Introverts are not necessarily shy. I’ve been an introvert in denial for years. I love being alone, quiet, immersed in my own world. Out There, however, I am known as the Chatty One, the one bubbling over with smiles and sunshine and long-winded, airy-fairy tales and incoherent ramblings. So, imagine my surprise, after living alone for about several years, when I invite two housemates to share with me, and realise this: I don’t like to talk. Well, I do, but not as much as I thought I did. The relief of coming home to an empty house, to silence and the freedom to BE Silent, was what has made living alone such bliss. I adore it. It has been my refuge. Completely. I never get tired of being alone, I never feel a big push to go and find a crowd. Until now, I hadn’t encountered any situations that would have shone a light on this fact. So, although living with people temporarily has been a huge, somewhat uncomfortable adjustment for me, I am fortunate that it has allowed me to realise this about myself. I always knew in the back of my mind I was an introvert. However, I was never allowed to BE one. It’s as if it was wrung out of me slowly, to the point that there is a bit of irritating residue (that will most likely never come out, nor would I want it to) but the symptoms, as they are regarded in our society, were hidden until now. School terrified me; in primary school I was picked on by older or bigger kids, and I did not like being called on in class. I cried in the morning for years when it was time to go to the bus. The school sent me to psychologists and child specialists to find out what was ‘wrong’ with me, as they felt the level of sensitivity I exhibited was troublesome. I was medicated when I was 13 as they diagnosed me with ‘Social Anxiety Disorder’.
This popular medication has since been shown to have the same withdrawal symptoms as heroin. Luckily for me my parents took me off it before I became dependent on it. I don’t remember much of the time I was medicated, apart from the numbness. Everything was ok, but I felt nothing. In junior high school I was a legit truant – climbing out the windows and simply NOT turning up at school because the idea of sitting in a huge group of kids who just didn’t let me be me was scary. There was one classroom that had a big window right next to my desk and after attendance was taken, the minute the teacher turned away from us or popped out of the room for something, I’d climb out the window. My poor parents didn’t know what to do. I got good grades, so long as I was left alone to work, but I didn’t mix with the other kids much and I didn’t physically go to class. For awhile the teachers sent me to the guidance counsellor’s office to do my work there, but when I managed to sneak away from that, I was sent to a school for ‘difficult kids’. There I met about 15 kids of varying backgrounds with different stories to tell, but all pretty heart-breaking, especially considering my healthy home life. Some were abused, some were addicts, some were homeless, some were pregnant. One guy was a pyromaniac. All were anti-social and incredibly sensitive to criticism.
In order to get back into a ‘normal school’, which for me meant going on to an Arts high school that would allow me to dance a few hours per day as part of the curriculum, I needed to pass an audition as well as an interview to show that I had the right temperament for the course. My family encouraged me to try my best at the interview as they knew this was the right type of programme for me; academic but with a huge emphasis on artistic training. So, I SOLD myself in that interview. All smiles and jokes and chat. I was accepted. And probably due to this, I completed high school. I would have sunk like a stone at another school, I 100% believe. My school allowed a bit more breathing space for the Introverts, the Artsy Fartsy kids. What we lacked in chat, we made up for in choreography, in music, in paintings and sculptures, in poetry. I blossomed. Ours was a school of creative misfits, tattooed and pierced, freakish outfits and tutus and trombones clanging together in the corridors. There were school performances every month and anyone could audition a piece; there were poetry coffeehouses in the evenings for the literary crowd, and there was always a span of performance projects in the works. I had four happy years there, and then when I completed the dance programme and had one year left (all academic), I left to travel and to finish my courses on a distance learning basis. Without my dance training every day, I knew I wouldn’t attend school, although the teachers and students there at that point had become like family.
Somewhere between then and now, I have come to realise that I have traded on personality and chat since moving away from home to another continent at 20 and making my way here. A true graduate of performance! At this point, my own chatter even irritates me. I don’t mean the lively conversations that happen spontaneously and naturally; I mean my need to keep the chat going, even if it is one-sided, the effort expended and the exhaustion I feel seep from me when someone leaves, when I can be quiet again. It appears I’ve been advertising myself for a long time, perhaps because I feel that the Real Me won’t appeal to my audience. It is such an uncomfortable process, learning to be quiet – even when it is all you want to do. It isn’t even about the chat, it’s about learning to just sit with someone quietly and not feel the need to win their approval. About pausing before you speak and weighing whether or not what you have to contribute to the conversation is valuable or whether you are just doing it out of this need to be heard and accepted. Now that I understand this about myself, and want to change it, it’s all about practicing it.
Society isn’t kind to introverts. If you want to get a job, a date, a promotion, a good bargain…you need to know how to turn up the volume and make a good impression. Simple, direct communication is under-rated, and I believe we make a performance out of most transactions, simply based on our need to come across a certain way, as a certain character best suited for dealing with the situation at hand. When you realise that this character is, in fact, incredibly different from who you were born as, it is over-whelming. Freeing, also though. The real work comes when you try to get back to that character and say a gentle goodbye to the Forced You who has been with you for decades. Especially, sadly, because this character has gotten you to where you are in life! The sooner we learn to accept the quiet ones, the ones who blush and cry easily and avoid crowds, the better. Studies have shown that I’m not alone in this; that many people identify as introverts but, for the purpose of fitting in and getting along in life, adopt extrovert qualities out of necessity. Truth be told, I don’t have an answer to this. As someone whose conditioning into a faux extrovert began in school, I would have to say that that plays a huge part in it. We spend so many hours in school, to learn that you must also spend those hours playing a part like a performing monkey is a lot to take in. I think this does a lot of damage. I am proof of that. The world in fact needs introverts. The balance that they bring to the world is invaluable. Although many are assimilated into the extrovert group, their sensitivity and quiet energy has proven to create many of the world’s greatest works of art, architecture, literature, music, IT innovations…the list of individuals who have succeeded in life AS INTROVERTS goes on. To not recognise and nurture these individuals in their youth is a crime.
Imagine if someone had told Leonardo da Vinci to smarten up and socialise more often! Or Albert Einstein! The sooner we recognise, as adults and teachers, how to support and nurture these individuals before society gets to them and makes them perform, the better it will be for us as a whole. I know it is not black and white, that one can be a bit of both at the same time, but I am talking about introvert qualities in general, which usually culminate in a fully formed introvert, but also some extroverts have introvert tendencies and I think those should be nurtured and encouraged also. The balance has been tipped for a long time now and not nearly enough creative genius has been unleashed for fear of it not being accepted. This is a big challenge. But for now, I am just going to sit and enjoy the quiet.😉