Wednesday, January 2, 2013
Always the Quiet One
by Sandra Parshall
All my life I’ve been criticized, scolded, and occasionally ridiculed for being too introverted, too shy, too sensitive. Too quiet.
I was the despair of teachers because I never raised my hand in class, and if they asked me a question my response was barely audible. I had friends, but they eventually gave up trying to include me in their good times. In a triumph of casting against type, I became a newspaper reporter, and while I was fine (after the first few minutes, anyway) in one-on-one interviews, I could not make myself ask a question at a news conference.
I felt – and still feel – everything keenly, including the ridicule, but I’ve always been drawn away from others and toward the sidelines, where I could blend into the wallpaper.
All my life, I have believed something was terribly wrong with me.
Of course, I knew I wasn’t the only one who was like this, but rather than taking comfort in that knowledge and making those others my friends, I dismissed them as being somehow damaged, like me. As most people are, I was attracted to those who shone in company, thrived on attention, always came up with something fascinating to say. I felt apologetic and ashamed of my lack of social skills.
But now, at this late date, I’ve decided to accept myself as I am and stop apologizing because I’m not the one who dances on tables at parties. A book by Susan Cain, titled Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Won’t Stop Talking, made me realize that I’m perfectly normal.
Like approximately 40% of the population, Susan Cain is a introvert. She’s been through all the things I’ve endured, and she has accepted that she will never change. Her careful and extensive research for her book turned up ample proof that she and I and all those like us are just fine as we are. I’ve never met her, but upon finishing her book I felt grateful: here, at last, is somebody who understands me.
Every introvert should read this book. Every teacher, every parent, every spouse of an introvert should read it. Parents should buy it for their older children and teens who hate themselves because they’re too withdrawn to ever be popular.
They will learn what no psychologist will dispute: we are born this way. Humans are hardwired from the beginning to be either introverts or extroverts. Children who are born introverts can’t be badgered, cajoled, or shamed into being more outgoing. Some might learn to pretend, just to get some relief from the pressure, but they can’t change their basic natures and they won’t be happy when faking it.
Cain’s descriptions of introverted behavior all rang true to me because she was describing my life. A long day at school with others can be emotionally exhausting for an introverted child, and the last thing she or he wants to do when the last bell rings is move straight into a boisterous extra-curricular activity with a group. The introverted child needs quiet time alone to decompress after being with others for hours. Reading, writing, walking the dog, pursuing a hobby – whatever the activity, it allows the introvert’s batteries to recharge for the next extended encounter with other people.
Introverted children may be smart, they might be doing well with their assignments and tests, but teachers often don’t appreciate them because they are so quiet in class. Introversion and shyness are two different traits, and not all introverts are shy. But relentless pressure to participate can destroy a child’s sense of self-worth and create shyness.
This inevitably carries over into adulthood, where the introverted person may not do well in professional life. Studies indicate that the majority of successful leaders in business and politics are extroverts. They aren’t always the smartest, or the most capable and well-informed, but they’re the ones who demand and revel in attention, while a more qualified introvert sits unnoticed on the sidelines.
In science and the arts, though, introverts have the edge. They don’t mind working alone day after day, year after year, in pursuit of a goal. They enjoy retreating into their own worlds and shutting out everything and everybody around them. Most would say they can’t do their work any other way.
As Cain points out, nearly half the human population is made up of introverts, and they won’t produce to their full potential if they’re forced to work in a group. Businesses that once used open floor plans in their offices, and encouraged everyone to work together, are discovering that many employees need their own space, where they can think and work alone. Open floor plans in some companies are being divided into cubicles or private offices, and productivity is rising as a result.
For myself, as for all introverted writers (and that’s probably most of us), the greatest challenge is switching from the blissful solitude of work to the noise of the marketplace, where we must put ourselves forward and sell what we’ve published. When my first book came out, I dreaded making appearances because my shyness was almost crippling. Two hours in a bookstore, talking to one stranger after another, completely wore me out for days afterward. I was terrified the first time I attended a mystery conference and had to speak in front of a crowd.
After nearly seven years, though, I’ve worked through a lot of my shyness. I still have a touch of stage fright, but I’ve realized that it’s not possible to actually die from embarrassment, and if I stumble over a word, the audience won’t notice, much less care.
I’m still introverted, though, and always will be. At conferences I begin to feel desperate to get away from the crush of other humans, and I retreat to my room, feeling like a failure because I can’t work the crowd the way an extrovert can. Although I enjoy meeting readers, appearances still drain me.
After reading Susan Cain’s book, I’ve decided it’s okay to be this way. From now on I’m going to put myself first. I’m giving myself permission to be the quiet one.