What It’s Like Being an Introvert With Hearing Loss

Socializing is far more difficult because I can’t always hear what is said. At times, I feel isolated from the world — not by choice, but by chance.

I wasn’t familiar with the word introvert until I was in my thirties, and it wasn’t until I read Quiet by Susan Cain that I realized I wasn’t as odd as I thought I was. I’m still odd, just not in the way I thought. For me, my difficulties with engaging socially have been compounded by the fact that I don’t hear well. I have the double whammy of being an introvert with hearing loss.

What Did You Say?

Sensorineural is a hearing loss best described as nerve damage of the pathways from your inner ear to your brain. Conductive is another type of hearing loss caused by problems with the bone that conducts sound through your ears. I have both sensorineural and conductive hearing loss. I remember when an ENT saw my audiogram, he exclaimed, “Wow! I’ve never seen this before!” Which, generally speaking, is not what you want to hear from your doctor.

Until a few years ago, the technology for hearing aids for my particular problems didn’t exist. I now have a bi-cross hearing aid, which takes sounds from my right side, where I have no hearing, and transfers it to my left side, where I have moderate hearing loss. But my nifty new hearing aids aren’t perfect. Sometimes they fail, as they might for anyone who wears them.

Introverts love solitude, introspection, and reflection, and they need time to recharge after social situations. Imagine being an introvert with hearing loss. The difficulty of managing social situations is magnified tenfold because I cannot always hear what is said to me. Even when I’m recharged and ready to engage with others, I often don’t — because of the challenges presented by my hearing. 

An Introverted, Hard-of-Hearing Teenager

When I was a teenager, my girlfriends spent hours chatting on the phone, but being both introverted and unable to hear well made that rite of passage unavailable to me. I was all right hanging out with one or two friends, but as soon as there was a group, I’d go home. When I did hang out with the crowd, I stayed close to my one or two friends. I was the quiet one who preferred to be alone in her room reading or writing. I still am, come to think of it.

College was hard for me for different reasons. In an Introvert, Dear article, Jana Louise Smit discusses how quiet people are often considered stupid. Our education system fails every introvert that has ever sat in a classroom. For some reason, educators believe that students need to talk to learn. No thought is given in either K-12 or university classrooms to the introverts who learn from quiet contemplation or solitary reading and writing. Susan Cain does a brilliant job covering this topic in Quiet.

Class discussions work well for some students, but not all students. Sometimes I’d lose track of the conversation. In one class, the professor decided that everyone should respond to the discussion. I had a hearing aid fail and didn’t hear most of what was said. I did what I always do in such situations, which is to wait until I can pick up the thread of the conversation.

Suddenly, everything stopped. I could tell by the professor’s body language and the students’ downcast gazes that something had happened — but I had no idea what. After class, my friend told me the professor had announced we weren’t continuing with the class until every person added to the conversation.

She was referring to me.

I hadn’t contributed because I couldn’t hear, and she was…what? Offended? She embarrassed me in front of everyone without considering why I might not have spoken.

As an introvert, especially an introvert with hearing loss, I learn by observing. Even introverts without hearing loss learn a lot by observing. I also learn by writing things out. I learn by quiet contemplation. I never lost out on learning because I didn’t always participate in conversations. I learn differently, that’s all.

Those Closest to You May Not Understand

 Even among friends, it can be hard. I have a couple of friends I’ve known for nearly ten years. They both know I have hearing loss. They both know I’m introverted. I remember the afternoon I sat with one friend, crying because someone had laughed at me because of my hearing loss. My friend was kind and sympathetic.

Yet this same friend was annoyed with me when I wouldn’t attend a gathering at her house. I loved visiting her when it was just two or three of us, but spending time with strangers, struggling to make small talk, struggling just to hear is too exhausting.

This same friend was distant toward me again when I didn’t attend our mutual friend’s retirement party. I’ve had to learn to forgive people for not understanding what it’s like to be me.

I’ve Had Many ‘Pretend’ Conversations

I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had where I couldn’t make out a single word the other person said. It’s amazing how far you can get mimicking the other person’s facial expressions and nodding. When a cue is missed, I say, “Oh, I thought you said (fill in the blank with whatever seems appropriate)” and the conversation I can’t hear continues.

If I were less introverted, I might have learned at an earlier age to be truthful about the fact that I can’t hear. How many honest connections with people have I missed because I wasn’t having a genuine conversation?

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Isolated Not by Choice, But by Chance

Someone who is introverted may be alone but not feel lonely because we “quiet ones” enjoy solitary time. But there have been times when I wanted to socialize more and didn’t. There have been times when I felt isolated from the world — not by choice, but by chance.

Like some other introverts, I don’t consider myself a shy person. I enjoy talking to people and getting to know their stories — when I can hear them. Introversion is not synonymous with shyness, as Susan Cain points out.

Allison Abrams from Psychology Today wrote that introverts “…most simply have a lower threshold for small talk and superficialities. They prefer to conserve their energy for meaningful interactions that stimulate them, rather than shallow ones that drain them.” With my hearing loss, however, it can seem as if every interaction is draining since I have to struggle to simply make sense of what is being said.

Connections have been made between hearing loss and introversion. Roberta K. Ness for the Houston Chronicle wrote about how older men tend to check out in social situations due to their declining hearing. Most people would check out when it’s hard to hear. I know I do.

Ness also points out that isolation caused by hearing loss has been shown to increase depression and even accelerate dementia. Despite the challenges, being an introvert with hearing loss doesn’t have to be the end of all social interaction. 

What Can Be Done for Introverts With Hearing Loss?

While there is no one-size-fits-all solution for introverts with a hearing loss, here are a few tips I’ve discovered over the years:

1. I focus on what I’ve accomplished.

While I struggle with self-doubt like anyone, I’ve still achieved many things that I’m proud of. My hearing loss and introversion have never stopped me from achieving my goals. Once I set my mind to something, I get ‘er done.

2. I focus on what I do well.

Some introverts find their creative expression through writing, as I do. I find great joy in creating worlds with words. Since it’s hard for me to take part in social gatherings, I share my thoughts and feelings, my experiences, and my imaginings through the written word.

I’ve had to accept that I’m most comfortable at home reading and writing. I put myself down for years because I rarely wanted to go out where I knew hearing would be a struggle. Finally, I’ve accepted that I prefer to be alone or in the company of a few people. This is who I am, and that’s okay.

3. I’m more honest about my hearing loss.

For years, I would never tell anyone I couldn’t hear well. Quite simply, I was embarrassed. Finally, I started saying, “I wear a hearing aid and I can’t hear you.” People can be more understanding than we sometimes give them credit for. 

With my new hearing aids and my willingness to be honest about the fact that I can’t hear well, it’s easier to get through conversations. I don’t need to mime back people’s expressions. I can hear, talk, and connect. And that is a good thing.

Do you suffer from hearing loss, or another physical condition that makes socializing difficult? What is it like? Let me know in the comments below.

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Meredith Allard’s writing has appeared in journals such as Moondance, Muse Apprentice Guild, The Paumanok Review, Wild Mind, The Maxwell Digest, Writers Weekly, ViewsHound, The Honor Society, and The Huffington Post. She is the executive editor of a literary journal, The Copperfield Review, and she is the author of four bestselling novels. Meredith received her B.A. and M.A. degrees from CSU Northridge and her Ph.D. from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Visit Meredith online at www.meredithallard.com.