As Oprah would say, my “A-ha! moment”.
The phone beeped loud enough to wake me up. I rolled over and sat up, groggily wondering where I was and why, if it was morning, it was still dark outside? I picked up my phone to check the time (4am) and saw that the beeping was not my alarm but a text message arriving. It was from a friend I’d seen the night before. It read simply: “You should have more fun.”
A variety of responses ran through my head, the shortest of which rhymes with “duck zoo”. In the end I decided that this person was obviously inebriated and I should just do the dignified thing and ignore it. I turned off the light and tried to go back to sleep, but I was unsettled. I do have fun! Who the hell was this person to imply that I am boring and need to have more fun?! Eventually I only managed to nod off by making a list in my head of all the things I enjoy doing. Reading, writing, watching movies, going to live music, going for walks, swimming, dancing, going to the beach…
If you look closely at that list you will notice that about 90% of the items are things you can do by yourself. (Technically you can do all of them alone, but I draw the line at going to concerts by myself.) I’ve always known I’m an introvert. I like being by myself and I have no problem being on my own for long periods of time. I lived with another introvert last year – best thing ever. Because we had different working hours whole weeks would go past without us seeing each other. It was fantastic. I like doing things with other people and I love spending time with my friends – but I always need some downtime, away from other people.
The problem is I’d always thought there was something wrong with me. Why wasn’t I as sociable as my friends? Why didn’t I really enjoy lengthy social events? Why did I go into these moods at parties where I wouldn’t speak to anyone? Why did I get these sudden urges to leave events – and act on them? (Also known as “Tarryn’s infamous disappearing act”.)
When I was little I was described as a shy child – and I certainly was. I would always have a book with me, wherever I went. Studying and practicing journalism pretty much drove the shyness out of me, but while I enjoyed going out and partying with my friends a lot (just ask my mom), it was never quite the same for me as for other people. It got to a point where I was saying “I hate people, they’re gross” – but all the while feeling like there was something wrong with me for being so anti-social. I also despise small talk – is there anything more pointless?! – which completely freaked one of my now-good friends out when we first started hanging out. She reportedly said to another friend, “But what do you talk about then??” The answer, of course, is anything and everything else.
Other people’s attitudes really didn’t help. There’s nothing I hate more than being out somewhere and having COMPLETE STRANGERS (this has happened) telling me “Smile!” Dude, I will punch you in the face. There’s nothing less likely to make me smile (the being told to smile part, not the punching, which probably would cheer me up). Or, “You need to lighten up!” or “You look bored. You’re not saying anything. Are you bored?” Leave me the hell alone, morons. (The fact that I think most people are really stupid doesn’t help either, I know.)
Last night I was actually having a really fun time. I met up with my closest friend here and we went shopping for supplies for the knitting and crocheting group that’s meeting for the first time this week. (Knitting: something else I enjoy doing.) We then met up with two island newbies and took them out for pasta and wine, followed by drinks at two different bars. I thoroughly enjoyed chatting to them and hanging out with other foreigners and seeing people I know. At about 12:40 we headed over to another bar, one known for its dancing opportunities. I was excited for that, because I love to dance. But when we got there there was a band playing, and occupying most of the floorspace (places in Korea are tiny, ok). It was crowded, and loud, and I suddenly knew I’d hit my people peak. I wanted to go home. I was done. While I stood there psyching myself up for the goodbye session I knew I’d have to go through, one friend (the person who later sent me the message) and one random stranger both commented on how bored I looked and how I must not be having fun at all. That made up my mind. I told my friends goodbye and left, feeling nothing more than relieved to be on my own and going home. I’d had a great time – but I’d had enough.
This morning I re-read this article by Jerry Brito that a fellow introvert friend had posted on Facebook a couple of weeks ago. When I got to Myth # 9, I started crying and I couldn’t stop. I had an Epiphany, and the Epiphany was this: there is nothing wrong with me. I felt the most overwhelming sense of relief. I’m ok. There’s nothing wrong with me. I am not a horrible, boring, un-fun people-hater. I’m just different (and as equal rights activists the world over will tell you, there’s nothing wrong with being different.) Introverts and extraverts process and experience things differently: it’s science. Extraverts do make up the majority of the population (while introverts make up 60% of the gifted population), but that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with being an introvert. It’s ok to leave parties when you want, to hate small talk, and to do things by yourself. There’s nothing wrong with that.
I then did some more research and this is what I found out:
The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator defines an extrovert as someone who gets their energy from others, while an introvert gets their energy from themselves. This guy writes, “It’s time we all got on the same page about what introversion is. Many people think it’s something like this: introvert + social skills = extravert. This implies that extraverts are better than introverts, because the difference is simply that they have social skills in addition to everything that introverts have.” He goes on to say: “Stereotyping introverts as social outcasts is no more accurate than stereotyping extraverts as dumb jocks.”
The reason extraverts and introverts get their energy from different things is because our brains are wired differently.
In the blog post “Top 5 things every extrovert should know about introverts” Brian Kim explains: “Introverts have more brain activity in their frontal lobes and when these areas are activated through solitary activity, introverts become energized through processes such as problem solving, introspection, and complex thinking.”
“Extroverts on the other hand tend to have more activity in the back of their brain, areas that deal with processing sensory information from the external world, so they tend to search for external stimuli in the form of interacting with other people and the outside world to energize them.”
“The bottom line is that introverts are just wired differently than extroverts. There’s nothing ‘wrong’ with them. They just become energized through different processes depending on where the majority of their brain activity takes place.”
And no, introverts cannot (and should not) be “cured”. You can learn to be more sociable, but I can’t imagine that it’s possible to change the way your brain is wired.
Kim says: “Trying to ‘turn’ an introverted person into an extroverted person is detrimental because it gives off a subtle suggestion that there is something wrong with them, hampering their self worth and esteem when there is absolutely nothing wrong in the first place.”
This guy adds: “When I see a post about ‘how to be more extraverted,’ I think it makes about as much sense as ‘how to be more left-handed’ or ‘how to be more Chinese.’ Introversion is a natural condition, not something that’s determined by our behavior. If you want to talk about how to improve your social skills, and suggest that people should introduce themselves to strangers or attend group functions, fine, but don’t think that’s going to make you an extravert. If hosting The Tonight Show for 30 years didn’t make Johnny Carson an extravert, I doubt some basic socialization will do it for you.”
On the website Psychology Today Sophia Dembling wrote a list of self-affirmations for introverts. My favourites are the following:
- Just because I’m quiet doesn’t mean I have nothing to say.
- Staying home is doing something.
- Parties are supposed to be fun. When I stop having fun, it’s OK to leave.
- I know what I need better than anyone else.
As a final note to all my extraverted friends (I love you guys!), remember this: “[Introverts] need time alone like they need food and water. Give them their space. There’s nothing wrong with them. They’re not depressed and they’re not sad. They just need time alone to recharge their batteries.” (Kim)