For The Record

Something has been bothering me lately.

Well, a lot of things have been bothering me, but in this particular moment I’m thinking of my posts on the book I lovingly refer to as my personality bible, Quiet. It is Susan Cain’s defense of the introvert – what it means to be introverted, and all the advantages and disadvantages related thereunto. I really cannot shut up about it – the irony of which is not lost on me – but I still don’t feel that either of my attempts at explaining why it had such an impact on me really got to the core of it, or even got people interested in the topic (although feel free to chime in if you disagree Smile).

Today as I was waking up with my chai tea and toast, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed for some interesting reads to get my brain going. And when my eye caught the headline, “APA Gains Sanity: Introverts Not Nuts,” well, you KNOW I was all over that.

Apparently, last year the American Psychological Association (APA) was thinking about including introversion in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual; the 5 refers to the latest iteration),  the bible of psychological issues – the ultimate reference for medical practitioners. Basically, it’s a big ass book of symptoms and factors to aid a medical practitioner in diagnosing a patient. And they wanted to put introversion in it as a contributing factor for diagnosing mental disorders.

This is a perfect example of why Cain’s book got me so fired up about my introversion. It is this kind of institutionalized bias against introverts that makes me want to put my head through a wall.

I was (still am) a quiet kid. I took books to parties. I hated group work in school. I loved spending hours alone in my room playing with my Barbies. These things made me happy. But the older I got, the guiltier I felt about my instinctive need for solitude. In a culture that praises and rewards (in many different ways) social interaction and with 2 more-or-less extraverted parents, I was picking up on all kinds of signals indicating that my hatred of parties and highly social activities was bad and wrong. So I “pushed” myself to be social. I assumed this was healthy, that my need for alone time was some neurological defect that could be cured with a healthy dose of socializing; in hindsight, I think this mindset is strikingly similar to and just as absurdly stupid as the idea that homosexuality can be “cured.”

Eventually, I pushed myself too far. Going into my junior year of college, I signed up to be an Orientation Leader (OL) for the new class of freshwomen at my school. This meant showing up two weeks before regular classes started to decorate campus and, well, orient the new students to their new home and lifestyle. It’s a crazy and overwhelming time, and I thought I’d be pretty good at it. What the job description didn’t note was that all OLs got up at 7 and went to bed at midnight every single day for those entire two weeks – with not much more than 30 minutes of break time during the day. Orientation and the prep for it involves intensive and constant group work, and being as outgoing and friendly as possible all the while. And there was not a single day of rest between end of orientation and the first day of classes.

All of a sudden, I stopped sleeping. Just…stopped. It was like I couldn’t turn my brain off. I began to doubt everything about myself. I cried for no reason. I distanced myself from all of my friends and acted like an irrational bitch, half because I wanted to keep them away from me, half because I didn’t really think anyone liked me anyway. All I wanted to do was curl up into a ball and disappear. It felt like I was losing my mind.

It took me a long time to work through that period of my life. Honestly, it will always be something I have to deal with, just at a lesser degree. And I’m not saying that the single solitary reason for that “snap” was because I pushed myself too far away from my introverted self –  there were plenty of other factors building up to that breakdown – but it was most certainly and without a doubt the straw that broke the camel’s back.

It was with that memory in particular behind me and with all of those other memories in general of feeling like I was somehow not good enough as long as I was introverted that I read Quiet. All of a sudden, here was this woman telling me it is perfectly fine to honor who I am, and not constantly try to “improve” myself by being more extroverted. She wrote example after example of situations where introverts are more or less screwed over, and I could as well have written them myself. It was a bit of a “come to Jesus”-type moment, reading that book, and it completely and totally changed the way that I see and listen to myself.

And so now, when I see things like major medical institutions making the term “introvert” an official symptom of some serious mental disorder, I think of the girl who sat in her closet crying uncontrollably because she tried so hard to be the outgoing picture-perfect person it seemed the world wanted her to be and failed. I think of a child Cain mentioned in her book whose parents took home from one psychologist to another, trying to figure out what was “wrong” with him that he would prefer reading to playing at recess. And I wring my hands, because there is so much damage to be done when you tell half the population – that’s about 3.5 billion people – that there is something neurologically defective in them.

On the bright side, the APA ultimately decided against using the term “introvert.” But  the current proposal for the DSM update now includes “detachment,” under schizotypal personality disorder:

[Detachment] involves withdrawal from other people and from social interactions.” It defines withdrawal as “preference for being alone to being with others; reticence in social situations; avoidance of social contacts and activity; lack of initiation of social contact.”

Source (article mentioned above)

 

Introverts can be schizophrenic, depressed, and disordered the same as an extrovert can – I’m not saying we’re superhuman. My issue here is with the world preference. I have to use what Dr. Laurie Helgoe said here, because I think she says it best:

It’s important to remember that nothing is diagnosable unless it causes impairment in functioning and/or significant distress for the individual. That said, it seems odd to me that a “preference” for being alone would be considered problematic. To me, preference implies engagement and interest rather than avoidance or incapacity. I do think there are levels of detachment that are indicative of mental health problems, such as a schizoid adjustment in which a person plays out relationships in fantasy rather than incorporating input from others, but there’s a diagnosis for that.

Furthermore, “introverted personality” and “introverted disorder of childhood” are listed in the World Health Organization’s manual, the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems. This is truly upsetting to me, and I don’t think my feelings are unjustified.

I realize I can (and have) blather on about this topic, but I hope I’ve explained why it’s so important to me and everyone else who was similarly moved by Cain’s book. So, for the record, I just wanted to say that there is nothing wrong with us introverts, and to hell with the psychologist (or other human, for that matter) who thinks otherwise.

Related articles:

Advertisements

Being “Quiet” Pt II: A Final Word

Solitude is a catalyst for innovation.

– Susan Cain, Quiet

Read Pt I here.

It’s occurred to me that my last post might have sounded a bit too self-centered, and it was, but you’ll have to indulge me as I complete my thoughts on this book. There’s a reason I (perhaps ironically) can’t stop talking about it. It’s really changed everything for me.

This is me at around 3 years old.

16246_thumb2_thumb

Doing dishes is something I’ve kind of always loved.  When my parents had dinner parties, I would jump up and start washing the china and loading the dishwasher after everyone was finished. At a Thanksgiving we spent at a family friend’s house, I started doing dishes after dessert was put out. In fact, cleaning in general was always a bit of a hobby – I took over my family’s laundry duties in high school, and was known to spend a lazy summer day completely reorganizing our spice cabinet and tupperware drawers. I always assumed it was because I have some OCD tendencies and cleaning has always given me a sense of efficiency, that wonderful feeling of checking something off a to-do list while helping to relieve the stress of others.

What this book has brought me to realize is that, for better or worse, my propensity for cleaning is not primarily driven by selflessness. Doing these chores that no one else wants to do almost always translates into getting alone time with my thoughts. While the dinner party chatter continued in the dining room, I could be escaping from the overwhelming stimulation of having to be “on,” answering our guests’ questions about school, making small talk. I liked sitting at the “adults’ table” because I usually just listened, but after a while the multiple simultaneous conversations and the small talk got exhausting, and the kitchen sink was my escape. It’s a chore than no one wants to do, so I was generally left alone…and it was heaven. Plus, I was rewarded with plenty of praise and gratitude; it was a win-win.

I could give a million other examples like this. And this is a quality of which I’ve always been proud; I figured out pretty quickly that being “different” could frequently be used as leverage that impressed others. And maybe it was that, my ridiculous love for washing dishes, that gave me the strength to quietly rebel against other norms.

I don’t wear jeans. I just don’t. I pretty much never have. From 4th through 7th grade my closet almost exclusively contained the flowy rayon patterned pants that my mother wore to her corporate office job. We could even share clothes during the brief months that we were the same height. During 8th grade, yoga hit yuppie America hard and Old Navy started making yoga pants, and it was over. I wear them every.single.day. They are comfortable, quite flattering on me, and can even be dressed up when needed.

As you can imagine, being the single human being in a classroom not wearing blue jeans (teacher included) could have had some dire effects on my social status. And I got plenty of questions and weird looks about it, even in college. But I’ve never changed. I wear jeans like I wear make-up – when I’m going somewhere for a short period of time where tight, breath-restricting clothes are for whatever reason necessary (i.e., dance clubs or Halloween). Being different was hard as it always is, and perhaps even more so as a highly sensitive person who reacts to every look and tone around her, but for some reason I never let it change my style. And that, I think, says more about who I am than anything else ever could.

Quiet showed me that maybe I wasn’t as “different” as I thought. There are others – a third to a half of the world’s population – that could tell similar stories. People who became researchers because they craved the solitude and intellectual engagement, musicians who love most of all to play in the pit orchestra because they’re out of the spotlight, and maybe even a fellow happy dishwasher or two. Reading this book was like someone finally handing me a license to be who I am, to follow my natural instincts and know that it was okay to do so.  I don’t think there are words that can really fully explain just how huge that is – and trust me, I’ve looked.

I feel like I’ve been fighting against our extroverted culture my whole life. I know that sounds quite angsty and maybe a little grandiose, but I also know that I’m not the only one who would say the same thing about themselves. When you grow up in a culture that forces group work on you from preschool on, that only listens to the loudest ideas instead of the most thoughtful, and that tells you that being a socially-well-adjusted person means turning 21 and drinking your liver into a coma to the thumping beat of music in a crowded bar at 3 in the morning…it’s hard to tell yourself that you’re not weird for disagreeing with those things. I can still feel my stomach sinking when a teacher announced the next project would be in a group, or when someone would tell me they “don’t do email” and I’ll have to call them on the phone (the latter, as you can imagine, still happens). It wasn’t until I read Cain’s book, however, that I learned that I shouldn’t feel guilty when my stomach sinks at the prospect of personal interaction. It’s what I imagine a woman in the 60s would have felt reading Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.

No one who knows me would have any trouble believing that I am an extreme introvert. I need a LOT of alone time, and as uncomfortable and guilt-ridden as it can feel, I’ve always been pretty insistent that I get it. That often translated into getting myself out of parties after a long week at school and spending much of my summers alone. I probably wouldn’t have survived college if I hadn’t been blessed with a wonderful roommate & best friend who is not only a wonderfully easy person to get along with, but was also gone on most weekends. College was an enormous challenge for me – I was 1000 miles away from home, being intellectually challenged more than ever, and was almost constantly surrounded by people. I made it through, and even thrived while I was there (and miss it terribly!) – but I also spent my three months of summer vacation mostly by myself. My [mostly extroverted] parents were always worried that I was doing myself major psychological harm, but I knew it was what I needed to get through the next year. Of course, there is danger in being alone too much, but I’ve learned that there are some signs my body will give me when that happens, and I do actively work to keep myself engaged – hence, I am currently working 2 internships at 42 hours a week and bounce all over the entire Bay Area via public transportation every week.

I don’t hate being around others. In fact, I crave conversation as much as anyone; the difference for most introverts is that we crave deep, meaningful conversation about topics that we’re very passionate about, and small talk exhausts the hell out of us. If you met me at a party, you wouldn’t necessarily know I’m an introvert, because I am perfectly sociable and I learned that the key to social interaction is asking people about themselves. Nope, you’d have no idea I wasn’t having a great time, because you wouldn’t see me go home afterwards and watch some tv or listen to music while reading blogs for hours to “come down” from all that stimulation. No one is purely introverted or extroverted (because, as Jung himself said, that person would be in an asylum), and part of becoming comfortable with who you are is figuring out how to keep a balance between the two.

As you probably know, three weeks ago I moved from my home in Massachusetts to Berkeley, California for an internship. I’ve said that I wish I’d had this book four years ago, because college would have been such a different experience for me, but I’m relieved beyond words that it came out just before this move happened because I know it has been the most helpful tool I could possibly have armed myself with during this huge transition. The power that this book gave me to honor my introverted self has made the turbulence of the last 3 weeks bearable and, at times, even enjoyable. And that is why I’ve talked your ears eyes off about this book – because, far-reaching and cliché as it may sound, reading it actually did change my life. It’s hard to shut up about something with that kind of an impact.

The author, Susan Cain, recently gave a TED Talk on her work, which you can watch here. She’s a great speaker. She was also interviewed by Arianna Huffington – who, it may surprise you to know, is an introvert – and it was a really fascinating conversation. Whether or not you’ve read the book, they’re definitely worth a watch (for extroverts, too!). Susan Cain’s site is also host to her own blog and a really cool forum, if you’re interested.

I hope these posts haven’t been interpreted as me whining about how hard it is to be an introvert; there has definitely been some of that, but my purposes were really more to share my own story because in reading this book I connected with so many of her subjects’ stories, and it felt wonderful to know I wasn’t alone. So if you stopped reading 800 words ago, that’s okay. But if you read it all…

Thank you for listening.

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