Published 2/10/17. Updated 2/7/21.
Through my personal tale of anguish and self-discovery, this article purports to help you in your quest for understanding introverts. Whether you are an introvert, or want to know more about how one in your life operates, I hope this information is helpful in your quest to understand introverts better.
Hi, my name is Summer, and I am an introvert.
No, I didn’t recite that line while sitting in a circle of metal folding chairs in a high school gym at a 12-step meeting. Sometimes it seems like that is how it is, though. As if I need help. Fortunately, I don’t.
That’s right, I am OK with being an introvert. After years of struggling and self-doubt with my introversion, in recent years I have come to understand, accept and embrace it as who I am. Not only that, but I’ve learned how valuable it is to be an introvert, and I’ve also realized it has saved my bacon more times than I can count. I’ll explain shortly.
I’ve noticed that the topic of introverts/introversion has been covered in articles and memes more in recent years. I applaud that. Most efforts to explain introversion seem to be a good thing. The more “the world” knows about us, the better. (It feels like introverts are a minority, though I am not sure if that is statistically correct.)
A caricature of introverts
However, many of the items I’ve read on introversion seem to zero in on one facet: the need for alone time to recharge. While that is true, it sometimes feels more like a caricature.
“Oh no, I just looked you in the eye and said hello. Now I am so exhausted from all that energy expended that I need to go home and take a nap. Forget tonight’s dinner plans!”
Or, “I worked ALL DAY. You can’t possibly expect me to go out after work too!?”
Some introverts may be that hardcore. But those of us who lean more towards being an “extroverted introvert” (yes, that is a thing) look askance at such generalizations. I’ll cram after-work activities into one or two nights per week, any more than that and I need a break.
And I’ll admit, weeks where I have nothing planned after work (except my standard Wednesday night youth group) feel glorious. But then, I’ll start hankering for more social time with my peeps. See why I’m not convinced on the completely unsocial introvert stereotype?
A book that changed things in a major way
In my younger years, I struggled mightily with what I perceived as my flaws as a person, who happened to be an introvert. Then, like sweet manna from heaven, I discovered a book one day a decade or so ago. The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World by Marti Olsen Laney, Psy. D. This book explained introversion from a scientific, psychological perspective, as written by an introverted doctor of psychology. Perfect.
Dr. Laney opened my eyes to traits of introverts that I immediately recognized in myself, but could never have pinpointed otherwise. Such as:
Introverts have a longer pathway in the brain for blood to travel than the shorter pathway for extroverts, which means for us:
- It takes longer for thoughts to form verbally, due to the increased neuro-pathway
- We have more internal stimulation, resulting in reflecting more on our own thoughts, experiences, and feelings than on the external world
- Specific word retrieval takes longer when speaking out loud because information moves more slowly, and we want to find the exact word, but it needs to be pulled from long-term memory
- Our brains are wired to be focused more on remembering, solving problems and planning
- Too much external stimulation tires us out (the oft-repeated definition 0f introversion)
- That it is OK to give ourselves permission to recover with an alone day after extended outside stimulation
I could go on, but learning these items alone made so much more sense of my life and frustrations with myself.
A greater understanding of introverts, applied
It suddenly began to make sense:
- Why I was terrified of college classes where a large portion of the grade was based on participation. The conversation moved so fast, by the time I thought of something to say, the class was three topics down the road.
- How I could feel so out of place even among a group of friends numbering more than about three, like I was completely left out of the conversation because I couldn’t think of anything to add (I do fine with one or two people, but any more than that and it gets tricky).
- Why I would often stall in the middle of a story, trying to think of the right word to use, and become unable to continue until I could remember the precise term. Then when I found it, I was pretty pleased with myself. If anyone was still listening after the unnatural pause.
- How is it that I have such a freakishly good long-term memory? (Not complaining about that)
There have been many books written on the subject of introverts. The one above was life-changing for me. I’d love to summarize the whole book here, but ain’t nobody got time for that. If you’re struggling with introversion, I heartily recommend it.
Correcting the extrovert’s perception of introverts
A few years back, I overheard a talkative friend of mine say about a not-so-talkative acquaintance, “He doesn’t say much. There must not be a whole lot going on in that head of his.”
Immediately, I sympathized with the guy, and for the false assumption made with that statement. “So that’s how extroverts think of us who don’t say much?? That really hurts.”
Naturally, I didn’t say anything to correct my friend, because I was still processing my thoughts. 😉 And confrontation isn’t my specialty. So I remained, you guessed it, silent. But I’ve never forgotten that statement. Which leads me to make this statement:
Please do not mistake an introvert’s lack of talking for a lack of thinking.
Quite the opposite is true. Our wheels are almost always turning, we just process internally. And we often don’t feel the need to share what we are processing. For me, and I am guessing other introverts as well, for whatever reason, many times we won’t share our thoughts unless we are asked.
Tips for interacting with introverts
If you’ve read this far, first of all, thank you for your endurance. Secondly, I might as well give you some advice that you didn’t ask for. Because I want to, and these are things that have been bubbling in my head for some time.
If you’re an extrovert or just someone who has the “gift of gab,” these are the things I would tell you. That is if there was ever a gap in the conversation, which we all know is unlikely. (Was that off-sides?)
- Frustrated with that quiet person’s quietness? Wish they would say what they are thinking? Try asking them. We are often happy to share what we think but we’ll often wait to be asked (as I mentioned above). Couldn’t tell you why that is.
- Realize that it can take time to get the words rolling verbally while we process. Please be patient.
- Please, please don’t interrupt. Once that slow-moving thought process gets fired up, an interruption will often get us mentally off-track and make us forget what we were saying. If you have the presence of mind to return the floor to us after you’ve interrupted (“oh, but you were saying…?”), don’t be surprised if we truly can’t remember. I cannot overstate how disruptive and demoralizing interruptions are to our thought process.
- On a related note, if something we say brings to mind a similar experience you’ve had, could you please wait until we’ve finished our sentence or paragraph to interject? A simple, “Oh, I’ve been there too! When I went there (insert story)…”, as harmless as it seems to you, still knocks us off track. Oh, and it’s rude.
- When you do interrupt, you might feel an immediate draft. That draft is the wind you’ve just taken out of our sails once we finally get up to speed, only to be cut off.
- It’s possible we have something valuable to say, we just need an opening, and perhaps a prompting, to say it. By never stopping long enough to give an introvert the floor, you are very likely missing out on conversational gold without even realizing it.
Obviously, I speak only for myself, and not for all introverts. I am not jumping to the conclusion that all of us are toastmasters waiting in the wings, but some may be.
A shameless plug for introverts
I mentioned that being an introvert has saved my bacon. That is due to the double-edged sword of slow processing. While it can be detrimental in meetings to be a few minutes behind the conversation, for interpersonal relationships it can be life-saving.
There are so many times when I’ve been in heated conversations with a boss, co-worker or acquaintance and thought of the most perfect, biting reply – twenty minutes later. I’m convinced that trait has saved me from getting fired from a job more than once, and has certainly prevented heaps of unnecessary regret and damaged relationships.
Furthermore, I’d like to think that introverts make quality friends because we are so much better at listening than talking. We all like to be listened to.
On the other hand, I have to give credit where credit is due for extroverts. Without them to carry the conversation the majority of the time, there would be a lot more silence and a lot less amusement.
It has taken years, but I have realized that my personality as an introvert adds value to the world around me. Extroverts, of course, add value in their own ways also. We complement each other.
If you are an introvert that feels uncomfortable with the way you are, take heart. You are valuable. I feel you, and I hear you. Even though I might keep that sentiment to myself.
Now it is your turn. Did you learn anything new in your understanding of introverts? What was your biggest takeaway?