Sometimes people are surprised to learn to that I consider myself strongly introverted. To many people, introvert is a synonym for anti-social, shy, or awkward.
I understand why people are surprised. After all, I do talk to people. I don’t seem especially shy. Sometimes I’m even loud and boisterous. But what most people don’t see is how most of the time I have to fight my urge to back out of social commitments and just stay home. They don’t see how I get so anxious and nervous before a party, or meeting new people, or having an uncomfortable conversation, or hanging out with someone who feels out-of-my-league, that I sweat through my clothes and my whole body shakes so hard that my teeth chatter.
I’ve written here before about my (apparently well-hidden) social anxiety and how my classic remedy has often been to over-compensate, pushing myself to be overly cheerful, loud, energetic, and funny (and usually becoming pretty obnoxious in the process) when in social settings. I didn’t realize until fairly recently that all of these things are coping mechanisms of a sort. They are ways that I try to handle my anxiety and they are ways that I try to conform to an extroverted ideal.
Last year I read Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. This book was fascinating on so many levels. It helped me make sense of the parts of my personality I’d always viewed as contradictory or even flawed and it helped me recognize all the ways that Western culture embraces extroversion as the ideal and subtly (or not-so-subtly) encourages us to act like extroverts even if we aren’t.
I am introverted in the most classic sense of the word – I am more energized by being alone than I am by being with people. This doesn’t mean that I don’t like being with people and it doesn’t mean that I have no social skills. It simply means that being with other people takes more energy from me than it gives, so I have to spend time alone in a peaceful environment to reboot and regain energy.
However, I am also a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). As the name suggests, HSPs are people who are very sensitive to their surroundings. In Quiet, Cain presents research on HSPs that was very meaningful to me because it made sense of parts of my personality I couldn’t’ understand. HSPs can get easily irritated by loud noises or bright lights or harsh textures. They can be more easily upset by things like violent movies and can have difficulty handling stressful situations without becoming overwhelmed. But HSPs are also tend to experience empathy and compassion more easily, to appreciate the finer things in life, and to have a rich and complex inner life.
Not all highly sensitive people are introverts and not all introverts are highly sensitive, but a larger percentage of highly sensitive people are introverts than extroverts. Both my husband and I are introverts, but I am a highly sensitive and more social whereas my but my husband is quieter and is not highly sensitive
Before reading this book, I’d always felt confused by this seeming contradiction in my personality. Even in my own mind, introverts were quiet and stoic people, but my emotions were easily influenced by my surroundings. I laugh easily and cry even more easily. None of this seemed to jive with the rest of my introverted characteristics. Cain’s book helped me understand my own personality and wiring better and also helped me appreciate how some of the things I’ve always considered flaws in myself can actually add value to my relationships and community.
I know I’m not alone in struggling to understand myself, the way I’m wired, and how I fit in with my family, my community, and with society. In fact, so many people responded positively to Quiet that Susan Cain and a team of collaborators have decided to launch a lifestyle website dedicated to exploring the value of being an introvert in an extrovert’s world. The website, Quiet Revolution, launches today and is designed to empower and connect introverts across the globe.
If you’re an introvert, you should read Quiet. If you’re not an introvert, you probably love someone who is, so you should still read this book. And if you are interested in participating in an online community of writers, thinkers, and influencers who are all introverts, you should head over to the Quiet Revolution site and check it out.
The world needs to re-think Quiet, because introverts have ideas worth listening to, even if they aren’t the ones shouting the loudest.