Reading Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain. Yes, over and over, because I am an introvert with a deep love for peace, solitude and thought. Yet my social self is lively, stimulated and conversational. What gives? How can one be both?

Because, according to Professor Brian Little, we can subjugate our natural nature in pursuit of “core personal projects.” So we can push ourselves to public speak, as I did, or work a room if we care enough about our goal. I suppose it's the psychological equivalent of a mother lifting a car off a trapped child.

How many of us do that, at considerable cost to ourselves? Because, Little says, going against our true nature takes a huge toll. So that's why I light up and sparkle with guests and but twomhours later run out of puff. I can't emulate Thea, our cat, who joins in any conversation enthusiastically for a short time, then turns pointedly with her back to everyone and her tail hanging down.

His Free Trait Theory makes instinctive sense to me and I can feel the AHA of recognition and the relaxation of my shoulders. But it doesn't go far enough. I learned my social behaviour defensively. It now fits like a skin and switches on seamlessly, but often I go to bed all afternoon before going out to dinner, as if I know an energy drain is approaching like a fiscal cliff.

What about people who didn't learn extraversion for a greater cause, but to survive high school, to feel acceptable, to hide a feeling of failure or difference? Surely it takes an even greater toll when one bubbles not proactively but to defend a soft core. And now I recognize it, can I stop? Who will I be? How will I relate?

When we override our natural selves because we feel we “must” or “should,” as Susan says, this is not constructive, but self-negation. When our internal mantra is “I have to be the sort of person I am not,” when we feel dislocated from ourselves by society's demands, then our life is built on sand, shifting and swirling in a kaleidoscope of noise.

I learned to perform from my mother, an introvert who became larger than life socially. She learned the hard way, having been born with an eye that turned in which was not operated on till she was 19. So she went through school as a clown. “Better to be laughed with than at,” she told me darkly.

As a result, she saw groups as dangerous and I didn't join brownies or do any communal activities. I grew up very isolated and with no idea how to fit in. So I copied her – that was what to do. As a result my social self felt hollow and exhausted. As an adult, I learned how to tone down my act, but am still automatically “on” at any social occasion.

Am writing this not because I think my story interesting, but because this book resonated strongly and gave me a feeling of understanding and relief. Perhaps also self-forgiveness for all the times my extravert disguise has been out of tune with both myself and my friends. No, I am writing this because there must be so many of us out there, hiding our introversion. And we need to know we are not alone.

So what do we do about it? So often we are doing things that we feel we ought to do or jobs that climb a career ladder, without checking to see if it is leaning against the right wall. Susan suggests asking who we envy. There seem to be two kinds of envy – this is my thinking, not Susan's. One is wistful, say when a friend is out partying or joins a book club. I have a feeling that it must be fun to do all these group things – my friends are rushing from pillar to post – if I could do it. I feel like Cinderella, but when I get over the left-out feeling, actually I really don't want to do them at all.

The second is gut jealousy, the deep kind, a keening for a lost possibility. Susan suggests asking ourselves who we really envy – to get a handle on who we really are. I envy those single-minded individuals who manage to follow their passion: the Carl Sagans and James Burkes, perhaps Joanna Trollope, who don't get castrated by society's norms. Oddly, though, when I think of the ideal life, it comes out very like my own: quiet, thoughtful, writing and walking by the lake. So why do I tease myself with dreams of extravert fun? Why does the introvert not dare to admit that meadow grass is greener than a noisy fairground.

More info:

The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World by Marti Olsen Laney PhD.

Brian Łittle on Oprah – link

For those of us who are also extremely sensitive to light, sound etc. Too Bright, Too Loud, Too Fast, Too Tight: What to do if you are Sensory Defensive in an Overstimulating World by Sharon Heller, PhD is a great resource. I learned, among other things, although abdominal breathing is a great way to turn off stress, the standard advice to do 4-7-8 (breathe in for a count of 4, hold for 7, out for 8) doesn't work so well for introverts. Eli Bay does a 3-6-6 version.

Inhaling triggers the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) response; exhaling the calming parasympathetic. The last thing sensory defensives, which means most introverts, need is any increase of stress, so we should skip the breath holding and do a nice long deep outbreath. So all these years, I had been earnestly increasing my stress!

Pausing before inhaling again will increase the amount of oxygen you get and help the parasympathetic nervous system override the stress response. Also the slower you breathe, the better it works. My quick, on-the-spot fix is to use the second hand of my watch. Five seconds to breathe in, five seconds to breathe out. Very calming, very quickly.


About UntraveledRoads

Fascinated by life, looking for answers to chronic pain and finding unexpected gifts. Interested in people, ideas, healing and humour. I am very happily married with three children and a kitten. As English born immigrants to Canada, we have family spread overseas, a daughter in South Africa and one in England. We also run a charity in South Africa to educate black, rural South African Women. Our first girl from a rural township has just graduated as an accountant from Johannesburg University and got a good job in a bank.
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