit, and social gatherings or intense one-on-one stuff (like a job interview) are a struggle for me.

And yet, for all that effort sometimes, I still have to live with the complete and utter failures… at least the ones that I know about. More than once in my life I have made friends with someone only to later to hear them admit to me “For the longest time I thought you hated me”, or some variation of that. This comes as an utter shock to me because at no point was that ever the case. And then I find myself replaying moments, trying to figure out where I went wrong, what I said or did or how I must have looked or what, that gave them that impression. For me, few things are more frustrating than being misunderstood.

I used to be a lot worse when I was younger. I developed a pretty hard shyness problem and I am still recovering from it. But I’ve come a long way and I no longer feel the intense social anxiety I once did. Now, mostly, it just comes as a hassle and I avoid it not out of shyness but just laziness. I don’t like having to work so hard when it is something that seems so simple. It feels shameful. After all, it is just a phone call to schedule an appointment. What does the lady on the other end care really? But it feels like a lot of effort. And then I feel more guilty because it is just a phone call. This mixes with other procrastination and laziness problems, though.

This is a bit more personal entry than I usually write. Lately, though, I’ve been reading and watching things on introversion. It has always been a problem, but especially lately for the girlfriend and I. She is an extrovert, you see, so this difference causes frequent clashes. I love her dearly though and I think I am better with an extrovert. Sure, there is the clashing of styles, but really she does a lot to pull me out of it and to give me confidence. I always feel a lot better and more able in social situations if she is there. It is a wonderful reassurance. It’s probably also why she does most of the talking to waiters, store associates, and people behind the counter. I am guilty of almost always letting her take the social reins and just nodding silently in affirmation should they look my way, as if to say “What she said.”

I’ll end now with a few selected links on more, some of the stuff I’ve used as a basis for some of this essay, shall we call it that.

  • The Power of Introverts – a really good look at introversion; this is the primary thing, posted about a week ago, that I saw that really sparked this post for me, and follow-up parts are being added (maybe I should read the book they are based on?)
  • Party Survival Guide for Introverts – a cute and light-hearted take, but it actually does a good job of framing what it is like for us despite having a bit more of a comedy angle (and the actual steps/tips are only so-so)
  • Your body language shapes who you are – somewhat related TED talk on confidence and presentation of self, something that introverts like me probably agonize over in bewilderment especially since the unnatural effort we make often leads to us feeling like social frauds
  • How to stop being the guy that rarely says anything – just one of many Reddit convos that are often (perhaps given their typical user?) related to introvert problems

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