You think you know yourself, and then one day BAM! You discover a third hand. Ok, maybe not quite that dramatic. But this is pretty much how I felt when I made the realization--at 39--that I am an introvert. I'd heard the term many times before, and I thought I knew what it meant. But until a friend showed me a tongue-in-cheek article from the Atlantic called Caring for Your Introvert, I didn't know I was so clearly one of them. Or that it wasn't a bad thing. I'd never seen it explained so succinctly and plainly before.
My entire childhood I'd been told I was shy. I've been told I'm standoffish, and that I think too much, and that I "should get out more." I've been asked what my problem was when I wouldn't go to a jumping dance club, sing karaoke, or to popular rock concerts.
As it turns out, I'm neither of those first two things and I don't have a problem. I'm simply introverted.
It's important to understand that introversion is not a diagnosis or a condition, but rather an orientation. Yes, baby, I was born this way. There's nothing wrong with me, my dials are just set to different frequencies than extraverts. THIS one doesn't go to 11.
So I'd like to dispel some misconceptions about introverts:
--I'm not averse to social situations. What I have is a need to decompress, debrief, and re-energize after social activities. Intoverts find social interaction to be enjoyable but mentally draining. Inversely, reflective time spent alone bring us back to life, kind of like a laptop computer which needs periodic recharging at home.
--I don't have an aversion to bright lights, big cities, loud noises, or hopping parties. I DO have time limits to all of them. I've learned to not commit to parties two nights in a row. I typically can't be fully socially "on" and at my best this often. Since being less than myself makes me feel worse than politely declining an invitation, sometimes I just have to say "no" and stay home.
--Introverts don't only hang out with other introverts. We enjoy all types of friends, both quiet and dynamic.
--Introverts aren't afraid of crowds. One of my favorite places to vacation is Las Vegas, in all of its crowded, non-stop, over-stimulating gaudiness. But my limit is 4 days, and day 3 is usually a sleep-late-and-order-room-service kind of day. After bailing out early on a raucous bachelorette party there, I spent two hours sitting alone in my darkened, quiet 12th-floor hotel room watching planes approaching McCarran Airport at night. This is a perfect example of the introvert's deflation and recovery. The next day I was once again able to join our group and be fully involved in the wedding and subsequent reception, at 100% of my social capacity.
--Introverts don't go off to be alone because they're upset. We go off to be alone to maintain balance. Introverts are typically more introspective and mentally attuned to themselves than extraverts; trust them to know when they need time apart from the group. We are are productive and more receptive to others when we get silent moments alone.
--Introverts are not always easy to spot. Until last month, I did not realize that a friend I've known for over 20 years considers himself an introvert. He related a story of being at a birthday party when he was 8 years old, and needing to get outside for a bit. He was sitting on the kid's swingset by himself when the birthday boy's dad came out and asked him what he was doing all alone. My friend said he just shrugged; he didn't really have an answer. Clearly not upset, the host dad back brought him back in to the house for birthday cake. Looking back on it now, he says, he just needed to get away from all the stimulation for a little while. Classic introvert behavior. And totally normal.
After hearing that story, I felt closer to this friend. It's not easy for an extravert to "get" what an introvert needs because extraverts thrive on the same events that introverts fade under. So having friends who share your social orientation is comforting...even if you just now discovered what that orientation is.