It is 2006 and I have everything. My husband is making professional athlete money as an executive at a hedge fund. We have three healthy, beautiful, active, children. We recently moved into a spacious and impressive home. I am getting to know people by throwing dinner parties for my husband’s co-workers and attending neighborhood Bunco nights. I have the life my mother always dreamed of and yet here I am sitting in a thin revealing gown on the sterile, crinkly white paper of my physician’s exam table asking for something to give me energy, return physical desire and stave off depression. The doctor writes a prescription for the anti-depressant Prozac. I avoid eye contact with her as my face grows hot.
I have help cleaning the house and watching the kids. I have so many external gifts that I must be absolutely perfect in my performances as wife and mother. There are no reasons why I should not be able to design and juggle magnificent schedules, have profoundly happy children and a well-decorated home. And yet I find myself being short with the kids, emotionally overwrought and just plain sad. I have no drive. I tune out some of the noise and requests of me in order to get through the day. I vacillate between extreme sensitivity and dull malaise.
The Prozac prescription comes with just enough stigma and fear of losing control to wake me up. What is wrong with me? Why am I failing when I have so much?
Over the next year, I make it a priority to make space for me. I don’t know it, but I am straining to hear my inner voice. After much soul searching, many hours running on the treadmill, a few guitar lessons and a writing class, I notice a link to the website, IntrovertEnergy.com in an email from a former writing instructor. I am curious, so I click on it. A few more clicks and I am taking a self-assessment for introverts. Do I find these statements to be true?
When I need a rest, I prefer time alone or with one or two close people rather than a group
When I work on projects, I like to have larger uninterrupted time periods rather than smaller chunks
I can zone out if too much is going on
I don’t like to interrupt others; I don’t like to be interrupted
I can become grouchy if I am around people or activities too long
I often dread returning phone calls
I am creative/imaginative
I form lasting relationships
I usually need to think before I respond or speak
Yes, to every one of them! Like a lot of people, I thought introverts were awkward, anti-social and reclusive. I love people and visiting new places, so it did not occur to me that I could be introverted. My assumptions changed as I conducted a deep investigation into the ways and wonders of introverts. As I uncovered truths about the introspective temperament, I discovered I AM an introvert, what that means, why it is a good thing, and how to navigate in an extroverted world.
What the Experts Say
All of us have introverted AND extroverted traits. Temperaments exist on a continuum with one of the psychological types dominating. According to The Introvert Advantage, Marti Olsen Laney’s bestselling book on the characteristics of introversion, 25% of all people are introverts. A statistic from a 1998 Myers-Briggs computation of I or introverted personality types showed the introvert population to be as high as 50%. Either way, chances are you or someone you know well, is an introvert.
Contrary to popular belief, introverts are not all shy bookworms. The difference between introverts and extroverts is not social skills. It is the way they recharge or gain energy. The revered psychologist, Carl Jung, was the first to coin introversion as, life defined by the pursuit of solitude. Introverts renew in solitude, from within. Extroverts thrive on external stimulation.
The United States is especially keen on the extrovert persona. In the U.S. it is cool to be an extrovert, wired for sound and pumped up by activity. Our nation was built on rugged back-slapping go-getters who lived for adventure and mastery of the environment. Say the word introvert though, and blushing nerds with concave posture and faint voices come to mind. This misleading perception and lack of understanding has led to the introvert playing the underdog for too long.
4 Things about Introverts Most People Do Not Know
1. It is an innate temperament. It is not a choice. Introvert’s brains map differently. The Introvert Advantage talks about the brain composition of an introvert. The dominate pathway of blood flow is longer and more complex. Introverts use long-term memory more, therefore retrieving information takes longer. The introvert brain integrates complex intellectual and emotional information better but requires more time. It is not uncommon for an introvert to go blank when called on unexpectedly only to have the perfect response surface later.
The primary neurotransmitter circulating in an introvert’s main brain passages is acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that produces a good feeling when a person is thinking or feeling. Extroverts have more dopamine in their primary pathways. Dopamine is associated with movement, learning, and attention.
Introverts also tend to use the parasympathetic (put on the brakes) side of the autonomic nervous system while extroverts employ the (give it gas) sympathetic side resulting in more caution and less impulsiveness for the contemplative crowd.
I dreaded the improvisational part of my 7th grade drama class (no advance notice, quick thinking) but had no problem memorizing 100 lines for the starring role as a hillbilly.
In guitar lessons, I overthink and my fingers shake when I try to emulate the chords, melodies and strumming patterns of my teacher. I have found it to be very helpful to write them down and practice at home. Being observed and asked to perform on the spot is difficult.
2. Our primary source of energy comes from within. Introverts find satisfaction in thinking, feeling, dreaming, and ideas. Introverts are rarely lonely when they are alone. Solitude is where we find the quiet necessary to tap into the inner well and achieve clarity. Many introverts need long blocks of uninterrupted time in order to complete a project or renew themselves. We may appear to be aloof or self-centered but in truth we are mulling over the activities and conversations of the outside world to see how our internal world compares. In making the universal more specific, introverts are able to put themselves in others’ shoes, one of our strengths. This is not to say that introverts do not enjoy connecting with people. We are just more comfortable cherishing and nurturing fewer intimate relationships.
Even though I become physically depleted while running, I step off the treadmill energized because my imagination bubbles up while I exercise alone.
I get up early in order to have time to write uninterrupted.
3. External stimulation drains our energy. The inner-life of an introvert is already so rich and complex that outside activity raises our level of arousal quickly. Marti Olsen Laney (The Introvert Advantage) compares stimulation to tickling. At first it feels good and exciting but after a while it is too much to handle. Extroverts get pumped up from hits of socializing, technology and activity but introverts can easily become overwhelmed. Crowds, noise, interruptions, back to back activities and chaotic environments are huge energy drains. Each bit of stimulation takes our tank of energy down a notch until we are existing on fumes. The antidote to large doses of stimulation is to withdraw to a tranquil space.
If there is no opportunity for renewal, we may feel like our brain is numb. We may speak slower and take longer to gather our thoughts due to the longer neural pathways bottlenecking the processing of input. We may feel embarrassed or guilty because we cannot keep up with the fast paced, driven world.
Hours of back to back activities, cell phone calls, email chimes, and non-stop chatter render my brain a rubbery frog in formaldehyde.
I have an especially tough time in the summer when my three children are home. Long days of constant stimulation leave me feeling like a wild rabbit in a cage, longing for the peace of the quiet woods.
4. We prefer depth to breadth. Introverts go deeper with fewer subjects and fewer relationships. Since energy is limited it is necessary for introverts to zero in on what is meaningful and beautiful. Introverts enjoy pondering, exploring and savoring. We like to take in outside information, mull it over and expand on it. Part of the reason an introvert’s brain gets muddled is because they want to process every bit of data completely, chewing and digesting each morsel. Too much information, just like too many people, can be hyper-stimulating. At a party you will most likely find an introvert in a corner with one or two people in a meaningful conversation. Small talk does not light up an introvert’s heart or mind. Although an introvert may hesitate to speak about topics outside their knowledge, if given the chance to speak in a comfortable atmosphere about a subject near and dear to them, we introverts can talk for hours. Visit any coffee shop to witness this phenomenon.
I used to get anxious before business dinner parties at our house. I knew the small talk would be flowing and my mind would be preparing for evacuation. I can only talk about schools, pools and kids’ camps for so long before I zone out and appear to have nothing to say.
I have researched and written about introversion extensively.
The Best Medicine
Like most introverts, I felt it was right to be busy and surrounded by people. I attempted to be extroverted. With three children and a husband around all the time there was no escaping the crowd or high levels of stimulation. I could not digest all the input and was wracked with guilt because of it. I had to save myself and my family from breaking down. According to Psychology Today’s 2010 article Revenge of the Introvert, Researchers have found that introverts who act extraverted show slower reaction times on subsequent cognitive tests than those allowed to act introverted. Their cognitive fatigue testifies to the fact that acting counter-dispositionally is depleting.
I began to recover by getting out of the house occasionally and engaging in purposeful (to me) activities involving a limited number of participants. I started with personal fitness training (healthy, produces endorphins and one on one), moved on to guitar lessons (I feel music deeply and found an excellent introspective teacher), and then leapt to writing classes (who is more thoughtful and contemplative than writers?).
I stopped throwing dinner parties for large crowds of individuals I barely knew. I found close friends in the meaningful activities I had chosen. Although I prefer one on one time with companions, I know I can handle groups of think first, then talk people. I even get energy from them.
As far as clearing the fogginess from my head, I have learned to manage my energy rather than my time. I understand I have to incorporate renewal periods into my day. I play on the computer, ask for help (very difficult), go for a walk, talk with a close friend , take a long shower ,exercise, meditate, read or nap when my circuits begin to overload.
I find comfort in knowing I am not alone by reading Caring for Your Introvert by Jonathon Rauch of The Atlantic. It is hands down the most comical article detailing the traits of introverts. When Jonathon is not quoting Sartre, Hell is other people, he is reminding extroverts of their counterparts, Remember, someone you know, respect, and interact with every day is an introvert, and you are probably driving this person nuts.
I still have days when I feel limited by my temperament. When I do, I re-visit the special powers of introverts:
· Rich inner life
· Vivid imagination
· Never bored
· Rarely lonely
· Foster deep relationships
· Know themselves
· Help others filter and slow down
· Able to concentrate for long periods of time
I never filled the Prozac prescription. Being a conscious introvert (term coined by Nancy Okerlund, life coach to introverts) gives me a sense of relief. Ironically, I am soothed by knowing I am NOT alone. Being comfortable in my own skin (seeing it as normal skin) and appreciating the creative, contemplative and independent aspects of my nature gives me the strength to remove ill-fitting extroverted armor. I can bear being exposed as an inward thinker, non-joiner, and elusive type. I am able to look people in the eye and say, I am an introvert.
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