A few years ago, I complained to a girl friend about how my then-boyfriend was getting on my nerves. I told her how we would be hanging out in his apartment on the weekend and I would ask for some “alone time” to read or go online. He would say okay, but couldn’t go for more than a few minutes before he would start chattering away to me as I sat on his couch with a book. I would ask him to please let me have some time alone; he would get angry that I, as he put it, “didn’t want him to talk” in his own home. I felt so frustrated that he wasn’t respecting, or perhaps fundamentally understanding, what “alone time” meant and why it was important to me.
“You are an introvert,” my friend told me. “You relax and recharge your batteries being by yourself and withdrawing inside your own head. It sounds like he’s an extrovert. That means relaxing and recharging means being with other people.”
Oh, I thought. No one had ever explained my personality to me quite like that before. I used to believe I had strange, inexplicable over-stimulation issues; I also used to think I was a “loner.” Deep down, though, I knew that word wasn’t correctly descriptive, because I have many friends and a close family. Fortunately my friend’s metaphor about recharging batteries made perfect sense. It’s not that I hate people or don’t have any friends; I just need to have quiet in my head to, well, recharge.
Since I figured out that I was an introvert, so much of my life has made more sense. Why in high school and college did I prefer eating in the dining hall by myself? Why do I hate loud bars, restaurants and parties so much that I’ll leave? Why do I find chatty people so annoying? Why do I prefer hanging out with people in small groups or one-on-one? Why do I really need to write or read a book every day without interruption? The simple explanation is that interacting with other people, listening to loud noises and handling distractions drains me more quickly than they do other people. I need to withdraw or else I get cranky. Turning inward is what recharges my batteries (usually very quickly, actually). There’s a really good piece in The Atlantic called “Caring For Your Introvert,” by Jonathan Rauch, that explains introversion in detail from a psychological perspective.
The relationship didn’t work out with that ex-boyfriend, in part because I couldn’t deal with someone who demanded they be able to push themselves into my headspace. It was too annoying that he wouldn’t respect my need to be; he would do better to be with an extrovert (or an introvert that’s okay with getting stepped all over). These days, my husband is much more extroverted than me; he is very social and chummy and loves nothing more than a big, raucous bacchanal. But literally the moment that I say I need “alone time,” he’ll pop in his ear buds or go into another room. He knows I slip away and turn inward to recharge, but always come back happy to see him.
What else should you know about introverts, whether it’s you or someone you know or love? Here are eight thoughts I had and I’m happy to answer any more questions in the comments.
1. Being shy and being an introvert aren’t the same thing. This is a common misunderstanding. Shyness means feeling awkward, scared, or uncomfortable around other people. Being an introvert just means you want to withdraw after awhile. Shy people might also be introverts, but it’s not a given. I’m a little shy in the sense that I dislike being the center of attention, but that personality trait is separate from my introversion.
2. Introverts don’t hate people and we aren’t anti-social. Introverts have friends and family whom they love, just like everyone else. We go to parties, participate in clubs and need affection and praise just like anyone else. What introverts also need, though, is freedom from interacting with other people some of the time. External stimulation is the problem, not who or what the external stimulation is. It’s not relaxing for an introvert to shoot the breeze or to just not participate conversation. An introvert wants to solitude and/or silence to think things through, to daydream, or to relax. I find people who talk a lot or show off really, really annoying because it feels like an intrusion into my headspace. I’ll take myself away from them, but it doesn’t mean I “hate” them.
3. Introverts can sometimes be moody. Turning inward as much as we do, introverts are probably on more intimate footing with our moods and emotions. We likely seem like we are moody bastards, although I suspect it’s just because we are more introspective and thus aware of how we feel on a moment to moment basis. This doesn’t mean extroverts can’t be moody, too, or are out of touch with their emotions. Generally speaking, I would merely say introverts are more layered.
4. Introverts can be quiet and reserved, but that’s not necessarily part of the personality trait either. Introverts surely are quiet and reserved when we are recharging our batteries. Whether we’re jogging while listening to music, reading a book, or lounging in the sun, we won’t be interacting with other people — that’s for sure! But just like being introverted doesn’t mean you’re anti-social or hate people, it also doesn’t mean you’re necessarily quiet as a mouse. We like to have fun, too! I can be really silly with my friends and my hubby, enjoy dancing, and occasionally shriek with glee when I’m happy. You’ll probably just see it less often.
5. Introverts probably have less friends than extroverts, likely because we spend less time socializing. Less friends is not because we lack social skills. An extrovert recharges their batteries by hanging out with others. When they are chatting someone up at the bar or playing video games in a group they’re investing time in other people that can enhance friendships. Extroverts usually seem to have more friends, but I would argue that they probably have more friendly acquaintances rather than real friends. Introverts have social skills just like anyone else (in fact, they might even have more refined social skills because they’ve put more thought into them!).
6. You can’t change an introvert by being pushy. This is what my ex-boyfriend never failed to understand. It’s something that my best friend — a huge extrovert — struggles with as well. Nothing is “wrong.” Introverts aren’t waiting around to be pulled out of a shell. I won’t come out of my withdrawal if you ask me questions, or crack a joke, or turn on the TV or music. In fact, I’ll probably get up and leave the room — not to be rude, but just to preserve my sanity.
7. Introverts — at least, this introvert — sometimes feel resentful of extroverts because they’re more flashy and attention grabbing. Particularly in American culture, it seems like the bigger and louder your megaphone, the more people take you seriously. (Donald Trump would be an exception to this statement, obviously.) But having a big, loud megaphone doesn’t make you intelligent, or more socially skilled, or more sensitive. It just means you’re okay being the center of attention, usually whilst interacting with people. As Rauch notes his Atlantic piece, politics in particular seems to favor extroverts. Writing, music, art and academia are ideal for introverts.
8. Introverts know we can frustrate those around us by withdrawing but we hope you know we love you. I know I annoy friends when I don’t want to go to parties or hang out longer. I’ve been called a “party pooper” before. I do feel guilty about it, but not too guilty, because my desire to turn inward and be alone really isn’t personal! Withdrawing has to do with how we are feeling based on the past few minutes/hours/days and it has little to do with how we feel about you personally. You probably wouldn’t like being around a cranky introvert, so give them their space when they ask for it. We are pretty special people if you allow us to be ourselves.
[Image of introverts via Shutterstock]