I love to write, to engage in community groups online where common interests are held, to post in social media and share my thoughts, break-throughs, creations and so on with people at large – the internet has opened up my world so much wider than I ever imagined was possible. However, there’s one thing that always stops me in my tracks and its when online connections want to take it to the next level – to meet up as a group or hold a Skype discussion; to lose the typed posts and go face-to-face. Even when this is amongst people I consider good friends, I’m noticing something rise up in me that I haven’t had to experience for a long time…an old prickle, a dread rising in my stomach telling me this is way out of my comfort zone. Then saying “I’d rather not…” to these things makes me feel like I’m being unreasonable, churlish, rude or even weird but am I?
This has prompted me to dig into what triggers the reaction and has led to the following realisation about me – and possibly others like me. Articulate and wordy I might me on the inside of my head but, when it comes down to expressing myself in spoken words, especially if put on the spot, it can feel like a whole different kettle of fish. The flow and the cohesion that I recognise as me often fails to show up at all under that kind of pressure; instead, it feels like I’m hesitating, stumbling, tripping up, going blank. What comes out feels like it can become cringeworthy (at least to me on the inside…probably not all that bad-sounding on the outside) and my heart begins to race, my thoughts become even more flustered.
Worse for me and anyone else with a tendency towards energy crashes, I find it can be incredibly exhausting, both mentally and emotionally, when I engage in even the shortest conversations, often leaving me in a state of severe chronic fatigue after chatting to someone intensely for even just half an hour or so, or crashed-out completely after a full social gathering, whereas I can write for endless hours. As for the suggestion to get together and brain-storm in a group, such an activity feel like exactly that, to me – a storm passing through and thick clouds coming overhead to muddle-up all the clarity of my thinking. Worst of all, I come away feeling foolish and like I didn’t say half of what I wanted to, or convinced that what I did say came out ‘very badly’, even convinced that I might have offended people. It then sets me up for the acutest kind of self-torture as the inevitable post-mortem kicks in.
This ‘thing’ has been with me all my life…hugely articulate in writing yet utterly hating situations where I am expected to be vocal beyond the day-to-day stuff. At university, my written work was top-grade yet I sat there mutely gripping my hands together in all my seminars, confusing and frustrating all my tutors. For years (and years) I put this trait down to some sort of social anxiety (‘shy’ is how I labeled myself), as if I was scared of being amongst people but, looking back, that doesn’t even begin to add up because I’m relaxed, easy, engaging, even entertaining, when placed amongst people looking for light-hearted chat. I don’t get at all anxious in social situations or dread meeting strangers and I can small-talk until the cows come home – give me canapés and a wedding party and I’m all at-home talking about wiffle-waffle. It’s just the deeper, ‘clever’ stuff – and the expectation that I will arrive with all this pre-booted – that doesn’t seem to work for me, face to face; its not that I don’t feel like I’ve got anything to say…its the fact it just wont come OUT at the speed, in the format, that is called-for in a conversation. Like its either gushing unchecked and garbled or its utterly CORKED.
Its a phenomenon I first started to make headway with, in terms of understanding it, when I began looking into the left and right hemispheres of the brain and around the time I was reading Susan Cain’s book ‘Quiet’ a couple of years ago. Susan examines all the ways that introverts are wired differently to extroverts and this got me opening up to the fact that this might not be some sort of ’emotional flaw’, a ‘confidence issue’ I was carrying around with me but might simply be a clue that I’m wired one way (along with a great many other introverts) whilst some other people are wired another; neither of them ‘wrong’. She got me to look into the positives of the way my brain functions, even if the world is less than geared-up to appreciate it. One of the things she cautions against is forcing the introvert into group-thinking situations as the introvert does better coming up with their most creative ideas alone and then sharing them later. I began to gain a clearer picture of why I struggle, as I do, in group situations. Maybe my brain is geared to go into the deep, meditative ponderings that join everything up and make ideas feel cohesive and flowing when I’m writing (and painting) but, for whatever reason, as soon as I engage the left-brain aspects of brain function involved in speech, those qualities (cohesion, flow…) flee from the scene like sprites on the wing…and whatever is left feels heavy, clumsy and stumbling; like an understudy who didn’t expect to get called upon. Other ways of describing what vocalising my thoughts feels like would be: ‘uninspired’, ‘overly-cognitive’, ‘self-conscious’, ‘ compromised’, ‘disconnected’…in other words, I find myself stranded a long way from the expansive, limitless, right-sided flow that I feel most comfortable in and which writing my thoughts down doesn’t seem to interfere with. Its like trying to pat your head and rub your stomach at the same time, I can only manage to do one very well at the expense of the other and, as the consummate perfectionist (I used to beat myself up for that quality too…), this isn’t good enough for me and sends me into meltdown.
Feeling into this has helped me to identify why social drinking was something I over-relied on for so much of my adult life (I’ve now entered a phase where I hardly ever drink at all, which has helped me to see that so clearly). For years, my hand would reach for a drink before I even attempted to engage in flowing conversation…whether it was at a social function, a gallery opening or at the end of a phone before a long chat with a friend. Earlier still, it was cigarettes too…for years, I could hardly open a conversation without reaching for the relaxant of a ‘fag’ poised between two fingers (in my first job, you could smoke in the office and we all did, as we engaged in these high-pressure, terribly embroiled conversations with our clients). Again, I labelled this prop a ‘confidence boost’ but, looking back, it seems to me I was just craving something…anything…that would facilitate the relaxing of my left-brain and that slip back into the ease of the more meditative state that would allow my words to flow; anything to oil the wheels so that the instruments of speech would keep pace with the inner workings of my mind.
Apart from the occasional moments when it was like I suddenly slipped into a new gear and inspired words came tumbling out with a well-oiled cohesion that startled me, they seldom ever did. That’s not much of a track record to draw comfort from; simply not knowing which way it will go, in advance, can be an almighty obstacle to the desire to proceed and avoidance of situations that feel so out-of-depth can become the easier, more comfortable route. But what’s wrong with that, I now ask myself. Isn’t everything I’ve come to know a version of “if it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it” and “trust your instincts, which will tell you which way to go through the way you are made to feel“. Spending your time in ways that you choose, not the way you feel you ought to, is central to my whole philosophy of life. I live by this code and am passionate about people coming to accept and love themselves just the way they are so why should this be any different?
Accepting ourselves as we are can be so cathartic, so liberating that it can feel as though a giant jigsaw piece has just slotted into place and made the world look new. This was what I enjoyed more than anything about Susan Cain’s book; she was prepared to state – clearly, publicly and unapologetically – that introverts aren’t broken extroverts, they come with their very own skill set and an absolute bounty of very unique gifts. Many of those characters considered paradigm changers or geniuses have shared these very qualities and lived extraordinarily withdrawn lives which, arguably, served their needs. Introverts tend to have a certain way of seeing the world; they get in deep and dark, into fantastical corners of experience that others might not be quite so party to so why distract them out of that experience by calling them out into the daylight against their will and, besides, why would they need to add that to their already busy repertoire of experience. To quote Susan Cain:
“We all know from myths and fairytales that there are many different kind of powers in this world…the trick is not to amass all the different kinds of power but to use the kind you’ve been granted. Introverts are offered keys to private gardens full of riches. To possess such a key is to tumble like Alice down her rabbit hole. She didn’t choose to go to Wonderland – but she made of it an adventure that was fresh and fantastic and very much her own”.
The same degree of acceptance is just begging to flood into this area of life where, I realise, I’ve been continuing to treat myself as ‘broken’ or like there is still this huge mountain of a challenge up ahead that I must overcome…’must’ get over my strong dislike of face-to-face meetings; ‘must’ stop hiding behind the urge to write it all down from the solitude of my, yes, extremely introverted existence; ‘must’ stop doing what I really love to do and get out into (literal or virtual) crowds of people because that’s what you are supposed to do these days to make a success of your life and be part of the world (says someone).
On reviewing all of this, I realise I absolutely don’t have to do any of these things if I don’t want to and so, if its not my joy, why force it? Maybe I’ve done it all before and wanted a different experience this time; maybe I’ve got the extrovert, chatty-person-of-the year T-shirt from a previous life. What matters here is that I am able to embrace myself exactly as I am in this moment, accepting fully that this is just the way I am made and so this must be my particular modus operandi; thus I don’t need to force myself to adopt anyone else’s!
Face it, the world is full of people, many of them leaping at the chance to engage with one another in the biggest world-scale conversation ever, facilitated by the endless stream of face-to-face opportunities and real-time public speaking gigs that are now possible across continents. I’m so excited for them; these people are literally shaking up the whole paradigm of our planet but, if we were all doing the same thing, it would be boring now wouldn’t it! Some of the so-called extroverts out there in certain careers are just pretending to be so to get by – I used to do that, it made me miserable and ill. About a third of the population of the world, I am told, are much more like me so I can reassure myself that I am in very good (if quiet) company and, one day, if we cross paths through a love of art or writing our thoughts down, we can tell each other so. I used to feel left out of the party, but no more; there is a space for me, just as I am, I know that now.
I’m fortunate in that I don’t have to ’round peg-square hole’ myself much these days and get to chose what feels comfortable for me or simply walk on by. Looking into the Quiet Revolution material that has sprung out of Susan Cain’s book, I can’t help feeling that there’s still a certain amount of pressure for introverts to act a lot more like extroverts; to sign up for public speaking courses and just get over it. I would ask “why bother?” and “isn’t that what we used to have to do?” but I guess its a survival thing ‘out there’ in the world of work and I’ve simply ducked out from that pressure, believing that to force myself would be to compromise personality traits I am learning to value a little more each day. There’s certainly room for cultivating more career opportunities that fit more closely to the introvert personality and I hope to see that happening in my lifetime.
Yes, the world needs introverts too (thank you again, Susan Cain) and I’m here to ground a different thread, to hold the base-line of deeper notes, to send them out into the world in squiggly black-and-white shapes (old-fashioned I know but if you are reading this post, they are obviously working), as colourful brush-strokes and via the intentions that I hold in my heart; because all these things hold energy too and so they are all helping evolve the world. In our own unique way, the quiet people get things done…and then some…and I’m prepared to suggest that what the world needs now, more than ever before, is full acceptance of these differences and a good pinch of both approaches in order to achieve the kind of balance that has so long eluded it.
And to anyone that ever wanted me to join their discussion or social gathering and wondered why I didn’t jump at it – I really hope this helps you understand why… (its not about you but, without apology, its about me). Please don’t worry about me or feel you need to coerce me out of my cave; I like being this way and am finally prepared to own it 🙂