What It’s Like Being an Introvert in an Extroverted Family and Culture

an introvert retreats from her extroverted family and culture

Growing up in a “loud” Caribbean family where extroversion was the norm, I was constantly misunderstood for being an introvert. 

When I flip through an old photo album, I’m struck by the difference between me and the rest of the kids in my Caribbean family. I’m often huddled close to my mom or dad while my sister and cousins are right at home with other relatives and family friends. 

Similarly, birthday parties were fun when it was someone else’s turn to blow out the candles. I just wanted a slice of cake and the chance to wear my favorite dress (one with a leopard print skirt). 

As an introvert, it always took me longer to open up to anyone outside our immediate family. I was the so-called “shy one” who just needed time to “come out of my shell.” I learned quickly that extroversion was the norm in my family and that introversion was the exception. 

Tropical Islands Mean ‘Colorful’ Personalities

My family’s deep roots in the Caribbean go back several generations. The connection I have to my culture tends to be more surface-level. I was born in Trinidad and lived there with my mom, dad, grandma, and sister until the age of seven. 

Like other tropical locales, Trinidad is no stranger to stereotypes people have about what it’s like to live in the Caribbean. Yes, I lived on an island. But, no, the beach wasn’t right outside our doorstep. (In fact, I never even learned how to swim.)

Film and television commercials often depict the Caribbean as the home of bustling marketplaces and white sandy beaches — you can almost smell the flowers and produce. 

But it’s hard being an introvert when your personality doesn’t match your surroundings. People expect you to be as loud and vibrant as the food, music, and fashion of your birthplace — yet they also want you to exemplify the laid-back lifestyle of an all-inclusive resort. 

No matter what kind of cultural background you come from, perhaps you can relate?

Introversion and Shyness Are Not the Same Thing 

“She’s just shy. Once she gets to know you, she’ll talk your ear off.” 

This is what my mom would always tell family members who were baffled by my apparent shyness. There is some truth to this explanation. But “shy” doesn’t quite describe my personality. Although some people are shy introverts, you can be shy — reserved or timid around others — without being an introvert — someone who gets drained by the outer world and recharged by their inner world.

I didn’t even discover that I was an introvert until I was studying psychology. 

Like other introverts, I am more in tune with my inner mind rather than the outside world. I prefer solitary activities over crowded gatherings. I prefer to be alone, but am not afflicted by overwhelming loneliness. I do enjoy engaging with people, but prefer to do so in one-on-one situations and relaxed environments. The operative word here is “prefer.” 

In My Extroverted Family, You Had to Blend in by Standing Out

My mom is the youngest of seven girls, and my dad is the youngest of five boys and two girls. Biology and marriage aren’t a requirement for being part of our family. In addition to the regular roster of aunts, uncles, and cousins, there is an assortment of kinfolk whom we were always expected to refer to as “Auntie” and “Uncle” as a sign of deference and respect. 

With extra aunties and uncles, that also meant more children and babies in tow. All of which combined to create a nightmarish scene for someone like me, who enjoys neither the company of gregarious adults nor their equally terrifying children. You see, the girls in our family were expected to be on hand for entertaining and looking after younger children. The women were always on their feet, cooking, serving food, and only sitting down once they took care of everyone else. 

At family gatherings, relatives made their presence known with loud voices and outgoing personalities. They would tease each other, tell stories, and play cards amid raucous laughter. While my family expected children to be well-behaved and respectful of others, it was necessary to raise your voice just to be heard. The most precocious of my cousins would even come prepared with a song or dance to perform for everyone. 

This cacophony also had to compete with the sounds of soca (short for “(So)ul of (Ca)lypso”) and reggae frequently playing in the background. I remember my ears ringing as dinnertime conversations spilled over into the night. 

During these gatherings, I managed to avoid socializing with family by offering to dress the salad or set the table. I would drag these chores out as long as possible just to get some alone time. If we were having a BBQ, I would use any excuse to go inside, especially when everyone else was fawning over cute babies. My family would laugh and remark that I was “such a homebody.”

A two-hour dinner at my aunt’s house was actually more like five or six hours between arriving early to help with cooking and staying after for clean-up and what Trinidadians call “liming” (i.e. hanging out). We would get together for Sunday dinners and special occasions a lot, like birthdays and Christmases.  

The reprieve would come when the adults gave us the signal that we could go into another room to read or watch TV. I craved the solace of being able to draw and paint and play with my dogs (and not invent more chores to do).

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For ‘Quiet’ Personalities, There’s No Escaping Criticism

Unfortunately, family members may see us introverts as easy targets, since being quiet and reserved tends to attract negative attention. And for some, the solution for drawing out an introvert is peppering them with intrusive comments and questions

“Your hairline is receding, isn’t it?” my aunt would proclaim every time I saw her. Later, when this same hairline-obsessed aunt asked me about my summer plans, I told her I was volunteering in a psychology lab to prepare for grad school. Before I was even out of earshot, I could hear her telling my mom and aunts, “Why is she going to grad school? She’ll do anything to avoid getting a job.”   

This same year, one of my uncles passed away and everyone came into town for the funeral. When my sister arrived, my aunt rushed over to give her a big hug. With her arms around my sister’s shoulders, my aunt announced to a room full of relatives “now this is the pretty one.” The subtext being that I’m the ugly one. I could have taken comfort in having a good personality, but they didn’t like my personality either. 

And much to my distress, the shaming and criticism didn’t skip a generation. A cousin on my mom’s side emailed everyone to make fun of me for struggling with anxiety and depression, two conditions that many introverts experience to some degree. Her unprovoked attack on my mental health made family gatherings even more dreadful.  

There’s Nothing Wrong With Being an Introvert

In addition to the comfort I get from my dogs, I feel a sense of kinship with the handful of introverts in our family who are also labeled “shy” or “homebodies.” We gravitate toward one another and are able to weather family gatherings by going deeper than trivial gossip and small talk.

Even so, I realize that being extroverted is still a prized virtue. My Caribbean family is who they are and the loudest and most intrusive among them aren’t going to change to suit my needs. I don’t conform to their vision of what a Trinidadian is like. Perhaps they see my quietness as a rejection of their vibrant culture and way of life. 

Some family members have described me as being “withdrawn,” and attributed my behavior to the sudden passing of my father when I was a child. I’ve never been able to successfully explain to them that I’m simply an introvert who needs alone time to recharge; it’s as though “introvert” isn’t in their vocabulary.

But I’ve learned to look past the stereotypes that make the Caribbean seem more like a monolith than the multi-faceted and pluralistic culture that it is. I look for the nuances in the colorful marketplaces — like the Central and Tunapuna markets — and what lies behind the scenes of this effortless lifestyle. 

When I really stop and think about it, I do in fact embody the core values of my family and culture in a way that’s easy to miss. Among these values are being respectful of one’s elders, working hard, caring for others, and most of all, aspiring for the next generation to reach greater heights than the last. 

It’s because of my introversion that I listen more than I speak, persevere more than I seek simple answers, value meaningful relationships over superficial ones, and carry the aspirations of my family with each hard-won success. Hopefully, one day, they will see my introversion as the source of these positive and much-needed characteristics rather than a deficit that needs correcting.

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Writer and human-animal bond researcher with a PhD in Public Health and Counseling Psychology. My work has been featured in HuffPost Canada, University Affairs, and Thrive Global. I’m a dog mom to Dally, Rusty, and Frankie. Find me on Twitter, Instagram, or my website.