An introvert in an extrovert’s world

I’ve read a lot about Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.  My recent favorite exploration of the topic is Bruce from Privilege of Parenting’s post about highly sensitive humans.  In a single sentence, defining introversion, Bruce turned on a lightbulb for me:

“It is the tendency to be highly sensitive, quiet, shy and be interested in the inner world of feelings, thoughts, and private spirituality—an ability or tendency to sense the numinous (i.e. a feeling of divine presence) in the seemingly mundane.”

I have never heard introversion described this way before.  It has always been about choosing to be alone, or being shy, or another simplistic distillation of what I think is nothing less than a way of being in the world.  Suddenly all of my relatively recent writing about the holiness in the everyday, about the practice and the poem of ordinary life, about extreme sensitivity made bright and cogent sense.

I flipped open Quiet at random this afternoon, and found myself immersed in a section about the experience of an introvert at Harvard Business School.  To say I relate is an understatement.  I haven’t read it carefully enough to comment on Cain’s points, but I recall the tension I felt during those two years.  What muddies the water of this topic for me is, I suspect, that I can often “pass” as an extrovert. But when I read Bruce’s words, or when I return to the basic definition I’ve always heard (an introvert both draws energy from and seeks out in times of need solitude and leans more towards feelings and thoughts than activities and people) there’s no question that introversion is my essential orientation.  It’s not that I am a curmudgeon who hates people.  Far from it.  It’s just that I am easily overstimulated by the world, and I cope with this best by retreating.

My lingua franca is that of the mind and heart, of interiority, of the quiet that allows me to really hear and see and, most of all, be.  As I’ve grown older I’ve made choices about how I spend my time that reflect this.

But it’s not that simple.  It never is, is it?  I walk, daily, through the extrovert’s world.  I work in a field that involves a lot of interpersonal interaction.  I am blessed with many wonderful friends.  I am often a resource for people on myriad, random topics: do you have a pediatrician to recommend, do you have a book I would like, can you put me in touch with a babysitter, hey thanks for sending me the name of that person in my new town, she is my new best friend, thanks for referring me to that professional connection, I have a new job.

A couple of years ago I took an online quiz to ascertain whether I was a Malcolm Gladwell-style connector and was surprised to learn that I was.  Really?  Left to my own devices, I spend my free time alone. I like solitary activities like reading, writing, and running. I don’t like the telephone, preferring to be in touch over email, text, or other social networks. There are very few people whose company I would choose for extended periods of time. How to square this with my apparent ‘connector’ self and the fact that many people have told me I appear “social” and “extroverted”? I am not sure.

What’s more interesting to me about this lack of inside/outside congruence, though, is the indistinct but inarguable internal discomfort I feel about it. Where does this come from? It’s not from a judgment of more-social vs. less-social people, I don’t think. I conclude that it comes from a frustrated feeling of being inaccurately labeled. To be told I’m one way when I don’t think it’s that simple is aggravating, and makes me feel reduced to categories that don’t quite fit. The labels don’t capture the nuance, the tensions, the tradeoffs.

Maybe I am simply a connector who very much appreciates time alone. Maybe I’m a loner who happens to know a lot of people. Maybe I’m a crazy schizophrenic! I don’t know. What I do know is this is just one place in my life where I experience dissonance between how I am sometimes perceived and how I actually feel.  I know, I know, this anguish is just so adolescent: even as I write it I sort of cringe. But it is true that I chafe against the way that the world seems to see me regularly and with more agitation than many people I know. It is true that I am apparently easily reduced to simplistic, caricatured qualities in the eyes of others.

My mind flits, again, to the wonderful Walt Whitman line, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”  There are innumerable dimensions of humanity, and I think most of us have at least several on which we refuse simple categorization.  These paradoxes are at the heart of who we are as humans.  At least that’s the conclusion my introverted heart, drawn as it is to the inner world of feelings, thoughts, and private spirituality, comes to when it contemplates this

Now, off to be by myself to read Susan Cain’s words.

18 thoughts on “An introvert in an extrovert’s world”

  1. At the risk of increasing your sense of mis-categorization – I want to say that you are not alone. The world is an extroverted place which DEMANDS some level of extroverted functioning from almost everyone and more and more of it the further one reaches toward any sort of success or notoriety. So, many of us on the introversion continuum learn how to do it. It’s not faking it exactly, it’s a skill. But it’s a skill that consumes an enormous amount of energy. And the dance between what we give in the outer world and what we really need for our inner world never ceases to be a tricky one. Something I picked up somewhere as a flippant little comment on this movement back and forth across the line that defines us is the term extrovert minutes. As in, I’ve used up all my extrovert minutes for the day, or the week, and I need to retreat. Those minutes, for us who live in the interior, are a limited resource that has to be used purposefully. So my dear, you are not schizophrenic, and you are not alone — but your description of it all is luminous. Happy reading.

  2. oh, me too…tears welled up when i started reading quiet (to be seen/known). if you met me in person, you may never imagine me to be an introvert (fast-talking, very affectionate, etc.)…what’s cellularly true though is that the world easily overwhelms me, that i desire solitude and silent reflection daily, that an ideal evening is a cup of hot tea and a book under the covers. very much me too, lindsey.

  3. Fascinating topic, Lindsey – I’m also an introvert who can “pass” in certain settings (usually academic/work-related situations in which I’m relying on my intellectual, rather than social, skills).Susan Cain gave a great TED talk on the power of introverts – worth googling to watch if you haven’t seen it.

    I once heard introverts described as those who are energized by being alone while extroverts are energized by being with others – that fits pretty well with my experience. I enjoy connecting with others, but not on a superficial level. I love book club and going to dinner with friends, but a cocktail party filled with people I don’t know is an exhausting and often anxiety-provoking situation for me. I also dislike talking on the phone:)

    I suppose, as with most things extroversion/introversion is a continuum. There are no absolutes.

  4. I love this Walt Whitman quote you give: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” I have also struggled and still do, with this categorization and quickness to judge. By all definitions I have heard I am certainly an introvert on the inside. But like you say, we walk through a world that is extroverted in orientation so to the degree we can, we accommodate. Does this make us mixed up, crazies? No! The world is a bit mad though, and we make it work. We contain multitudes! I am feeling even as I write this, that the healthiest path forward is simply to be ALL that we are without the shame of dissonance. So we are contradictions, so be it! xox

  5. I will have to download Quiet now.

    I have written about this extensively but can never come to any conclusions. Much less be able to synthesize it down into a blog post.

    The best that I can come up with is describing myself as an extroverted introvert. Or an introverted extrovert.

    I love Alix’s comment – I love being able to connect with others, but not on a superficial level. Yes.

    Sometimes I kick myself for not talking to you or introducing myself at Kripalu last year. But, I don’t feel guilty because I think that you of all people could understand, no, REALLY UNDERSTAND my need to not talk to anyone at certain times.

    M K

  6. As a true extrovert (should I still read the book?), I can’t comment on your realizations other than to acknowledge them and say that, as your longtime friend, I think you have hit the nail on the head. But I can say that the realization itself is powerful: once I became aware that I was an extrovert it helped me embrace these characteristics(as opposed to feeling self-conscious that I was too “out there” or “attention seeking”). It was you, of course, and I think a discussion all of us had in Homosassa that made me first truly aware of what it meant – as Alix describes above – that you are energized either by seeking refuge or by the company of others. I am definitely the latter. Honestly, it was literally this realization that helped me switch careers: being holed up in a law office where I could go a day without talking to ANYONE or spending my days meeting new people and hearing about their ideas? Had I not fully understood that I NEED the latter to function, I think taking the leap might have been harder. But also it has helped in that I no longer feel guilty on a Friday night when I leave my introvert husband home to recharge on the couch in front of the Red Sox while I go meet friends. I would not be happy at home; he would not be happy out. So we both recharge and then spend Saturday night together. LOVE this post. Maybe I will read the book after all…

  7. I too come off as an extrovert. But it’s a hell of a lot of work. I want to get this book too! I married a true introvert and as time is passing, I am gradually allowing myself to come back to my true nature.


  8. If you are schizophrenic than so am I! I, too, am a connector. I have friends say to me all the time, “I know you’ll know about some interesting thing to do this weekend,” or some such thing. I’m always giving people articles out of the newspaper or a magazine or forwarding something to them. I HATE the telephone. The only person that I spend any time talking to on the phone is my mother. But I love Facebook, texting and e-mail. If I choose what to do it will always be solitary and involve staying home. Having said all that, I suspect the majority of the people I’m acquainted with would say I was an extrovert. The conundrum of life!

  9. So wild, Lindsey, I just watched Susan Cain’s Ted Talk sent to me by a friend from my spirit book group, after our discussion of my true introverted nature, and then opened your blog post! Amazing!! Happy Day!

  10. Similarly, I have always found if fascinating that many famous comedians are quite intense in their personal lives. I believe we all have these dichotomies. They are like a pendulum swinging and the ball reaches each side of us in equal measures. The higher we tend to reach on the extrovert scale, the more profoundly we feel alone and vice versa. I guess the goal is to level out or maybe, just enjoy the ride?

  11. A late comment, but I am just starting to “read” (audiobook) Quiet now. It’s like someone secretly read my mind (yes, I let calls go to voicemail)! And working in a (male dominated) extrovert-ideal (marketing) environment, I feel so relieved that I am “normal”, that I can have something to contribute! I think my challenge will be parenting one very sensitive, introverted child (and trying to avoid all the mistakes I made myself) and another quite extroverted one (his nickname is the “Senator”, always “campaigning”!)

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