I recently had the kind of personal epiphany you’re supposed to stop having after you’re in your teens and twenties.
I realised that I’m an introvert. Then I freaked out about it. Then I realised that it’s OK.
It’s all because if this book: Quiet – The Power of Introverts in a World that won’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain.
In contemporary society it’s a given that being an extrovert is a good thing. Is, in fact, the best thing. And I thought, that’s alright because – I’m an extrovert. Here was my evidence:
I acted in plays at school, taking lead roles. I was picked to take part in debating competitions – and won them. At school, I fronted the first of many alternative rock bands. My hair was dyed plum red and black back then. I would go out in the evening with skin tight torn jeans, with fishnet stockings visible through the gaps..
My first proper job after University was as a lecturer, back in the days when a lecture was speaking to a room full of 80 students.
Stage fright? None. Getting up in front of 2,000 people and singing a song about Starsky and Hutch being gay, with nothing but a guitar to hide behind, has never bothered me.
But there’s a common denominator in all these examples of brashness and boldness. They’re all kinds of performance.
Put me in a room with twelve people that I don’t know very well and I feel overwhelmed. Ask me to speak to the person next to me in a crowded classroom and I freeze. And if I’m in the middle of a crowd rather than looking out over one… just the thought of it makes me want to run and run until I reach a barren place where there are no people. Halifax, for example.
In my twenties I had a hedonistic, extroverted girlfriend who loved nothing more to be out every night, shouting her head off with a pint in her hand in the centre of a gang. I hated it. Hated, hated it. And for that, she said I was a freak – that I was unusual and weird.
“Normal people want to socialise,” she said. And, for her, socialising was being in loud places with a pack of people.
I medicalised my difference – believing that I had social anxiety. I believed that my aversion to noise and crowds was neurosis.
I believed it for years. But that didn’t match with the fact that I could, very happily, lead a teaching workshop full of strangers or contentedly while away an evening with a couple of old friends in a cold kitchen with a bottle of wine or make vocal and pretentious contributions in seminars.
And my sense that I was abnormal became worse, not better. Extroversion is increasingly lauded as a highly desirable trait. It’s venerated in our love of celebrity and our obsession with reality TV. A reality in which all the participants are costumed exhibitionists, packaged with catch phrases. And its polar opposite? Introversion.
Who wants to be shy? Who wants to be bland? Who wants to be boring?
Susan Cain’s “Quiet” has changed the way I think about introversion and extroversion. She describes them as predispositions along a continuum of social stimulus. For extroverts, their energy and vim come from attention and exposure. They are spontaneous and external, present in the moment and eager to make the most of it before it burns out. Extroverts thrive on larger quantities of interaction.
Introverts, instead, expend energy when externalising. Parties can still be fun, but they are exhausting. Meeting new people can be rewarding, but too much in one go is overwhelming. Introverts are internal, whether thoughtful or feeling. Interaction with others is more about quality.
I am a writer, so all this makes sense. I spend much of my time, very happily, in my own mind. I am quick with humour, but slow with decision. I build labyrinths of logic and explore them, on my own, in my head. I express myself when I’m ready. But it’s sad that, for me, it’s taken so long to realise that it’s OK.
It is OK.