I know what you’re thinking. Introverts are people who are incredibly shy and taciturn. They wear black lipstick. They never ever have fun at parties. They rarely assert themselves, and they have like, one friend.
This is all stereotypical nonsense, of course. Some of it may be true for some introverts – I have certainly been shy and have left parties in a relieved huff (and have worn black lipstick for Halloween) but there is actually a whole spectrum of extraversion and introversion, and while we are usually much more of one than the other, we have a little bit of both. It’s not so black and white, and yet it is absolutely real.
I discovered in the past few years of my life that I am remarkably introverted (INFJ), and in discovering that, I learned what it actually means and how to stop fighting or feeling guilty over my natural desires and behaviors. This discovery has dramatically changed my daily life, my level of self-care, and my overall well-being. It has also validated what I thought for so long was weird or anti-social (having fewer friends, never for one second considering joining a sorority and baffled at how girls do that, loving music but struggling at festivals, strongly disliking cocktail parties.)
As a child, I was sometimes shy. There are photos of me clinging to my mom like a baby, long after I was a baby. I can remember feeling very nervous around new people and highly uncomfortable being the center of attention. But at school I was often gregarious and bossy and had a host of friends. I was always told on report cards that I was too talkative but a natural leader. I was relatively popular and social, and my family was certainly popular and social. My mom is about as extraverted as a human can be, so we were always at the community park or playing with our neighbors or doing some kind of social event. And yet, when I wasn’t having playdates and sleepovers and doing the many activities kids seem to always be doing, I loved playing alone in my room. I had detailed scenarios that I acted out with my dolls and Barbies, I made mixed tapes and pretended I was choreographing elaborate dance numbers like my teachers did, I organized my closets and wrote in a journal and read a lot of books. I pretended I was other people and talked to myself.
As much as I loved my friends, I know I really enjoyed that time alone. And it never crossed my mind that I felt lonely. I wasn’t. There was no desire to be with other people – I felt highly content. And even in high school, when I felt that urgency to attend parties and be social and avoid FOMO, I still often preferred to be alone and felt very comforted by music, journaling, and reading. Mostly, I went to parties because I was an alcoholic and I wanted to get high, not because I felt this need to socialize with a bunch of acquaintances.
I was also (and still am) a Highly-Sensitive Person (HSP, a real thing!) and was very drained by a lot of external stimulus. I disliked really loud noises, bright lights, and strong smells. I hated fireworks when I was a child and when my dad would blast the radio. I didn’t know this at the time, and I often had to hear from my family that I was “too sensitive” and “overly sensitive,” but I can see now that my nervous system was just incredibly uncomfortable with constant input. We tend to not know ourselves as children, but I am sure if I had or if I had parents who were more like me, I probably wouldn’t have felt so high-maintenance. Caroline Knapp, an introvert, said in her memoir about her alcoholism, that drinking was like “pulling down the drapes,” and I think a lot of my substance abuse was about finally getting to do that: shutting up the world and getting quiet in my head. Going within.
I don’t think I heard the words intro and extraversion until my twenties, and again, even then, I thought it plainly meant shy vs. outgoing. I have learned that it actually means, in a nutshell, how a person gets energized and recharged, and that introverts are rather drained by social interaction and external stimulus and need a lot of alone time in order to feel healthy and sane. Understanding that changed everything for me. I no longer felt so “weird” for not wanting to attend social events at work, for not wanting to exercise with friends or go to those loud gym classes, for keeping the fluorescent lights off in my classroom, for feeling absolutely depleted at the end of the teaching day, for having to leave meetings if someone was wearing terrible perfume. It finally made sense why the more people were around me or the closer they were to me, the tighter my chest seemed to get and the more invaded I felt.
When I moved and got my own apartment three years ago, it became my little haven of recharge. After a long week of teaching, my weekends are spent mostly by myself, reading, taking long walks, writing, and listening to music. On the occasion that I do attend a social event, I usually have fun, but I still crave that alone time, especially knowing I am headed back into a week of forced extraversion with my students and colleagues. Coming to terms with this has changed my behavior at work. If I didn’t take walks and wear headphones and avoid small talk in the lunch room, there is no way I would stay sane. Even still, teaching is incredibly draining for this introverted empath. I have to take such good care of myself, because I am constantly absorbing other people’s feelings (especially intense twelve year old feelings.)
Don’t get me wrong, though – I can be quite social and outgoing, just like I was in grade school, and I deeply love my close friends. INFJ’s can actually appear extraverted from the outside, because we like talking and enjoy engaging with like-minded people. We can be rather confident, quick-witted, and nurturing. We are perceptive and articulate and make great listeners. There are times when I socialize with people I really dig and can get super energized from it. It’s not unusual for me to stay up till 3am talking about life with one of my nearest and dearest. Even bigger social events can be exciting and energizing from time to time. (Especially if dancing is involved.) This is worth noting. Since my default “desire” is to be alone, it is important that I take risks and put myself out there, and it is important that I stay connected to my close and intimate friends and occasionally say yes to the social event. Otherwise I would never leave my apartment! And you know, no man is an island. I don’t want to be the rock in the Simon and Garfunkel song. I like connecting with others. We are meant to connect. But I also know myself today, and I can tell when I absolutely need nothing more than peace and quiet and solitude.
I fell in love with my introversion and really celebrate it today, but it took a lot of time and recovery. It took healing from years of self-hatred and addiction to like my own company and to learn how to properly take care of myself. The root of most addiction stems from very sick thinking and spiritual emptiness, so even when we stop abusing the substances, we are left with a mind that screams all sorts of insanity about perfectionism and self-hatred and judgement and “not good enoughness.” Until I learned to quiet that thinking and fill up my soul, being alone was not very fun. It was rather torturous, and books and music weren’t enough to distract. I needed to smoke and binge and starve and shop online and watch television until my eyes were blurry. I also beat myself up for not being more extraverted, because I thought it meant that I was unpopular, lame, and boring. Just like introversion can appear rather counterculture, the path of recovery is certainly the road less traveled, and we can bump up against plenty of self-doubt and feeling “weird” along the way. It’s a foreign land with a foreign language, and many people don’t understand. People may think I am less friendly at work when I don’t want to chitchat during lunch, and when you’re a codependent you are inclined to take care of other people’s feelings before your own, so being that “unfriendly” girl is actually immense recovery. (Besides, they’re probably not thinking anything about it, and it’s none of my business anyway.)
So much of coming home to ourselves and knowing how to take care of ourselves comes from understanding ourselves. Though we all possess essentially the same human spirit and potential for crazy thinking as well as profound connection and love, everyone has different avenues of coming home and various ways of feeling comfortable in the world. I had to comes to terms with, accept, and finally embrace the truth that I am highly-sensitive (and there ain’t nothing wrong with that), introverted, creative, a lover of the Big Picture and not small details, a true blue alcoholic and addict, a codependent, a survivor of trauma and childhood abuse/neglect, a hypochondriac at times and someone whose emotional pain shows up physically, a “gifted adult,” and a (recovering) perfectionist. None of these are bad; all have led me to learn how to take care of myself and meet my needs. I am still learning to trust my intuition and true nature and not beat myself up for being what I think at times I am supposed to be “more” or “less” of; perfectionism is a nasty illness all on its own. But I have certainly come to embrace my introversion, and I’m damn glad that I have.
So. My plans for today: read and write and listen to music. Maybe take a walk. Maybe go to a meeting or see a movie by myself.
How’s that for perfection.