Sunday, March 20, 2011

I am an, really, I am!

People make me tired. This is not to suggest that I’m unfriendly, or that I don’t like people (some of them, anyway). But being around them makes me tired.

It’s been this way all my life. In junior high, when we had about three-quarters of an hour for lunch (divided between the cafeteria and the playground, two places I avoided like the plague, for reasons that would fill a blog post and then some—suffice it to say that we moved to a new school district before seventh grade, and it pretty much ruined my life) I walked home, all by myself, every single day. I may well have been the only student from Mathewson Elementary School who went home for lunch, but, as far as I know, there was no rule against it—at least, no one ever tried to stop me from leaving the school grounds the minute the lunch bell rang.

By the time I had gotten through a morning of non-stop human interaction, I really needed that break. It was about a ten-minute walk, and since my mother worked, I came home to heat my can of Campbell’s soup in a house that was blissfully silent and empty. I don’t remember what else I did during my solitary lunch breaks, except that I know I talked to myself a lot. But, even though I hated having to go back to school afterward, that 45 minutes of solitude gave me the energy and courage to get through the afternoon.

For the next 15 years or so, I often felt overwhelmed by too much “people contact.” Sometimes I was able to recognize the signs and carve out some time for myself before I reached the breaking point. But more often than not, thinking I wasn’t “supposed” to need time alone—or at least, not so much of it—I ignored the warning signs until I felt like this:

Then, sometime around the mid-1980s, I got hold of a copy of Please Understand Me, by David Keirsey and Marilyn Bates, which (despite its pathetic, self-indulgent title) was enlightening, mainly because it offered a definition of “introvert” that I had never heard before: someone who draws energy from solitary activities, in contrast to an extrovert (or extravert, the spelling Keirsey and Bates use), who draws energy from being with other people.


Keirsey and Bates go on to say that when introverts interact with others, “it drains their energy in a way not experienced by extraverts. Introverts need to find quiet places and solitary activities to recharge, while these activities exhaust the extravert.”

Again, AHA!

I also learned that about 75% of the population is extroverted, making extroversion the norm—which explains a lot about why introverts are often regarded as shy, anti-social, selfish, boring, or just plain odd. (I myself am, in fact, all of those things, at least at times, but it’s grossly unfair to attribute those qualities to all introverts just because they need a little solitude and space.)

Over the years, I’ve learned to cope pretty well in this extroverted world. In the same way that left-handed people usually become considerably more ambidextrous than right-handers—because of all the times when, dammit, there are just no left-handed scissors available—most introverts learn to spend more time than they would prefer with other people, and to give the appearance of enjoying it more than they actually do.

Sometimes I think I’ve done too good a job of “fitting in,” like when people express surprise that I consider myself very strongly introverted—I get a score of 10-0 on that part of the Keirsey and Bates assessment (or maybe 9-1 if I take the test on a day when I’m feeling especially friendly).

People often assume that, like them, I enjoy lots of Fun Group Activities, and invite me to participate, putting me in the position of having to:

(a) go along (because, despite being an introvert, I have a nearly pathological need to please people and to be liked) and, very often, end up feeling frazzled and peevish because what I really needed was some alone time;

(b) make up a phony pre-existing commitment (and how many times are they going to believe I’m visiting my sister, or that my cat has a vet appointment for a pesky skin condition?); or

(c) come up with a clear, honest response that protects my need for solitude without offending anyone.

When I was younger, I almost always opted for (a), mostly because I had such lousy self-esteem that every time someone asked me to do something, I was stunned into acceptance: Me? You want me to come to your Tupperware party? Really? That sounds like great fun!

More recently, I’ve used (b) quite a bit. The obvious problem with (b), besides my general discomfort with any kind of dishonesty, is that it can lead to all kinds of complications and intrigue: I can’t be seen in the grocery store if I’m supposed to be at my sister’s for the day; I’ll have to remember my story, and anticipate that someone might ask me if the cat’s eczema is clearing up.

Obviously, (c) is the best choice, but it has taken me my whole introverted life even to begin to be able to express my need for down time without apologizing for it. It’s probably only the fact that, as I get older, I need more and more solitude that has made me brave enough to stand up for it.

So I’m developing a repertoire of appropriate responses, all of which seem to have three parts.

First, they start with some variation of “That sounds like fun, but…” This is the part that I hope people understand to mean “I like you/you are a wonderful person/it means a lot that you thought to ask me.”

Second, the excuse part. (I know, I know, if I had really good self-esteem and felt entirely comfortable in my introversion, I probably wouldn’t need this part, but I always feel as if people deserve to know that it’s really me, not them, that’s the reason I don’t want to attend the party/go out to dinner with a gang/join a knitting group.) This is usually something like, “I’ve had a busy, overwhelming week and haven’t had much time to myself.” (No matter how the week has gone, for an introvert, this is always absolutely true—we’ve always had a busy, overwhelming week, and we’ve never had enough time to ourselves.)

Finally, the part where I suggest what I might be doing instead: “I’m really looking forward to just sitting in the recliner with a book this weekend,” or “I’m planning to take the dog for a long walk after work,” or “I’ll have the house all to myself tomorrow and that’s an opportunity I can’t bear to pass up.” My hope is that this type of response helps to dispel any notion people may have that I’m not really an introvert, and I must just be waiting to be asked to join the next fun group activity.

And by the way, yesterday, while I was out for a nice, long, solitary walk with the dog (having—politely, I hope— turned down an invitation for a group snowshoe hike), I came up with

The Top Ten Signs You May Be an Introvert

  1. You may be an introvert if you think organizing your stamp collection is a reasonable excuse for not going out for drinks after work.
  1. You may be an introvert if you think Henry Brooks Adams was a genius for knowing that “One friend in a lifetime is much; two are many; three are hardly possible.”
  1. You may be an introvert if you’ve ever heard someone use a line like “I’m just not one for crowds” and filed it away in your memory, thinking, that’s one I can use!
  1. You may be an introvert if the statement, “I never feel lonely, except in a crowd” makes perfect sense to you.
  1. You may be an introvert if you secretly (or not so secretly) hate weddings.
  1. You may be an introvert if you can’t believe your good fortune when you get home and find no messages on the answering machine.
  1. You may be an introvert if you’ve ever had to be bribed to attend a party. (When I was about seven, I refused to attend a friend’s birthday party until my mother told me a secret: the prizes for those ridiculous games like musical chairs and pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey were going to be…live dime-store turtles! Obviously, this was before the sale of baby turtles was banned due to concerns about salmonella.)
  1. You may be an introvert if, in high school, when couples were slipping into supply closets to neck, you were slipping into them just to be alone for one goddamned minute!
  1. You may be an introvert if the part of a recent party you enjoyed most was the 30 minutes you spent reading the label on the Listerine bottle in the hostess’ bathroom.
  1. And…the number one sign you may be an introvert: if you’ve ever left a gathering to get something from your car and instead found yourself driving home, leaving your purse, coat, and spouse behind.