For Introverts, Performance Can Be Empowering — Here’s Why

For introverts, acting or making music isn’t about the spotlight. It’s about finally expressing our rich inner landscape in a meaningful way.

All my life, I’ve sung. Whether I am talented is for others to say, but I’ve done it all: elementary school assemblies with their literal choreography; cheese-tastic pageants at the Baptist church that accepted my family as tourists; and, eventually, competitive talent shows that generated a half-admiring, half-catty adolescent buzz for days afterward. 

By the time I reached late high school, I wore the turquoise cummerbund of Advanced Choir, and my solo for the spring show was a trip-hoppy original called Iron Curtain (I was in unrequited love and we’d just studied the Cold War).

Believe it or not, I did all of this by choice, which begs the question: How did my desire to stand exposed before auditoriums full of people square with the fact that I’d been a shrieking, overstimulated toddler, an avoidant middle schooler who implored my mother to speak for me, and an offbeat mess of a tween who was ill at ease among my peers? 

In short: How did my performer’s impulse reconcile with my also being a Class A, card-carrying introvert?

One word: Control.

The Connection Between Introversion and Control

There are a number of reasons why introverts might feel out of control in daily interactions: 

  • We long for depth rather than breadth. Introverts would rather plunge into a weighty, meaningful conversation with one person than canvas an entire room of potential connections. But, unfortunately, that’s not how house parties or professional networking events work. 
  • We prefer to slow-cook our responses. There’s perhaps nothing more aversive to an introvert than being rushed into speaking simply to fill the silence, as what tumbles out under these conditions is likely to misrepresent us. 
  • We often overthink things. What was that micro-expression that crossed the listener’s face? Did they notice the pause that was barely a crack (but felt like a chasm)? Such are the perils of everyday exchange. Too many in close succession, and introverts need a recovery nap. (For highly sensitive introverts, multiply this tenfold.)

The chore of adapting to a world that favors social butterflies leaves us “quiet ones” longing for alternative ways to communicate. That’s where, if you’re like me, performance comes to the fore. It’s one way we introverts can feel like we’re in control. 

All of the Self-Expression, None of the Stammer

As a kid, singing gave my introverted self a sense of control. I found that when I sang, I could choose exactly the right words, rehearse them, and deliver them just so, the way I often couldn’t in spontaneous, time-sensitive conversation. I was thrilled to find myself suspended in a rapt collective gaze from my audience, as if I were infused with otherworldly light.  

I may have wielded little influence otherwise, but by singing, I could bring an audience thundering to its feet. Strangely, it felt less intense than regular socializing — after all, it’s hard to dwell on a single face among shadowy rows of seats. Plus, popular songs often last no more than 3-4 minutes, which isn’t too much of an energy sink.

When one first discovers a trick like this, it’s intoxicating. In fact, the pull can be extra strong for a still-developing introvert who feels powerless to exercise their voice in so many other contexts.

The Way Introverts ‘Perform’ Is Different Than the Way Extroverts Do

Ben Drexler of DrexFactor.com, a self-described introvert and “movement artist” who specializes in poi and fire dancing, suggests that introverts perform to different ends than extroverts. For us, he surmises, performing is more of a self-revelation than an exchange that’s aimed at putting one’s inner landscape on display

If the performances of extroverts tend to involve a symbiotic energy-swap with the audience, those of introverts might be more akin to TED Talks or art exhibits: presentations crafted to make ourselves understood in a way that might otherwise be stymied by the demands and diversions of back-and-forth interaction.

Drexler also acknowledges the unique discomfort that introverts may experience after the show is over. After all, it is then that the already-spent introvert likely faces an expectation to descend to earth and mingle with their public.  

In addition to heaping on an extra portion of stimulation, this feels risky: We are in danger, once again, of relinquishing the control we have just wrested back. As a result, if you watch closely, you may spot us devising escape hatches like, “I need to start taking the equipment down … right now.”

Ahh, the classic avert-your-eyes-and-forcefully-wrap-a-cable maneuver. Relatable.

My own ideal vision has always been to lay a dramatized version of myself bare on a stage floor — I mean real emotional carnage here, but ever so carefully orchestrated — and then be smuggled to safety the moment the gig’s over.

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An Introvert Who Performs: A Walking Contradiction?

It seems that even self-aware introverts like Drexler may struggle to reconcile their love of performing with their fundamental nature. I question whether some of that dissonance might actually have been internalized from outside sources: stereotyping from onlookers unfamiliar with the full range of introvert behavior, or even the judgments of some introvert gatekeepers themselves who simply can’t relate to the performative impulse.

If you’re trying to convince yourself or others that, despite craving the spotlight, you are indeed a real introvert, remember:

  • Many renowned performers are remembered as introverts, including Prince and David Bowie. If they are any indication, perhaps oversized and meticulously crafted personas (not to mention control freak tendencies!) might be how some introverts adapt to life in the public eye.
  • “I’m an introvert” doesn’t mean “I’m terrified of people.” It’s closer to, “More acetylcholine, please!” The preference of one neurotransmitter over another need not be at odds with taking the stage. (Here’s how introverts’ and extroverts’ brains really are different.)
  • In many ways, artistic performance can be the ideal way for an introvert to share themselves with others — on their own terms. Think of a presentation with no impromptu follow-up questions, and therefore less risk of wedging foot-in-mouth. It also involves clear boundaries and a set time frame for which one can mentally prepare. It’s often more doable to put up with heightened stimulation when you know exactly how long it will last.

That’s not to say that introverted performers might not require some special self-consideration and care. On that front, keep in mind:    

  • Even if you love performing, once you start, the anticipation leading up to the event might make you green around the gills. When I had not yet started doing karaoke on the regular, I still had a mean fight-or-flight response before heading to the front of a room and dislodging a mic from its cradle. However, you might decide, as I did, that the initial apprehension is well worth it for the eventual payoff. Also, with practice, it gets easier over time, as it did for me.
  • Be honest with people in advance about what they can expect from you. For instance, if you have bandmates and you know it’s healthiest for you to switch off after a performance instead of socializing, give them a heads-up in a moment of calm downtime — not after a show when you’re burnt out and in danger of becoming irritable.
  • Post-performance, do something comforting to decompress. You do you, of course, but I’ll have a hot shower, pull on a soft, oversized sweater, burn a votive candle, and drink some grapefruit rosé. Preferably, all in the comfort of my introvert sanctuary.

Introverts, the performer’s life and your fundamental nature are not mutually exclusive. Sure, stepping into the spotlight might feel like a dizzying leap of faith at first. It did for me. But you might find that it helps keep you in touch with yourself, ensuring that you always hear your own voice clearly above the din of the crowd. 

So go forth and proclaim your stories, spill your musical guts, or hit up that poetry slam if you are so inclined! Just make sure you know exactly where the exits are.

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L. Alexandra Manuel, who has received an absurdly high score on every introvert quiz she’s ever taken, makes existential music and mixes self-effacing memoir with pop (and not-so-pop) culture observances at thesoldkingdom.com. She has an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Hollins University.