From Both Sides of the Couch

A therapist reflects on her time with patients, and her time as a patient.

The Quality of the Introvert Experience

Accepting the fact that we're introverts and becoming content.

I just finished reading a fantastic book. It’s titled “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain. The book is a sublime blend of superb writing and outstanding research.

I’ve always known that I’m an introvert. If zero is the least introverted and 10 is the most introverted, I would say that I’m an 8. When I was a child, I’d be in my room reading on the most beautiful day and my mother would say in frustration, “Why don’t you go out and play with your friends?” or “Go ride the bike that Grandpa got you.” I’d raise an eyebrow above my book to pacify her and answer her with something like “Can’t you see I’m reading?” I’d hear her turn and walk off for there really was no comeback to my retort.

I never enjoyed huge parties; I always preferred smaller, more intimate gatherings of several people where we could hold a conversation without screaming above the music. I never went to a bar until I was in college. Upon entering a “dive bar” as they were called in Buffalo, NY where I was an undergrad, I walked into a bar for the first time and thought this is it? This is what all the fuss is about? I longed to go back to my dorm room and finish a book I had started earlier that day.

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I’m still not good at walking alone into crowded events, especially where I don’t know anyone. I’ll hang out on the fringes of one of the small groups that these events tend to break up into, silent and self-conscious, waiting for someone to ask me a question or draw me in. More recently I’m making a concerted effort to make eye contact and initiate conversation with a stranger, trying to find the common ground that brought us to this event. It’s hard work, going against the grains of my nature, but for the sake of my careers — both social work and writing — it’s something I have to do.

When I was reading “Quiet” I saw myself on almost every page. That’s what made it such a powerful experience for me. I’ve come away from reading it with a newfound understanding that being an introvert isn’t a negative attribute as society has made it out to be. Introversion is simply a different way of thinking, of approaching tasks, of living. And that’s okay.

The one concept that I identified the most closely with was one that Ms. Cain quoted from a psychologist named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on a state of being he calls “flow.”

I’ll quote from the book:

“Flow is an optimal state in which you feel totally engaged in an activity…

The key to flow is to pursue an activity for its own sake, not for the rewards it brings.”

I “flow,” if flow can be used as a verb, when I write, and while Ms. Cain makes a point of saying that flow is neither exclusive to introverts or extroverts, it tends toward solitary activities.

I began a presentation/reading that I gave to my local National Association of Social Worker’s (NASW) chapter with that concept. My point was to enlighten them to the part that writing had played in my recovery. The concept of flow became integral in that and I wanted very much for them to understand how the process had worked and continued to work.

I want for my patients, both who see themselves as either extroverts or introverts — and due to societal cues we tend to label ourselves as one or the other  — to understand as I do now, that being an introvert can be a terrific characteristic.

I would like to educate them that just because society has decided all these years that one has to be an extrovert to be popular, or a leader, or successful  that they can overcome these stereotypes and achieve whatever they set their sights on.

Over the course of the therapy if the question of shyness or solitude or socialization comes up, if I feel the time is right and the topic fits into the content of the session, I will bring up the concept of introversion and extroversion and ask my patient what they think they are and why? What they remember from their childhood that tips them one way or another and we hopefully enter into a deeper discussion.

I might ask them what they think of extroverts and what they think of introverts in general. And what they think of themselves in either context?

Hopefully I manage to introduce some education on the benefits on being an introvert which would include Ms. Cain’s book. More often than not though I start with an article that was published in the September, 2010 issue of Psychology Today titled “Revenge of the Introverts: Here is the link:

http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201008/revenge-the-introvert

I may not always have known there was a name for what I was. It may not have always felt like the most popular or the most comfortable situation. There were nights, many nights that I cried myself to sleep because I was different. I’m still different, but I’ve found my place.

Gerri Luce is a licensed clinical social worker who publishes under a pseudonym.

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