4 Introvert-Survival Tips I Learned From Our Former First Lady

a book in the grass that represents Michelle Obama's Becoming memoir

I wasn’t expecting to like Becoming — Michelle Obama’s recently released memoir — all that much. I thought it would be a wishy-washy recap of eight years in the White House, an account from someone too diplomatic to write anything that would be interesting to me.

Then, I curled up in bed on a Friday night in, and read about the former first lady skipping an inaugural ball full of friends and campaign donors to go upstairs to her bedroom in the White House, alone. I was suddenly curious: is Michelle an introvert?

I certainly don’t know enough about her from 400 pages of reading to decide whether or not she is. But with a quick Google search, I found some evidence that others agree with me (such as this author), although more coverage focused on Barack instead.

I get it, not everyone likes the Obamas, but no matter what your political beliefs, I hope we can agree on one thing: we introverts can learn a lot from her about facing challenges that make us uncomfortable, as well as maintaining a strong sense of self — and sanity — throughout.

Here are four introvert-survival strategies I learned from Michelle as she navigated the world of politics and life in the public eye, which we can apply to our (somewhat less exciting) lives among a population of extroverts.

Michelle Obama’s Introvert-Survival Strategies

1. Whenever possible, shrink the group.

Michelle was more comfortable giving talks to smaller groups of voters, unlike the speech Barack gave in front of millions of Americans at the 2004 Democratic Convention (just thinking of all those eyes on me makes my heart race!). In smaller settings, Michelle felt more comfortable and was able to connect with the audience.

I can relate to feeling overwhelmed by big groups. We can’t always get out of the inevitability of attending big meetings at the office or parties of hundreds at a friend’s wedding, of course. But when you do have a say, take a cue from Michelle and limit meetings, dinners, or other gatherings to small groups. And if possible, ask people who you know will be present at a big upcoming event to get coffee or lunch beforehand. That way, you can get some of the awkward small talk and chitchat out of the way — and have familiar faces to flock to (a real lifesaver for an introvert who feels like a fish out of water). Ultimately, this will make the event less draining.

2. Lean on your tribe to get you through.

I noticed a common thread in Michelle’s book: certain people had been in her life for a long time. She brought her chef, personal trainer, and stylist from Chicago to D.C. when she moved into the White House. She organized weekends for her longtime female friends at Camp David every few months.

I understand why she wanted to keep people she knows around in her life, for a few reasons. First, having deep relationships allows introverts to bypass small talk (which we both loathe and dread), and go right into more meaningful conversation. Second, having familiar faces around, like a chef she’s known for years, makes handling a big, stressful dinner party with international dignitaries (slightly) more manageable. Finally, it’s hard to get to know an introvert but important for us to have people in our life who get us. That’s why Barack let Michelle skip the inaugural dinner — he knows she needs her alone time.

3. When the going gets tough, remember your purpose.

Surprisingly, the book reveals that Michelle didn’t actually want to be in politics or in the public eye, but she believed the country needed her husband to lead it. There are a number of examples in the book where she makes sacrifices on behalf of her family or groups of disenfranchised people. Even though it was uncomfortable for her, she was able to step outside her comfort zone because she kept her sense of purpose in the forefront of her mind. She believed she was working for the greater good — or on behalf of someone else.

I’ve used a similar trick in my life as an introvert. If I have to spend a lot of time meeting with others about a project I’m working on — while I’d much rather be locked alone in my office — I remind myself who will benefit from it. Some examples might be more obvious, like when I’m organizing an event for people with disabilities. Some can be less obvious but just as valid — maybe my work on a successful project will help one of the members of the team I manage get a promotion, which for me, can be just as motivating.

4. Draw on your unique “soft power.”

Michelle referred to her particular brand of effectiveness as “soft power,” which I strongly related to — it describes an ability to persuade and coopt, instead of coerce. This is a leadership style that relies on good listening skills and quiet persistence, as laid out in another great book for introverts: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain.

Michelle wrote about how she noticed that mom bloggers were becoming more influential, so during the campaign, she focused on them (which also helped her avoid some of the more draining talk shows). Ultimately, this observation and subsequent ability to form relationships with those bloggers allowed her to connect with a group of Americans that Barack’s staff might have overlooked.

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As an introvert, you, too, possess a certain brand of soft power. For example, at work, your loud and charismatic coworkers probably get more attention, but maybe you’ve observed a change in your demographic that could influence a new marketing campaign. Approach other coworkers one-on-one with your idea, and tell them you need their help disseminating it to the rest of the group. In this way, you’ll incorporate them into your plan, they’ll want your project to be a success, and you won’t have to lead the charge all on your own.

It’s not easy being an introvert in a society that caters to extroverts. I take comfort in knowing that Michelle Obama, who was probably an introvert, not only survived but also thrived in one of the most public-facing roles that exists. If she can make it in an extroverted world, I can too — and so can you. 

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