We live in a culture that values extroversion over introversion.
Many people, including introverts, believe that introversion is a weakness or impediment--like a club foot or an addiction.
I've been reading a book this week that turns this notion on its head.
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, by author Susan Cain, is a book I discovered after watching an excellent TED talk by Cain which you can find here.
Introverted From Birth
I can still remember my first encounter with social anxiety at the tender age of three.
It was a party, perhaps a 4th of July party on the farm. I knew most of the people so it was likely a gathering from church.
Everyone was sitting in a big circle on hay bales beyond the first creek crossing. Dusk had settled in and with the dim light I remember feeling safe. I remember feeling the comfort of home because it was familiar. The people and their friendly faces were familiar, too. I remember feeling playful. I let my guard down and was playing with my brothers. I felt open and free and safe.
At three, one is not fully in touch with one's surroundings. One only sees what the three year old mind is able to see.
Then I remember sitting at the edge of the circle with my mother on a hay bale. I felt no self-consciousness. I was an observer as I passively watched others talking and sharing just as I would watch in church. Being an observer was safe and comfortable.
"Steve!" Suddenly I heard my name followed by an onslaught of voices and loud noise. I felt my mother pushing me toward the middle of the circle. I was confused. Overwhelmed.
I walked a few steps in compliance without knowing what was happening, but the noise got louder. I felt very unsafe and uncertain. I raced back to the safety of Mom and the edge of the circle. But she continued to urge me on. I couldn't reconcile her smile and gentle nudging with the chaos around me.
Urged on by my mother's reassuring expressions, I reluctantly began the trek across the circle. I saw another friendly face at the other side smiling and inviting me to come closer. Again, I struggled to understand how someone could be smiling at me when I was surrounded by a tornado of sounds. Seeing the far side of the circle as the only obvious sanctuary, I made my way to that friendly face like a tugboat in a hurricane.
When I arrived she handed me something just as I had seen her hand things to other people when I was the observer and not the observed.
Again, the sounds escalated, but this time with less intensity, and they quickly trailed off as I made the journey back across the circle to the safety of a warm hay bale and the grounding beacon of a mother.
The sounds which terrorized me for those moments were the laughter and merry making of all the people around the circle.
All eyes had turned to me when my name was drawn for the next prize and I had become a spectacle. My trepidation had become their entertainment.
The Introverted Adult
I have spent my life dealing with similar situations as my three year old self. I have adapted in many ways and faced my fears. Sometimes I have even enjoyed being the center of attention, whether performing or telling jokes at a party. But still, when I expect it the least, I'm seized by a fear I don't understand.
I have always preferred my own company or that of a few people who I know very well.
I like to immerse myself in intellectual and solitary activities like writing and computer programming.
Even as an athlete, I pursued a solitary sport, high jumping, where I relied only on myself.
And all the while, I have felt that I succeeded in spite of my weakness.
As I've grown older I've come to accept myself. I have accepted that I have limitations. While other people can speak in meetings with ease and even enjoy themselves, it's seldom easy for me.
In spite of all this, I have achieved a lot in my adult life and I'm sure some people who've crossed my path would swear I was an extrovert. Like many introverts, I've learned to compensate and I can fake extroversion for a while, at least until I run out of energy. But I know my true nature.
As I read the first chapters of Susan Cain's book, my eyes swelled with tears several times as I felt the things she described--when she articulated that we live in a culture of personality which puts value on extroversion above all other personality traits.
Everyone enjoys karaoke at office parties right?! There's something wrong with you if you don't. People who like to eat lunch alone and read a book are anti-social right?! If you want to succeed, you must be able to verbally sell yourself and your ideas, right?!
Tall. Brown Eyes. Introverted.
Susan Cain's book paints a different picture than the stereotypically shy introvert. A third to half of people are introverts and they are not necessarily shy. I don't consider myself particularly shy even after what I've written above.
Introversion is about overstimulation. These are traits present even in babies. The babies that are most sensitive to tastes and sounds are more likely to be introverts as they grow older.
Introverts prefer less stimulating environments whereas extroverts prefer more stimulation. This difference is about how a person's brain is wired and how they process information rather than any kind of weakness or infirmity.
In the same way that introverts may feel anxious in crowds, extroverts may feel anxious when alone. Me, I can't understand how anyone could feel anxious alone. I love my own company.
If you have ever felt less than the extroverted ideal or if you are one who thinks of introversion as weakness, then Cain's book is for you. Cain produces study after study showing that introverts have skills extroverts don't, even in fields thought to be dominated by extroverts. For example, introverts are some of the most successful salespeople and telemarketers.
Whatever your own personality, the book will enlighten you and help you see how introversion and extroversion are just traits like eye color or height, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.
And finally, a primary motivation for sharing this today is to help you grow as a writer. The better you understand yourself and the people around you, the better your writing will be. With more realism and more depth, your characters will resonate with readers in more personal and more meaningful ways.