Today is my birthday, and if I could choose to do whatever I wanted, I would choose to be alone with a book all day. Perhaps this is because I have a toddler and I’m tired. Any sort of respite from her antics is much appreciated, despite the fact that I love and adore her, even when she has that mischievous grin because she’s gotten into the gum again, or because she’s eating a pencil, or because she’s found a way onto the bathroom counter and has the water on full blast, or because she’s figured out how to turn on Netflix by herself, or because she’s emptying all the drawers in the kitchen, or because she’s wearing a diaper on her head, or because she’s eating toothpaste, or because she’s rubbing soap all over her face, or because she’s pulling out all the dental floss, or because she’s found the water bottle and is spraying my new ZGallerie couch with it, or because she’s jumping up and down on her bed during nap time, or because … Well, you get the picture.
A better explanation for my preferred solitude might have something to do with the fact that I’m an introvert. I’ve always been quiet and timid. I used to pretend that I was Miss America when I visited the grocery store alone. I did this to overcome my shyness. As a child, I was so bashful that looking people in the eyes or going to a store alone seemed harder than climbing Mount Everest. I felt embarrassed to speak, especially to a grownup, even if that grownup worked behind a cash register and made minimum wage. To me, anybody was a possible threat. I have never been outgoing, but pretending to be Miss America helped me to put on a façade of confidence that got me through those grocery store checkout lines and through many more essential experiences.
Apparently, I am not alone in being a fake extrovert. According to author Susan Cain in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, a third to a half of the world’s population are introverts. Yet, she explores how American culture has adopted the Extrovert Ideal, in which those who are gregarious, confident, outgoing, and charismatic tend to be thought of as more successful, smart, and important than those of us who prefer to keep quiet.
She tells the story of one boy, whose parents constantly asked him: “Why can’t you be more like the Kennedy boys?” (6). Yes, his parents were referring to THE Kennedys, the ones who once occupied the White House and Attorney General’s office at the same time. Cain talks about how such questions or demands of an introverted child can cause “deep psychic pain” (6). I have to agree. I remember being constantly prepped or prodded by my mother in social situations to smile more or to speak with the oration abilities of Abraham Lincoln. Some of my worst memories are when I would not succeed in putting on the Extrovert Ideal in public, and at home I would be berated for not speaking up, not answering an important adult’s questions, for not standing correctly, or for not engaging myself enough socially.
I eventually figured out how to do so. Beauty pageants actually were the impetus. I wanted so badly to be a pageant winner from the time I was in third grade. We had moved to a small town in which the local pageant was the highlight of the year, and the first time I saw it I knew I would be on that stage someday. Yet, once I started competing at age 17, I quickly realized that I did not have the sparkly personality or the “it” factor to win. I had the talent because I had spent an hour a day at the piano for the last 10 years, and I had the right figure because I was genetically blessed and I ran cross country. But, the interview portion of the pageant is the most important. It is where you must convince the judges that you are personable, friendly, smart, and worthy.
So of course, I failed miserably in my first three pageants. I tried to look the judges in the eyes and I tried to smile realistically. I came across as an incredibly shy girl who wanted to win badly but didn’t have what it takes. But, I finally broke through, pulled off pretending in a way that convinced people that I was suddenly outgoing, and I won. Honestly, it was one of the happiest moments of my life because I had worked tirelessly for many years to get there. I also learned about being a fake extrovert, and this skill has continued to serve me well in job interviews, social situations, and at the grocery store!
Cain also reveals that “many introverts are ‘highly sensitive’” (14). I certainly was as a child. When I lived on a Native American reservation that had no running water, I came home from school crying every day because I felt so bad for the children who came to school unwashed, without shoes, and with hungry stomachs. I had never before seen such poverty in my seven years of life, and it disturbed me greatly. We had moved from a sunny suburban neighborhood in San Jose, California, with a swimming pool, tree-lined streets, and friendly all-white neighbors to a trailer park in the scorching desert of southern Utah that lacked basic supplies for its downtrodden residents. My heart bled for those children.
Speaking of children, tendencies of being introverted are apparent as early as four months old. Children who respond by actively moving or shrieking to stimuli, such as a toy with sounds or lights, a popped balloon, or loud noises, are more likely to be introverts. They are more sensitive or “high-reactive” (100). The scientist who discovered this “hypothesized that infants born with an especially excitable amygdala would wiggle and howl when shown unfamiliar objects—and grow up to be children who were more likely to feel vigilant when meeting new people” (102).
Now, I can’t remember what my girls did when they were tiny babies, but I suspect they are both introverts, although not to the same extreme that I was. Cain gives some good advice for parenting an introverted child, but honestly this makes sense as good parenting to any child. She quotes Jay Belsky, a psychology professor and child care expert, who says the ideal parent for a high-reactive child is “someone who ‘can read your cues and respect your individuality; is warm and firm in placing demands on you without being harsh or hostile; promotes curiosity, academic achievement, delayed gratification, and self-control; and is not harsh, neglectful, or inconsistent’”(113). Like I said, and like Cain says, this is good advice for any parent.
Other interesting facts from Quiet include the idea that thin-skinned people really do have thinner skin. Apparently, extroverts have thicker skin than introverts. Additionally, introverts are reportedly better thinkers when it comes to thinking before they speak. Cain highlights how this can be a good quality in negotiations or in creativity. She debunks the myth of group work leading to more productive results. It never does. This is something I’ve suspected and hoped was true for a long time. I hate working in groups, because I’m an introvert. I would much rather be alone brainstorming, thinking, and reading when it comes to a project or problem.
Cain goes on to highlight the cultural differences between Americans and Asians. Generally, Asians prize introverted behavior and Americans reward extroverted behavior. One Stanford University cultural psychologist, Heejung Kim, wrote “a paper arguing that talking is not always a positive act” (186). I couldn’t agree more.
Now, if you are an introvert too, but you pretend to be extroverted for a job or a social life or just to cope in general, Cain mentions that it is important to have a restorative niche, an idea and term thought up by a beloved Harvard professor, Brian Little. He has a larger-than-life personality in the classroom, but he’s an introvert who acts gregarious in public to be successful. He uses restorative niches to calm himself, recharge, and de-stress. Cain also advises that if your career is too stressful for your personality, you shouldn’t be afraid to change your life. She suggests going back to what you wanted to be when you were a child or what you loved when you were a child. Often, we knew more about ourselves then than we do now.
I’ve often been told by extroverts that they thought I was stuck up because I didn’t talk much. I think this is a common perception of quiet people, but for me it is completely untrue. I’ve always been too anxious to talk to a new person freely, too self-doubting to let go and become the life of the party, and too quiet to make myself heard over those who can speak out with ease. If you’re an extrovert, stop judging introverts. Don’t think that they are sitting quietly and smug in the knowledge that they are somehow better than you. They aren’t. They are experiencing social anxiety and self-doubt. Give them a break!
Lastly, Cain’s best advice is this: “The secret to life is to put yourself in the right lighting. For some it’s a Broadway spotlight; for others, a lamp lit desk” (264). I appreciate these words of wisdom. I do prefer a lamp lit desk or a book over being on a stage or socializing. Sometimes, I berate myself for not being more outgoing or sociable or for not having the personality that seems to be prized by our loud and demonstrative culture. This book has given me some much-needed confidence in my temperament and in who I am and who I have always been. I don’t need to pretend to be somebody I’m not, and neither do you.