“You are NOT an introvert!” she cried.
I was at lunch with a friend, musing about why, despite my love of Argentine tango, it’s been years since I’ve really fed my passion by (ahem) actually going out dancing.
She had asked if it was because of my knee dislocation and reconstruction, and it’s true I fell out of the habit when I physically couldn’t dance, but my surgery was in 2010, and I’ve been physically able to dance for at least two years at this point.
No, now that I’m out of the habit, I’d confessed, the problem isn’t my body, it’s my spirit: getting out to a milonga requires overcoming my homebody, introvert nature.
That’s when she stopped me, asserting in an almost scandalized tone of voice that I am NOT an introvert.
The False Perception Mystery
I was a bit taken aback, though truthfully, not totally surprised by her reaction. I’d even braced myself for it, because she’s not the only one to challenge me on this.
(If I had a dollar for everyone who’s ever argued with me about where I fall on the introversion-extroversion scale, I’d be a rich woman. I even got the argument from one of my co-counselors, an otherwise very wise woman with over 30 years of counseling under her belt. Not only did she argue with me, but she rather smugly implied that eventually, as I became more self-actualized, I’d accept the truth that I’m actually an extrovert.
This assumption that she knew my interior better than I did myself did not raise her esteem in my eyes.)
No, it doesn’t surprise me that other people are surprised that I identify as an introvert — I understand why they’d assume otherwise. After all, I enjoy people and can carry on a conversation with just about anybody, I appear to be very outgoing and comfortable in group situations, plus I’m a performer — all traits that one typically associates with extroverts.
I know that all of these skills were learned, painstakingly, over a lifetime, but they don’t know that.
And pretty much everyone assumes that people who enjoy being onstage are extroverts (though, in fact, many performers are introverts — performing offers us a safe, predictable, controlled way to interact with a crowd.)
No, what surprises me is the vehemence with which people insist that I am wrong, that there is NO WAY I’m an introvert.
What is up with that?
If someone revealed to me something about their personality that surprised me, I might express that surprise (“Gee, really? I wouldn’t have guessed that about you.”), but I don’t think I’d argue with them about it. I don’t think I would claim to know their interior better than they do.
Why are people so invested in the idea of my being an extrovert that they’ll argue with me?
When I posed this very question to another friend, she suggested that maybe it’s because people see introversion as a negative thing. Maybe they don’t see themselves as arguing with me, but instead as trying to reassure me, as if to say, “Oh, no, Melissa, you’re better than that! Don’t put yourself down!”
After reading Susan Cain’s best-selling book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, I think this friend may be on to something.
Extroversion: A Cultural Ideal
The fact is, we in the West live in a world that prizes extroverts much more highly than introverts, and is, in many ways, geared toward and designed around extroverts.
In the first chapter of Quiet, Susan Cain writes about the rise of extroversion as a cultural ideal,
…a cultural evolution that reached a tipping point around the turn of the 20th Century, changing forever who we are and whom we admire, how we act at job interviews and what we look for in an employee, how we court our mates and raise our children.
The notion that extroversion is superior is the water that we in the US swim in. It’s everywhere. Even a self-identified introvert like me is not immune to the programming of that cultural ideal.
For example, one of the reasons it took me so long to see MB as a “contender” as a life partner is because of his own introversion, which is more extreme than mine.
I confess, I always envisioned myself with more of a mover-and-shaker, part of a “power couple” with an outgoing extrovert. Only after years of MB’s quiet persistence did I appreciate that what he was offering was exactly what I needed, and that he is, in fact, a much better match for me than any Big Man On Campus type would be.
Ironically, even MB sometimes has a hard time buying that I’m an introvert, because he’s so much further out on the introvert side of the introvert/extrovert scale than I am! And because I’m what Cain would call me a “Pseudo-Extrovert” — an introvert on the outside, who’s learned to appear extroverted when the situation demands it.
A Pseudo-Extrovert: The Introvert Inside an Extrovert Shell
Cain hit the nail on the head with that one. When someone expresses disbelief that I’m an introvert, I often retort that I’ve learned to exercise my internal extrovert over the years, but I’m still an introvert.
Here are just a few examples of my introverted nature, along with examples of my pseudo-extroversion — see if you relate:
• I feel terribly inhibited and uncomfortable at a party where I don’t know anyone (introvert), but nobody in the room would suspect as much (pseudo-extrovert).
• Small talk drains the life out of me (introvert), though I can make it with the best of them when required (pseudo-extrovert).
• Instead of a gang of buddies, I’ve always had a small number of really close friends (introvert).
• I always prefer an intimate gathering over a big bash (introvert).
• Meeting new people scares me (introvert), but (largely thanks to years of internet coffee dates — 57 first dates between May 2006 and December 2009, baby! No lie!) I can talk for an hour with anyone (pseudo-extrovert), and make them feel comfortable, to boot (introvert — turns out we’re often really good at that).
• I love working at home, where I get to spend great swaths of my day alone — ahhhh! (introvert)
• I love to teach, to perform, to speak for an audience (pseudo-extrovert), but I need to hole up alone afterwards to recharge (introvert).
• Even teaching an online tele- or video seminar— when I’m technically alone in a room, and my students are out there in the void somewhere — exhausts me (introvert).
• When I’m not in the habit of it, going out dancing (a pseudo-extrovert activity that requires “small-talk” level interactions with a lot of strangers) feels like leaping over a six-foot hurdle (introvert), despite the fact that dance is an undisputed passion in my life.
How I’m Like a Harvard Professor
The disparity between my internal life and how people perceive me is one reason my favorite part of Quiet may be Chapter 9, which Cain starts off by introducing former Harvard University psychology lecturer Brian Little:
Short, sturdy, bespectacled, and endearing, Professor Little has a booming baritone, a habit of breaking into song and twirling about onstage, and an old-school actor’s way of emphasizing consonants and elongating vowels. He’s been described as a cross between Robin Williams and Albert Einstein, and when he makes a joke that pleases his audience, which happens a lot, he looks even more delighted than they do. His classes at Harvard were always oversubscribed and often ended in standing ovations.
Sounds like a classic extrovert, right?
Cain proceeds to show a very different picture of Little, who, now retired, lives with his wife in the remote Canadian woods, rarely socializes, and when he does,
…he pairs off into quiet conversations as soon as he can or excuses himself “for a breath of fresh air.” When he’s forced to spend too much time out and about or in any situation involving conflict, he can literally become ill.
The sense of recognition I felt when I read this was palpable. Professor Little is a kindred spirit, even down to the reactions he gets from others. Like the disbelieving friend I met for lunch, Little’s students are usually incredulous when he claims to be an introvert (though I somehow doubt they respond by insisting “You are NOT an introvert!”)
A few pages later Cain shares the story of when Little was invited to address a group of senior military officers at the Royal Military College Saint-Jean, along the Richelieu River, forty kilometers south of Montreal. He’d prepared thoroughly for the presentation (classic introvert!), and it was such a success that he would be invited to make it every year…
But the next invitation the college extended horrified him: to join the top brass for lunch Little had to deliver another lecture that afternoon, and he knew that making small talk for an hour and a half would wipe him out. He needed to recharge for his afternoon performance.
Thinking quickly, he announced that he had a passion for ship design and asked his hosts if he might instead take the opportunity of his visit to admire the boats passing by on the Richelieu River. He then spent his lunch hour strolling up and down the river pathway with an appreciative expression on his face.
This benign deception continued for years, until the college moved to a new location, nowhere near a waterfront.
Stripped of his cover story, Professor Little resorted to the only escape hatch he could find—the men’s room. After each lecture, he would race to the restroom and hide inside a stall. One time, a military man spotted Little’s shoes under the door and began a hearty conversation, so Little took to keeping his feet propped up on the bathroom walls, where they would be hidden from view.
I had to laugh at this. It brought to mind the many times I’ve retreated to a bathroom, a book, an interaction with a pet, in order to buy some “alone time” or avoid small talk. As well as the many times I’ve recognized a friendly acquaintance down the block, or across the aisle in a store, and made a quick U-turn — even if I like the person — simply to avoid having to engage in aimless, light conversation.
What explains this dichotomy?
Why is it that people like me and Professor Little can be introverts—enough to hide in the nearest bathroom stall—but manage to speak or perform in public so effectively?
How come I come across to others as an extrovert, when it’s so obvious to me that I’m an introvert?
Free Trait Theory
The answer, Professor Little says, is simple. According to a new field of psychology that he created almost singlehandedly, called Free Trait Theory, “we are born and culturally endowed with certain [“fixed”] personality traits—introversion, for example—but we can and do act out of character [demonstrating “free traits”] in service of ‘core personal projects.'”
In other words, introverts are capable of acting like extroverts for the sake of work they consider important, people they love, or anything they value highly. Free Trait Theory explains why an introvert might throw his extroverted wife a surprise party or join the PTA at his daughter’s school. It explains how it’s possible for an extroverted scientist to behave with reserve in her laboratory, for an agreeable person to act hard-nosed during a business negotiation, and for a cantankerous uncle to treat his niece tenderly when he takes her out for ice cream.
Or for an introverted creative like yours truly to get up onstage and somehow confound everyone who meets her into believing that she’s an extrovert.
Little’s Free Trait Theory makes total sense to me.
According to Little, writes Cain,
…our lives are dramatically enhanced when we’re involved in core personal projects that we consider meaningful, manageable, and not unduly stressful, and that are supported by others. When someone asks “How are things?” we may give throwaway answers, but our true response is a function of how well our core personal projects are going.
Amen! I’m all about empowering people to feed their creative hungers because I know that pursuing a creative calling makes life dramatically better.
Free Trait Theory explains why Professor Little, the consummate introvert, lectures with such passion. And it explains why I leaned into my very big fears and climbed the very long, steep learning curve to getting comfortable in front of a class and onstage.
Find Your “Restorative Niche”
Here’s the thing, though: although introverts can stretch ourselves beyond our native character and our “fixed” traits in service of core personal projects, it’s not good for us to act out of character too much, or for too long. One method of keeping yourself happy and healthy is by creating what Professor Little calls “restorative niches” to allow you to to return to your true self and recharge.
In Cain’s words, a restorative niche:
…can be a physical place, like the path beside the Richelieu River, or a temporal one, like the quiet breaks you plan between sales calls. It can mean canceling your social plans on the weekend before a big meeting at work, practicing yoga or meditation, or choosing e-mail over an in-person meeting…
You choose a restorative niche when you close the door to your private office (if you’re lucky enough to have one) in between meetings. You can even create a restorative niche during a meeting, by carefully selecting where you sit, and when and how you participate.
I’ve learned — often the hard way — to create restorative niches for myself (I just never called them that until reading Quiet!).
For example, I love big, community experiences, like Jazz Camp West, the World Domination Summit, and the annual calligraphy conferences I used to go to, where hundreds (or thousands, in the case of WDS this year) of people gather to create, inspire, and be inspired.
They also burn me the hell out. (It should also be noted that I also have a very strong preference for a cap of hundreds, rather than thousands of participants…)
When at such an event I used to try to partake of everything on the menu — every class period, every optional workshop session, every evening concert. I hate missing anything, so I’d try to do it all!
Not surprisingly, this rendered me a dried-out husk, a veritable zombie. It might take me weeks to recover, and sometimes I’d end up getting sick.
I still hate missing anything, but I’ve learned to give myself the gift of restorative niches — “free” periods, naps, walks on my own — and it’s made all the difference.
Strike a Free Trait Agreement
In addition to finding your restorative niches, Professor Little recommends entering into a “Free Trait Agreement,” an acknowledgment that you’re going to act out of character some of the time, in exchange for being yourself the rest of the time.
It’s a Free Trait Agreement when a wife who wants to go out every Saturday night and a husband who wants to relax by the fire work out a schedule: half the time we’ll go out, and half the time we’ll stay home. It’s a Free Trait Agreement when you attend your extroverted best friend’s wedding shower, engagement celebration, and bachelorette party, but she understands when you skip out on three days’ worth of group activities leading up to the wedding itself.
You may want to negotiate Free Trait Agreements with friends and lovers, so that those who love you best get the best from your true self, and vice versa. Since MB is much more introverted than I am, his default will always be to decline an invitation to a social gathering. Our Free Trait Agreement is that he’ll come to some of my family’s dinners and friends’ parties, but I don’t expect him to come to all of them, especially on weekends, when he spends his days writing, with my encouragement.
Such negotiations may not fly in your work life, but Cain shares the story of an introverted financial analyst who managed to negotiate two days a week of working from home by making the case that “the very nature of her work — strategic analysis — required quiet time in which to concentrate.”
Your results may vary.
Whoever else you negotiate a Free Trait Agreement with, however, there’s one person you definitely want to strike an agreement with: yourself.
This is exactly what I’ve done when I’ve consciously set up restorative niche “down times” at music camp and conferences. When I was dating up a storm on the quest for my life partner, I consciously bucked my homebody nature in order to get out and meet people, because I knew that was the only way I’d find a mate. But I also allowed myself some nights to just hole up at home.
If I have to make a bunch of phone calls, I’ll set a Free Trait Agreement with myself that once I’ve made, say, five calls, I can read a book for a half hour.
When I schedule a class, workshop, coaching or consulting session, or music gig, my Free Trait Agreement with myself is that I build in downtime afterwards — anywhere from an hour to a day or more, depending on the length and intensity of the experience and how much of a recharge I expect to need.
The key, as with so much in life, boils down to what I call my Golden Formula: self-awareness + self-compassion = the key to everything good.
Self-awareness is knowing that, as an introvert, I need a lot of alone time to recharge… but that I also love people, love to teach, and have a deep desire to make a difference by helping switch on lightbulbs over people’s heads — and that sometimes being an introvert and wanting to teach are conflicting goals.
Self-compassion is understanding that having conflicting goals like this doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with me, but is simply evidence of common humanity, and self-compassion is treating myself with kindness and setting up my life to lovingly care for my introvert needs, rather than flagellating myself for not being more extroverted.
Since reading Quiet, I have a much better understanding of why I get such strong reactions when I tell people I’m an introvert. It’s not that I’m wrong, or that there’s anything wrong with me. It’s simply that I’m a living example of Free Trait Theory in action.
Prior to reading Cain’s book, I wondered if perhaps I’m really an ambivert — someone who is equal amounts introvert and extrovert. Then I took the informal (and admittedly unscientific) quiz she includes on page 13 of the Introduction, copied here. See where you fall on the spectrum by answering “true” or “false” to the following questions:
- ___ I prefer one-on-one conversations to group activities.
- ___ I often prefer to express myself in writing.
- ___ I enjoy solitude.
- ___ I seem to care less than my peers about wealth, fame, and status.
- ___ I dislike small talk, but I enjoy talking in depth about topics that matter to me.
- ___ People tell me that I’m a good listener.
- ___ I’m not a big risk-taker.
- ___ I enjoy work that allows me to “dive in” with few interruptions.
- ___ I like to celebrate birthdays on a small scale, with only one or two close friends or family members.
- ___ People describe me as “soft-spoken” or “mellow.”
- ___ I prefer not to show or discuss my work with others until it’s finished.
- ___ I dislike conflict.
- ___ I do my best work on my own.
- ___ I tend to think before I speak.
- ___ I feel drained after being out and about, even if I’ve enjoyed myself.
- ___ I often let calls go through to voice mail.
- ___ If I had to choose, I’d prefer a weekend with absolutely nothing to do to one with too many things scheduled.
- ___ I don’t enjoy multitasking.
- ___ I can concentrate easily.
- ___ In classroom situations, I prefer lectures to seminars.
The more often you answered “true,” the more introverted you probably are. I answered “true” on eighteen of the twenty questions (guess which questions I answered “false” to).
Wherever you land on the introversion-extroversion spectrum, I recommend reading Quiet for yourself. There’s a lot more to the book than what I’ve shared here, and it’s helped increase my self-awareness and my self-compassion, and my compassion for the people I confuse with my “pseudo-extroversion.”
It also taught me a lot about some powerful advantages of introversion that I hadn’t known (did you know we’re less likely to commit adultery? or lose our life savings to bad investments? and that the introversion-extroversion dichotomy is found in at least 100 other species, and has some distinct evolutionary advantages [as well as disadvantages]?)
That’s just scratching the surface, though. There’s even a chapter on effectively communicating across type (ie, introvert-to-extrovert, and vice-versa), and another chapter at the end on how to raise introverted kids in an extroverted world (I was raised by a wonderful, loving mother, who also happens to be an extrovert, and I think this chapter would have helped her understand me a whole lot better when I was little!)
I’ll be chewing on the contents of Quiet for a long time. And I kind of pity the next person to challenge me when I share that I’m an introvert, because they’re going to get an earful of it.
PS – Want a short summary of each chapter of Quiet before buying the book for yourself? Check out this Wikipedia article.
PPS – Pssst! Know someone who might benefit from seeing this today? Pass it on!