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Self-Knowledge • Mood

On Realising One Might Be an Introvert

The modern world purports to respect both introverts and their opposites but in practice, the action, the rewards and the glamour are all precisely designed to synchronise with the talents and sensibilities of those in the extroverted camp. To have any chance of seeming normal or achieving success, one must pull off a range of feats to which extroverts seem inherently well suited: impress strangers, attend conferences, make speeches, outshine competitors, manage people, join in with prevailing enthusiasms, reflect public opinion, socialise, travel a lot, go out often and date widely.

It can take a very long time before we realise that – however much we might hope for this to be otherwise – this is not in fact us at all. For our part, we happen to get very worried before going to parties, we have felt close to death before giving speeches, any kind of social occasion perturbs us heavily, we’re left extremely jittery by encounters with news and social media, we start to feel sick if we haven’t had the chance to sit on our own and process our thoughts for a few hours every day, new places (especially bedrooms) worry us hugely, we’re very awkward about having to be responsible for anyone at work and we are extremely wary of jolliness or demonstrations of group fervour of any kind. We don’t actively hate hugs but our bodies do stiffen when someone rushes forward to embrace us (we may be working on this). 

Conversely, we adore staying at home, we’d be quite happy spending a whole weekend (or even a few years) in our own company with some books and a laptop, we only properly like about three people in the world, we love exploring different rooms in our minds, we are reassured by friends who know how to confess their vulnerability and anxiety, we’d like never to have to go to a party again, we almost never complain that things are too quiet and we love peaceful landscapes and uneventful days. We quite like flowers too. 

All of this can bring intense suspicion to bear on us in the modern world. Why are we so timid? Why can’t we sing along with everyone else? Why aren’t we coming out to celebrate? We conclude that we are weird and possibly ill long before we can accept that we may just be very different. 

To be an introvert is to be constantly impacted by undercurrents and hidden electricity in situations that others will miss. What can make a party or a company meeting so exhausting for us is that we aren’t merely expressing our thoughts and chatting, we’ll wonder what everyone has made of what we’ve just said, we’ll suspect that we have failed to understand an important dynamic, we’ll be struck by a peculiar possible hostility from someone in the corner, we’ll worry that our face has stuck in an unfortunate, gormless position. We are – when called upon – canny observers of the human comedy, but minute by minute, we are also hellishly and exhaustingly self-conscious. 

We are equally vulnerable to whatever we read on screen. We can’t just take in an aggressive email and move on. The viciousness exhibited online shatters our fragile confidence in humanity. We ruminate on things we have read. We long for connection but relationships are a minefield, especially at the start. What do they really think of us? Are we allowed to express desire for them? Are they disgusted by us? No wonder we prefer to stay home with a book. We want there to be less because what there is impacts us so hard. We can’t understand how anyone should be able to sleep – and we rarely do in any unbroken way.

It sounds difficult, but an introverted life can also be a very grateful and rich life. We need so much less in order to have enough. We don’t require noise and attention. We don’t care where the giant party is. We just want to potter around in our boring clothes, chat to the few people we feel comfortable with, take walks and lie in the bath a lot. There can be so much in things if we let them resonate properly. How much we’ve already seen; how many journeys we’ve already been on; how much we’ve already read; what tumults we’ve already been through. We don’t really need more. An introvert is someone prepared to properly take on board what an event or another person is – all that is daunting, powerful, resonant, beautiful or terrifying in experience. In this sense, small children are natural introverts. When a stranger comes into the room, they instinctively and wisely turn to nestle in the bosom of their caregiver; and who can blame them, given how huge this new person is and how odd they sound and how much they want to go straight into a conversation, instead of spying warily for a while, as would feel so much more natural. These children also don’t need too much stimulation from outside: playing with the lid of a cardboard box for a while is fascinating. You can have a lot of fun gazing at rain drops chasing each other down the window. You can lie on the floor in your bedroom and draw one version of a tree after another and you don’t even notice it’s already bathtime. And you get exhausted easily: an hour at a lively birthday party and it’s imperative to go straight home for a nap. 

Recognising our introverted nature is not merely a piece of poetic self-knowledge. It belongs to our mental health – for failing to make the correct accommodation with our introversion is a fast route to overload and ensuing anxiety and paranoia. What we term a breakdown is often simply an introverted mind crying out for greater peace, rest, self-compassion and harmony. Experienced introverts therefore realise a need to push against the extroverted agenda. Their sanity relies on being able to cleave to the insular routines they need. We have at least got a vocabulary for explaining the structure of our personalities to others. The next step will be to learn how to honour it – and properly allow people to lead the quieter lives their temperaments crave and deserve.

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