When I began writing about my experience as an introvert, I entertained the fantasy that assorted people who read my posts would suddenly “get” me. Since I’m one of the introverted personality types who dislikes repeating themselves, I wanted to believe that a few carefully crafted articles would, once and for all, eradicate misunderstanding about who, and how, I am. I wouldn’t have to say another word on the subject and could leave that task to the many excellent writers who blog almost exclusively about introversion. Peace would reign, if not on earth, then in my life.
Since then, it’s dawned on me that some folks who read my posts might have thought that I just needed to get something off my chest and, having done that, life would return to their version of “normal”, where I would continue pretending to be an extrovert for the sake of pleasing them or trying to fit in.
Over the summer, an extroverted male acquaintance who’d read some of my posts said to me, “You’re not as introverted as you think you are.” In that moment, we were having dinner in a loud-ish restaurant that I chose to tolerate because its menu was more appealing than other nearby options. But making such a choice on that day, in a particular context, did not mean that I will always want to or feel comfortable making a similar choice again. Yet, extroverts such as my acquaintance might observe me interacting in a certain venue or social situation, take a mental snapshot, and believe it to be consistent because that is how they see themselves and it’s an image they understand. They might not observe or comprehend what needs to happen behind the scenes for me to show up socially; I need to recharge with solitude, quiet, a careful diet, and a consistent sleep schedule. Sometimes managing my energy feels like a high wire act; I have to be careful not to veer too far towards either socializing or excessive solitude to stay balanced.
And it’s also true I can be very talkative and animated in a one-on-one conversation that is intimate or otherwise meaningful; if someone engages me on a subject of mutual interest, they might not be able to get a word in edge wise. But that does not mean that I “scale up” easily. If more people join the conversation which, often but not always, dilutes the intimacy or relevance, it’s likely I would speak less and observe more, and possibly even excuse myself after a while. Why? My particular introvert battery gets charged by focused, deep conversation and is drained by more casual interactions. Which is not to say that casual interactions lack value and can’t be enjoyable, it’s just that I choose them, and their duration, carefully. In introvert parlance, we like to say we’re “selectively social” rather than “antisocial”. And picking one activity over another in a particular moment, based on anticipated energy gain or drain, is not necessarily a blanket rejection of the unattended activity or the people involved in it. Sometimes, if I’m really exhausted, I will choose “none of the above,” an option that many extroverts would not even consider.
I believe that my extroverted acquaintance was well-intentioned when he said I wasn’t as introverted as I thought I am, as if he were giving me a compliment of some kind. Having spent much of my younger years trying to pass as a “more desirable” extrovert in a talk-centric culture, I have decades of practice faking it. When necessary, I can be chatty and engage in small talk that fulfills social expectations but doesn’t reveal the depth of my personality. To play at being extroverted feels like putting on a mask for the comfort, convenience and relief of others, something that women especially are conditioned to do, often at great cost. At times, I’m more attuned to and fascinated by the underlying dynamics of a conversation than its content, or maybe I sense what is not being said. Yet to articulate my awareness of these subtleties can be jarring or discomfiting to others so I’ll sometimes say nothing, the lesser “evil” in social contexts, even though I might have plenty to say.
Still, introversion is hardwired, like sexual orientation, and I suspect it’s just as challenging for many extroverts to imagine what it’s like to be an introvert as it is for many heterosexuals to truly get what it feels like to be attracted to a person of the same sex. Yet, even though it might be challenging to wrap our heads around another person’s experience, it’s difficult to imagine a straight person saying to a friend who has recently come out, “You’re not as homosexual as you think you are,” and getting away with it. What I wished I had said in that moment, rather than letting his remark pass was, “I’m actually much more introverted than you will ever know.”