Being “Quiet,” Pt I: Sensitivity

When from our better selves we have too long been parted by the hurrying world, and droop. Sick of its business, of its pleasures tired, how gracious, how benign in solitude.

-William Wordsworth

*I apologize in advance for the, er, length of this post series. I had a lot of thoughts and am trying my best to organize them in the most efficient and easy-to-read way. I wrote this in a very subjective, “I-focused” manner and it may sound a little self-centered; it is, but I can only write what I know to be true about myself. My hope is that you will be able to relate, in some way, to what I describe – not that you’ll walk away thinking, “dang, that girl is obsessed with herself.” I’d love to hear your thoughts on any/all of this; it’s a topic I find endlessly fascinating!*

As I mentioned, I recently read a book. I do that every so often.

[Source]

And I started to discuss, in a somewhat lengthy and roundabout manner, what it means to be introverted. It’s a lot more complicated than just being “shy.” In fact, it doesn’t necessarily have to do with being shy at all – shyness is found to be highly correlated with introversion, but one doesn’t equal the other.

I am one of the most intense introverts you’ll ever meet. There is not an extroverted bone in my body. I was always fine with that; it’s just a part of my personality that I accept. But this book changed everything – how I see myself, how I see others, and generally how I engage with the rest of the world. It made my laugh, smile, cry, and nod in solemn agreement. It is a rare book that has such an impact on me; I’m usually focused on analyzing the characters, or fixing the minute grammatical errors I find – the joy and the curse of being an English major. But Ms. Cain’s occasional run-on sentence or overuse of commas barely distracted me from her incredibly well-researched, thoughtful and exhaustive book, and I simply MUST talk – well, write – all about it.

Where to begin? In an incredibly ironic twist, this book completely overwhelmed me. Can you read a mirror? If you can, then I certainly did. I could pick out just about any sentence in this book and give you a personal example of whatever it’s talking about from my own life. I have never been affected by a book quite like this, and I apologize in advance because as a result I am struggling more than usual to find the words to explain it. It took me a month just to feel that my thoughts were organized enough to write about it! So I ask again – where to begin?

Well, I’ll just take the word around which all of this revolves: introvert. To painfully oversimplify an insanely complex and dynamic word, to me it means that I need to be alone. Like, a lot. Unlike the majority of my family, I find being around others to be absolutely draining. Put me in a room to talk to a bunch of people, and I’ll be exhausted within the hour; put me in the same room all alone, however, and I’ll emerge with all the bars on my battery.

I already knew many of the definitions of introversion which Cain puts forth – hell, I’ve been living those definitions for the past 22 years. What really affected me about this book (I think) is what it brought to my attention: America is the most extroverted country in the world, and I am a minority here, with all of the struggles and prejudices that pertains.

It’s not so much what she writes about what it is to be introverted, but the frame in which she puts it in: introversion is basically unaccepted and unacceptable in American culture. Cain’s examples upon examples brought up emotions I’ve been feeling since kindergarten, that maybe I didn’t even know I was feeling. It was a difficult pill to swallow, but at the same time it felt wonderful – someone finally got me, and what’s more, she said it was okay to be who I am, which is unfortunately not the message I’ve been getting for the past 2 decades, despite the  best of intentions.

I’m going to rewind for a second. At the beginning of my junior year in college, I went through some serious medical issues. To sum up, I was very deep in the black hole that is depression. I had stopped sleeping. I completely withdrew from my life as much as possible. I went back and forth between crippling sadness and numbness. I felt alone, and worthless, and struggled with just getting through the day. After about two months, the tide turned and I started to drag myself out of it. During that time, my mother sent me a book she read religiously during my childhood:

[Source]

This book was written about me. Well, not really, but it might as well have been. I was – and am – an uncommonly intense and sensitive person, and that came out in very different ways as a child. When I say sensitive, I don’t just mean more likely to cry because my Barbie broke (which I did, quite loudly and violently) – I mean I hated wearing socks because I was bothered by the seams at my toes when I put my shoes on. I refused to wear jeans because they were too tight and rough; to this day, I own one pair of jeans that fits and I wear them once a year, if that. I just don’t wear jeans. This makes me weird – I’m well aware of that; it’s just not something I can help (and since reading Quiet, I no longer feel that I need to). This book also dealt with something Cain’s book didn’t, which is my struggle with transitions. Everyone, of course, has problems with transitions (moving SUCKS), but we “spirited children” take them especially hard and intensely. My mother learned that she couldn’t just tell me we were going to the grocery store; at least, not without a complete meltdown. She learned that I needed a “five-minute bell;” she would tell me that we were going to the store in five minutes, giving me time to adjust to the transition. I’m sure to many it sounds ridiculous, but to me, it was essential. And it still is. I have to give myself lots of time to wrap my head around major transitions. Case in point: I am moving across the country on Tuesday. I am just starting to pack today, because I have had to prepare myself to come to terms with it. Reading this book was HUGE for me; it felt like someone out there was telling me “you’re just different, and that’s not a bad thing, you just have to learn how to manage your world differently.”

Quiet, it seems, is the Lord of the Rings to the Raising Your Spirited Child’s Hobbit. I was constantly reminded of it while reading Quiet, especially when Cain began expounding upon the topic of “sensitivity.” As just as it was in RYSC,  it means a lot more than just crying a lot. Even though it means that, too.

Sensitivity is what I feel makes me as intense an introvert as I am. What I love so much about Cain’s book is the depth to which she goes in explaining all the sides of sensitivity. Part of it is tied to emotions; for example, I seem to be extra-inclined to empathy. I actually had no idea this was not normal. In any and all situations I am in myself or read about, I automatically put myself in the other person’s shoes and don’t find it particularly difficult (unless the other person is Rush Limbaugh or one of the, ahem, luminaries of Fox News – stupidity I can get, but not when it’s paired with heartlessness) to do. It’s part of being the very picture of INFJ, which is my Myers-Briggs type. (Introvert, intuitive, feeling, judging – click here to learn more about these types. Or just talk to my college roommate Monica. She’s pretty much a walking encyclopedia on all things Myers-Briggs. FYI – INFJs and ESTJs get along famously.) I’m incredibly intuitive, which seems to make me even more sensitive, because I can so easily empathize. I promise I’m not bragging – this is NOT always a positive trait to have.

For example, because I naturally empathize with and intuit the emotions of others, I am very easily affected when someone else is angry, sad, or uncomfortable. When I was a kid, I lost sleep when my parents had a fight. I can’t concentrate on anything when I think someone might be mad at me or that I caused someone discomfort of any kind. I will go to any length to accommodate others – often to the exclusion of myself and my own feelings. In fact, between dealing with job interviews, apartment hunting, and the various family dynamics involved with all of the above, I am have stretched myself thinner than Saran wrap. As a result, I’ve been oversleeping and moodier than usual. It frustrated me to no end that I force myself to accommodate everyone else to the extent that I do, but it seems like such an essential part of who I am and of the traits that I’m proud of, that I really can’t do anything to change it. I expect it of myself. And while it makes me an outstanding employee and an unfailingly reliable friend, it also makes me a very tired person at the end of the day.

But then, there is the more physical side of sensitivity. Cain sites several sensitivity studies, one of which came from Dr. Elaine Aron, an introverted psychologist who devoted her career to the study of this curious trait she herself has. She actually has a “Self-Test” you can take on her website to see how “sensitive” you are. [Please note that rating low on this test is NOT a negative thing! It doesn’t mean you’re “insensitive” or a terrible person; there are just as many good things as there are bad, just like there are for being highly sensitive.] I took it and checked off almost every single response. As a highly sensitive person, I am easily overwhelmed by sensory stimulation of all kinds. Incredibly chaotic atmospheres stress me out more than average; particularly expressive music can move me to tears; working under any kind of scrutiny or observation stresses me out so much that it can weaken my performance. Example: over the course of my last internship, I often had to make phone calls to members or prospective donors, asking about expired memberships, upcoming events, etc. Despite the frequent and enthusiastic praise I was given by my bosses (who are awesome people!) for my apparently fantastic phone etiquette (which I did NOT know I had), I tended to wait until the office was empty to make most of the calls because I would literally get so nervous I’d be shaking as I dialed the number. Phone calls, in fact, are pretty much the bane of my existence. I think email is the best invention since buttercream frosting.

Aron’s work actually succeeds the work of another personality psychologist, Dr. Jerome Kagan. Kagan did a rare long-term study in which he met with a group of infants and continued to meet with them through the childrens’ adolescence. As infants, he put them through several different sensory tests. He played loud noises, flashed bright colors quickly, and generally tried to stimulate their various senses to watch their reactions. Some of the babies were more or less unmoved by the tests and sat quietly through each. Others screamed, cried, and kicked with each unfamiliar and overwhelming test. In later years, he found that the babies who were “high reactive” – the kickers and screamers – were more likely to develop shy, quiet personality types. Introverts are more likely to be highly sensitive, uncomfortable with change and easily overwhelmed. This is not true for all introverts, just as the opposite isn’t true for all extroverts – but these findings were/are really quite groundbreaking in the field of personality psychology and sure are helpful to people like me, who struggle to be comfortable in a largely extroverted  & overstimulated society here in this country.

The next post will focus on quiet itself, and what exactly I mean when I say “America is extroverted.” It’s actually become somewhat of a source of anger for me. Again, I apologize if any of this seems incoherent or disorganized – I just didn’t want to wait anymore to get my thoughts down on [virtual] paper! You can check out Susan Cain’s website here – I’m enjoying reading her blog and the forums there, myself. Stay tuned! Smile

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