Emily the Strange – My Lame Adventures In Introversion
We sit in the loft of my parents’ Minnesota lake cabin circa 1987, the old box fans covered in wet towels and lazily steaming out the hot air of mid-summer. My best friend and I are sitting on one of the twin beds covered in a peach-colored comforter. Our bare legs are tan from a day swimming in the fresh algal-smelling lake, rocking on an oversized inner tube to see who would crash in to the water first. It was a wonderful day punctuated by padding up the pine steps for red Kool-Aid and Wheat Thins covered in Easy Cheese.
Our conversation carried on as it had all day, incessant talk of the best way to get tan, which boys might be in our class the following fall and our grand plans for working on the fort in the mosquito-infested woods behind the cabin. And then a familiar feeling began to rise in me again, like a yellow rubber duck in a quickly overfilling bathtub – smiling happily at me in the face of a grave threat. For no discernible reason, I didn’t want anyone to talk to me anymore. I wanted her to let me be before the fatigue of interacting with someone threatened to defeat me. I wanted to be left alone with my thoughts. I wanted to revert in to my own world with my books and daydreams. I wanted to run, alone, in silence along the gravel road. I made a hasty excuse and climbed down the ladder and made a nervous lunge at my mom, beseeching her with my eyes.
“Maaaah-OOOOM, she is really bugging me! I just want to play alone. She won’t stop talking. Does this sleepover have to last all weekend?!”
My mom gave me a vaguely sympathetic look, which conveying that while she did not understand my annoyance, per se, she understood her daughter. I had always been this way. I was always happiest when I could have patches of time to myself to escape the world, to be away from people. Though I often felt different than my friends, I couldn’t really figure out the reason for feeling as I did.
When I went to work for the summer at my father’s advertising agency when I was 16 years old, I was asked to do the Myers-Briggs personality test. Everyone at the office took this test and my dad said it was very interesting that people tended to group together in like departments, the accountants all one type, the public relations people all one type, and the artists all one type. I recall a number of the questions asking me to what extent I agreed with statements of the nature, “I love being the life of the party.” And “I find it stimulating to be in large groups.” I answered the questions as though I were in agreement. I answered about the person I was trying to be. And sometimes I was this way. At parties, discomfort with crowds was largely unnoticed due to the steady stream of Natural Light beer from a keg. That has always helped me, and just about everybody I suppose, to let go of any feelings of awkwardness and galvanize the social, talkative people in themselves. At the end of the test, I was deemed an ENFP, which translates to Extroverted, iNtuitive, Feeling, and Perceiving. I was proud of my extroverted nature and liked thinking of myself as a person who was social and fun and similar to the rest of the population
When I was 22, I married the most extroverted man possible. He thrived in the company of others and preferred not to be alone. His extroversion and social nature found a strong foothold in becoming a DJ on the side of his regular job some years later. He loved to perform for people at nightclubs packed in with sweaty people dancing, laser lights flashing and music pumping out giant speakers to the point of pain. I wanted to be supportive but found myself shaking with anxiety and so overwhelmed by the sensual stimulation and crowd that my head felt as though it would explode. In between gigs, he played for our friends at home where he had his DJ equipment set up. The way the house was laid out didn’t allow me to escape any get-together. Our friends would stream past, begging me to get up and have some fun. I beseeched my husband to put an end to the parties, to allow me a quiet place to retreat and stake my space. I unsuccessfully tried to explain how the constant flow of people wore me down. He would look at me in disbelief, unable to understand why I “didn’t like hanging out with our friends” and how I could be so reclusive as to feel that a home wasn’t a place for such fun and special friends to gather. Each time I would try to put on my game face and act like the person I knew myself to be, one that liked the company of others and parties.
I finally found solace moving in to a place of my own where I sat blissfully alone in my 450 square foot apartment with my cat and a stack of books and a Jacuzzi tub and I felt as though I could stay there for a year and never emerge. I wanted to make up for the lost time that I hadn’t been able to spend peacefully inside my head. It was there I finally got to all the reading I didn’t have time for when I was entertaining partygoers, or too worn out to read, or spending every waking moment with my fun but exhausting husband. After taking an internet test to “re-test” my Myers-Briggs personality at the age of 30 when I was trying to be more true to myself, I discovered I’m not an ENFP like I once thought, I was an INFP. That is introverted, not extroverted, and very strongly so. It took some life events to allow me to reflect on who I really was. It rocked my world and gave me pause to reflect on how I perceived myself. It felt like something I needed to know more about to help me explain away some of the differences. Aaah, Facebook quiz wisdom.
Like all psychology subjects, I got carried away and looked around for any book on the subject, licking my lips like a kid in a candy shop as I combed the Internet for books about introversion I stumbled across one book called The Introvert Advantage by Marti Olsen Laney, who herself is an introvert. I cradled this book. I loved it. It explained so many things to me. It wasn’t that I was strange and reclusive and cold and shy. I was simply introverted. People and social situations can energize me in short bits but after some time, they wear me down and I grow not just internally annoyed and drained, but irritable and flat-out mean. Anything to make people just BE QUIET ALREADY. Irritability is one of ways introverts react when they are overwhelmed by the presence of others. She said that extroverts are like solar panels and “charge up” by getting sun (being with people) whereas introverts are like rechargeable batteries and need a less stimulating environment where they can stop spending energy (being with people) to recharge. Now of course, everything is gradational and it’s not to say that I don’t love dinner with friends and a good party every now and again. But it’s just that. Every now and again. I finally understood why concerts, festivals and crowds terrify and exhaust me. I’m not sure it is a valid excuse for disliking going to the grocery store, but I’d like to think so. I love having just my family or Chief around, of having the option to completely disconnect with a book or movie.
Based on what I have discovered in that book and on treasure hunt internet searches beyond, I have learned a number of surprising things about introverts and finally feel content in the way my brain works. Apparently introverts are wired differently. Information travels through their brain more slowly, taking a circuitous path. This explains why we are often slower to respond to questions and why we need to think before we speak, whereas extroverts tend to think through speaking. Introverts seek the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. This is the chemical that brings a sense of calm and is released by soothing actions like quiet walks, reading, and talking thoughtfully in groups of small people. Extroverts thrive on dopamine. For introverts, dopamine is at first pleasant in small doses and then painful, much like being tickled. Dopamine is released in highly stimulating situations such as large parties, and thrill-seeking activities. Introverts tend to be really sensitive to any kind of upper, including caffeine.
Introverts generally represent a much smaller percentage of the population, cited as around 20%-30% of people, which makes it obvious why they are often so misunderstood. Introverts prefer to work at activities alone or in very small groups and like taking the time to go away and quietly process things they’ve observed, not talking through it as extroverts do. They make up a large percentage of artists, philosophers, and scientists; people who need quiet time alone to pursue their tasks. Introverts generally express themselves better in writing than in speaking so they tend to make up a large majority of writers. Introverts often get docked for not being “team-players.” We’re not able to necessarily think the way we need to in a dynamic group. Susan Cain has a great discussion in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking about some of the obstacles that introverts may encounter in the American business culture.
Introverts tend to be insightful people who are happy to express themselves and their thoughts, but it is harder for us to do it in an extroverted world. The extroverts, who make up the majority of the population, talk louder and faster and they think on their feet. They tend to seek the limelight rather than avoid it. Therefore, the Internet is a medium favored by introverts and many bloggers and Internet legends are often actually introverted people, though this aspect doesn’t come across when their readers are not in their physical presence.
During times my energy is sapped, either emotionally or physically, the way I recharge is to be alone. This is always when people are trying to pull me out, saying I shouldn’t be alone, shouldn’t be so reclusive. What they don’t understand is they draw down my energy when that is exactly what I need. If I disappear for a weekend or even a couple of months, smile for me and expect something great to emerge. I’m usually processing everything I have observed in social situations. This is not to say that I’m a quiet person. Once I have had the opportunity to reflect on something or discover something, if you are someone close to me or talking about a subject I am passionate about, it’s difficult to get me to shut up. Extroverted people, on the other hand, can get very depressed if left alone, especially in the event of job loss, relationship loss or a move and should take care to find places to interact with other people and avoid being alone.
Whether you are extroverted or introverted may seem of little importance to your life, but the implications it has on what energizes and invigorates you, how you process your world, and how you deal with the other people in your life are tremendous. If you are still reading this, you are most likely an introvert! I recommend taking a form of the Myers-Briggs test or an online quiz to understand your degree of extroversion vs. introversion, not only to understand yourself, but possibly to understand the people around you. Perhaps some of the sources of arguments are really only related to how people are energized and drained. Understanding the ways your brain works and that of others around you can be a very valuable tool.