As an Introvert, I Can Only Handle So Much Collaboration at Work collaboration work introvert

Recently, I was in a meeting with a colleague, a person whom I work closely with, and who is very different than me, personality-wise. During the meeting, she advocated that we move to team-teaching as our default.

She listed a couple of benefits of collaboration, some of which made good sense to me. There was an offhand comment, though, that sounded within me like a gong: “Anyway, collaboration is easier.” This sent me into an internal tizzy, which continued to rankle me well into the evening.

What my colleague and I do is teach mindfulness and meditation. This means that authenticity, communication, vulnerability, and compassion are qualities we both seek to cultivate in everything we do — including in our work together.

So while it has historically been difficult for me to make waves of any kind, I knew that it was time to give her a window into my highly sensitive and introverted brain. Being who I am, it felt hard to find the right words in person, so I turned to writing.

(Note: not everyone means the same thing when they say “introvert.” Here’s our definition of an introvert.)

‘I Expend Significant Amounts of Energy Anytime I’m with Another Person’

Here is the email I wrote to my colleague:

I woke up early this morning, turning over various things from our meeting, trying to keep a sense of calm, safety, and equanimity about me, while also feeling distressed. I think the topic that most unsettles me is about collaboration. Having new information come in, info that changes the status quo and what I thought was safe and solid and decided… this is really difficult for me.

When you spoke about collaboration as something that is easier than solo work, and you pointed us toward a new mode of approaching all incoming teaching engagements as collaborations, an internal panic set in for me. (I know this didn’t raise much of a flag during the conversation. Being an introvert sometimes means that during an interpersonal situation, I don’t have the mental space to process large parts of the conversation until later, when I’m alone, even though they affect me greatly in the moment and throughout the interaction.)

Collaboration is not easy for me. What’s easy (and very pleasurable) for me is working independently and perhaps conferring from time to time. I also find this method to be economical in regards to time. When I work mostly alone, I am able to freely use the strengths I hold most dear — agency, intuition, passion, and creativity.

In our collaborations, there is surely something gained in having different voices, ideas, and strengths. At the same time, for me, there are also significant challenges. As an introvert, highly sensitive person, and possibly empath, I expend significant amounts of energy anytime I’m with another person.

When collaborating with someone, I deal with the energy of the co-teacher, their (perceived) reactions to my ideas, and the force with which they express their ideas. What might feel like a fun and lively discussion to someone else might feel more like conflict to me.

While teaching, I often have discomfort when there is someone else in the room, which interferes with dealing with my own preparations and emotions. Often, my teaching is more inhibited and less free-flowing and intuitive because I feel like I’m teaching “in front of” someone else.

Rather than being in creative/passionate mode, rather than being “in the zone” or “in the flow,” I feel in a low-key (or more) stressed mode… which makes it harder to think clearly and take in information, and harder to express myself.

None of this is to say that I hate collaborating! I’m definitely not blind to the joys, benefits, and the necessity of working together. Sometimes for me, the liveliness of it outweighs the challenge of it, and it works well. And certainly sometimes collaborative planning and teaching really needs to be a part of what we do.

I also know that doing what is challenging is often good. We grow by being challenged. And at the same time, for me, experiences that take so much of my time and energy need to be balanced with lots of experiences that feel effortless, safe, and right-up-my-alley. When the balance is skewed, I get burned out and feel not okay.

I am trying to be okay with all of this. Much of my internal work over the past few years has been about learning to know who and how I actually am, and how to work with these qualities rather than trying to just assimilate, ignore my discomfort, and suffer for it. I did that for a long time. This is still hard for me.

Our culture values collaboration so much, and values and normalizes extroverted traits in general, so it’s easy for me to feel like there’s something wrong with me. So, as I am trying to express to you that these things need to be considered, I am also trying to reaffirm to myself that my needs matter and are worth considering.

We Don’t Have to Just Stew Over Our Feelings

After I sent this email, my internal storm died down. While I was eager to hear her response, I didn’t feel anxious anymore. I had used my words, and I chose them as well as I could. I tried my best to be as open and diplomatic as possible.

More than anything, I felt proud to have expressed my perspective to my colleague rather than holding it inside and ruminating. Expressing my true self and my preferences is new for me, and it feels like a superpower every time I manage to do it.

The response I received from my colleague was kind, gracious, and appreciative of my taking the time to share thoughtfully. She and I will continue to be quite different, and there will continue to be bumps along the way as we work together. I’m feeling happy about the commitment we both demonstrate to working compassionately with each other.

I know this kind of letter might not work with every colleague. It takes lots of reciprocal trust, and it takes a colleague who really wants to listen and understand. If I were sending this to another colleague, I might remove or change parts of what I share.

But the fact remains that we highly sensitive introverts don’t have to just stew over our feelings. We can allow people into our world and let them know what it’s like — in service of working more effectively together. 

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Read this: What It’s Like Being a Highly Sensitive Person in a Caring Profession