“Are you nervous?”
“Terrified,” I replied.
We were sitting in the front row of the huge conference arena in Blackpool, UK. It was many years ago, and I was at the British National Union of Students conference. I was about to mount the podium and make a speech to an audience of several thousand delegates, most of whom would be hostile.
“Just look at the front row, and imagine you are speaking to one of the delegates,” advised my student union colleague. “It always works for me.”
“That’s not the problem,” I explained. “It’s not the antagonism of the crowd that bothers me, I can handle that. It’s the after-debate party that terrifies me.”
An Evening With the ‘Babbling Mob’
And thus it was; my speech to the crowd went well, and much as I would have preferred to dart back to my hotel as soon as it was over, my duties as a student representative required mingling with other delegates. What we would now call “networking.”
So, there I was, wine glass in hand, trembling at the thought of making small talk against the backdrop of clinking glasses and laughing revelers, who would become louder and drunker as the evening wore on. I knew that I would find conversation nearly impossible as I struggled to hear what was being said. My own long sentences would become progressively more difficult to express, and the nuances of my voice would be trampled underfoot by the short staccato sentences of my adversaries (sorry, “acquaintances”), who would dominate the conversation with their shallow machine gun fire, shooting words as bullets in their ongoing onslaught of trivia.
After all, I had been there before. Many an hour during my time as an undergraduate student had been spent at parties, looking for the kitchen, where the quiet enabled the conduct of real conversation, not the spurting of sound bites. The party became a euphemism for my life; even now, four decades on, at my job in a high-tech company, I seem to be looking for the kitchen, or any quiet space, where I can have a real conversation.
As it turned out, the after-conference reception went better than expected. I was accosted by many of the conference delegates, who wanted to respond to my comments to the plenum. Because I had a role, a subject upon which my views were solicited, I actually handled the evening very well. No longer required to make trivial small talk, I was able to wield off questions about my speech earlier in the day, as I was able to use long sentences — and more importantly, I was allowed to finish those sentences.
So, while the evening of the babbling mob passed, for the next thirty-odd years, the feeling that I was weird remained with me. Most people would feel relaxed at a party and sink into terror at the thought addressing a large crowd. For me, it was the other way round.
What Was Wrong With Me?
The truth is, I thought there was something wrong with me. I didn’t understand that my reactions were typical for many introverts. Nor did I understand that introversion and shyness are not the same thing. I felt uneasy, unhappy that I couldn’t cope in large groups. Not fully understanding myself, there was always that feeling of being inadequate, an outsider, not fully belonging.
Like many of my fellow introverts, the turning point came after reading Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. In it, she describes research that shows introverts may have more sensitive hearing and sight, causing us to be overwhelmed by the crowd. The very idea that people’s senses are different, that some are more sensitive than others, and so see, hear, and feel the world differently, came as a revelation.
In a similar vein, the influential German-born English psychologist Hans Eysenck wrote, “introverts are characterized by higher levels of [coritcal] activity than extraverts and so are chronically more cortically aroused than extraverts.”
In other words, introverts are more aroused (that is, more sensitive) than extroverts, meaning that the introvert seeks lower levels of stimulation. Thus, the commonly held perception that extroverts are more receptive to their environment than introverts is wrong.
It’s the other way round.
For me, Eysenck’s work opened up a whole new world of understanding about how each of us sees, hears, smells, tastes, and touches the world in a completely different way.
Being an Introvert Is Not a Curse
I learned to accept myself and to realize that being an introvert was a gift, not a curse. My vivid imagination, my creative talents, my writing, are all part of me being an introvert. It’s no coincidence that I began to work on my first novel around the same time that I began to understand my introversion. I’d dreamed of being an author since I was a child, but I had to lose my inhibitions about exposing my own eccentric ideas and emotions before I could share them with the world through my creative writing.
With this new awareness, I could now justify myself to others. For instance, at work, when there was to be another torturous team building exercise (as if working together five days a week wasn’t team building enough), I plucked up the courage to tell my manager that I wouldn’t be participating. When asked why, I explained that I was an introvert, and the event would be highly stressful. I was given a polite hearing and, for once, I felt able to explain myself without feeling guilty (not that my company is going to change its extrovert ethos any time soon).
Finally, I realized that there is nothing wrong with me.
So What Can You Do?
The pressure to conform is strong, as we live in a society in which the group experience and the extrovert personality are the ideals. It’s hardly surprising that in such an environment, you’ll begin to wonder if there’s something wrong with you, just as I did.
Today, not only do I realize that there’s nothing wrong with me, but I’m actually pleased to be an introvert, and wouldn’t want it any other way. The journey from low self-esteem to acceptance of myself was long, for it required a process of deep change. Based on my experience, I recommend the following steps to help you on your journey:
1. Create a “Why I’m awesome” list
Think about the reasons it’s great to be an introvert. Remind yourself of what you excel at, not the things that challenge you. You should create your own list, but here are some things from my list that may inspire you:
- As an introvert, you’re probably good at connecting ideas and events and seeing many facets of a problem. You are more likely to think outside the consensus and have original ideas. In a work environment, this makes you a great decision maker, able to think originally and challenge colleagues to see all alternatives.
- You may have finely honed senses. You may hear, see, and feel things very strongly. This means you are great at understanding what’s happening in your environment and have a good understanding of body language.
- You probably have a well-developed imagination and think deeply about your experiences.
- You can be a great and true friend because you seek deep connections.
2. Educate yourself
By reading this and other articles, you’ve started down the road to self-discovery. The more you read about other people’s experiences, the more you will understand yourself, and the awareness that there’s nothing wrong with you will be internalized.
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3. Educate others
Share your experiences and feelings with your family, friends, and colleagues (even though, at times, it’s outside your comfort zone). Explain what it means to be an introvert. When they understand you and accept you for who you are, you will find it easier to accept yourself (or at least they will stop undermining your confidence by trying to “cure” you).
You may be an introvert, but it doesn’t mean you must fit a stereotype. Talking to other introverts can give you the confidence that it’s okay to be who you are. And remember that you don’t have to try to be like others, introvert or extrovert — there’s no one “correct” personality. You are unique and whole, just as you are.
You might like:
- Introverts Don’t Hate People, They Hate Shallow Socializing
- Don’t Underestimate Me Just Because I’m Not Dominating the Conversation
- 14 Stunning Illustrations That Perfectly Capture the Introvert’s Love of Books
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