As an introvert who often hasn't understood why I feel and act the way I do, I am grateful for the wealth of information these days on what it means to be, to use Susan Cain's word, one of the quiet ones. Now I know why I was so tired and grumpy after a full day of school, why I often stumble when trying to talk about ideas yet can write about them more easily, why—as much as I love my friends—I am exhausted by their company much more quickly than I'd like, why I crave with all my being what would seem to most people inordinate hours of alone time.
More important, I know that it was and is all okay, that I was and am okay.
I first learned about introversion when trying to be a better parent. In Elaine Aron's work on being highly sensitive, I recognized not only my son but myself and my husband. In The Highly Sensitive Person (reprint edition, 1997), she reminds us that introversion is not the same as misanthropy:
"[Introversion] means you prefer to have a few close relationships rather than a large circle of friends and don't usually enjoy large parties or crowds. But even the most introverted person is sometimes an extravert and enjoys a stranger or crowd. Even the most extraverted is sometimes an introvert.
Introverts are still social beings. In fact, their well-being is more affected by their social relationships than is the well-being of extraverts. Introverts just go for quality, not quantity." (p. 98)
Another important insight came from David Willings, who in 1980 wrote in The Creatively Gifted: Recognizing and Developing the Creative Potential about the complex personality of "introverted swashbucklers"—highly creative introverts who can appear to be extroverted at times, defying expectations and labels. These children and adults crave both solitude and society in unpredictable ways.
While these and other authors helped me to understand myself and my family more fully (see also Sharon Lind's excellent tips for parents of introverts), not until Susan Cain's book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking has it been okay to come out fully as an introvert. Suddenly introverts are not only everywhere, they are cool.
Yet, with all this newfound public acceptance, I still sometimes struggle with truly embracing the introverted parts of myself, which is why it was refreshing to listen to author Joanna Penn's recent podcast interview on being an introverted writer and the importance of learning skills of public speaking:
“I can’t take too much time with people… I don’t like talking on the phone… I certainly would never do cold calling… I don’t like small talk…” Listen to more
Check. Check (with the exception of close friends and family). Check. Check. I feel that Joanna and I are kindred spirits, except she describes her introverted self with confidence and ease, without apology or defensiveness. She obviously knows herself well, which is, more than specific labels, the key. That is the goal I am working toward.
I know and am friends with many introverts, and while we share a lot of important traits (what others might call quirks, a word I wholeheartedly embrace), we are also very different. We need and enjoy varying degrees of socializing. We have different levels of shyness. What overstimulates one of us may be a joy for another.
And our experience of introversion can change throughout our lifespan. If anything, I feel myself becoming more introverted and less shy as I get older. Is that the norm? My point is that, in the end, it doesn't matter. What matters is that I know what works, and what doesn't work, for me.
For example, commonly cited advice for introverts is to "act like an extrovert" in order to be happier and more successful. Well, for this introvert (and I'm not alone), that is bad advice. In fact, the times when I have been the most unhappy have almost always been when I'm trying to be more extroverted than I want to be—when I've said yes to too many outside commitments and social events, when I have to spend more of my day talking than not, when I have little time to reflect and recharge.
Recently my husband and I spent almost three weeks in London on a working vacation. He was doing research at the British Library, and I passed my days writing and indexing (what I would have done at home), but in the Bloomsbury area of London. After supper, we enjoyed walking to plays, walking to museums, or just walking. I have rarely been happier.
For many people, extroverted or not, this vacation would have been far too ordinary and quiet, but that doesn't mean that it was wrong. In fact, it was just right... for me.
In this golden age for introverts, let's not forget the value and wonder of human complexity.
Think about what aspects of being introverted have made it easier to know and accept yourself, and in what ways the introverted label might hinder you.