Hello. My name’s Ruth and I am an introvert.
Would you believe that it has taken me 31 years to say that?
Most of those years have been taken up with saying other things. No, I’m not anti-social. No, I’m not shy. No, it’s not that I hate people, or that I hate you, or that I’m a badly brought up Awkward Annie.
I’m just an introvert.
What does that actually mean? I’ve been reading a lot about introversion recently. Susan Cain’s TED talk and accompanying book about the power of introverts in ‘a world that can’t stop talking’ have been featured on every website and in every magazine. It has become a bit of a buzzword, perhaps because social media has given us Awkward Annies a way of making our voices heard without moving too far from the comfort of our home offices.
It means that I need space. It means that I enjoy solitude. It means that I like my own company.
I also like the company of other people – really love it, in fact – but only the people I choose at a time that I choose. Whereas an extrovert actually draws energy from time spent with others, bouncing ideas around and talking it all out, an introvert finds large crowds and sensory stimulation pretty draining. We can do it, and we often have to, but we need downtime afterwards, and space to recharge.
It is not about confidence. Most introverts have a deep and quiet self-belief; they just don’t fit society’s preconceived notions of confidence. I spent most of my school life being told that I wasn’t loud enough or chatty enough. Even at university, I was always told in seminars that I needed to speak up more. So I started to push myself. I forced myself into positions where I would have to speak up – I was a class rep, a newspaper editor, a student president, and an MSP candidate. I marched, and hustled, and held a megaphone.
But stepping out of my comfort zone didn’t change what was fundamentally me. I was always very happy doing a prepared speech, where I could think about it and write it first, feeling sure that the words said exactly what I wanted them to. And I was always happy talking about any issue, to any person one-on-one, regardless of their age or background. I like to think I can find common ground with just about anyone. The bit I hated was the debate in-between; the situations that required an instant answer, where I had to think on my feet and say the right thing in front of a large crowd. It never felt genuine. It never felt like the best of me.
I love to be a small part of a large crowd, or a large part of a small conversation, but whatever situation I’m in I tend to observe for a while before I participate. I like to reflect on what’s in front of me before I form an opinion that I’m ready to share.
A drink with one or two friends is always preferable to a party full of friends. One diary commitment in a day is far better than two. A coffee, or a playdate, or a work meeting is fine – I will put on my best shirt and my least crumpled jeans, and have a happy, interesting time – but all three in the space of twelve hours would be pretty much unbearable. As Holly Klassen said in her spot-on piece in the Huffington Post last week, if you’re an introvert then being around people who aren’t your family is in itself an event.
Every Monday morning I do Pilates, and without either of us saying a word my instructor knows if I’ve been out at the weekend, even if it was just a quiet meal and a few drinks with DorkyDad. If I have, then my head just isn’t there. By the end of our hour together I’ve usually come back to Earth – that quiet sixty minutes is the recharge I need – but I always start flustered and weak, lacking co-ordination and focus.
The book that I’ve read that speaks to me about all this in the softest whisper – the one that doesn’t even know it’s a how-to text for introverts – is Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindberg. She talks with grace and wisdom of the way that women pour themselves into their family or their work or their homemaking, and the importance of taking time away from all that sometimes to recharge.
Which leads me neatly onto the challenges of parenting as introvert. What do you do when all the comfortable, quiet protective zones you’ve spent years building are suddenly taken away from you?
I know now that it’s why I found the first year or two with DorkySon so hard. He was always, always there. Even when he was asleep, he was there. I could never switch off. I couldn’t pee or eat or read or sleep without the constant threat of a head poking around a door, or a cry emanating from the next room. There was nowhere I could go to get away from that.
He is five now, and every day is good. We have found our equilibrium as a family. Like me, DorkySon is happy with his own company. Part of that is only-childism. But part of it is just who he is. When he wants to be entertained, I can barely get him off my lap. When he is happy to entertain himself he will disappear into his room for an hour at a time and I will peek in the door to see him with a line of cars or a pile of books.
We are gently encouraging him in the direction of friends and parks and parties. He goes, and he stands on the sidelines watching for a while before joining in with great enthusiasm. But when he is done with company he is done, and he makes no attempt to sugar coat it. ‘Bye now,’ he’ll say. ‘That’s enough playing for today.’ When his tank is empty, and he has nothing more to give, he is smart enough to remove himself from the situation.
As a family, we know each other’s rules. We love time with each other more than just about anything in the world, but we also love to pursue our own activities and interests. If any one of the three of us needs space – either physical or mental – we know how to provide that for each other.
People assume that it’s hard when DorkyDad travels for work. Of course it is – DorkySon and I both miss him like crazy – but it’s also fine. Being an introvert means that it’s not a problem to spend time on my own – solitude and loneliness are such different things. It means I can read and write for as long as I like, eat scrambled eggs at odd times of night, and dance around the kitchen with no-one watching. Then after two days or a week or ten days I get the joy of DorkyDad coming home.
We have often said that our house is something of a fortress, and that you’re only allowed in if you pass multiple tests. That’s a joke – no really, it is – but it’s true to say that letting other people in our house for any length of time can be hard. We do it, because we love our friends deeply, and when they fly across the world to see us it’s only fair to ask them in for a coffee. But as many of them are introverts too we know that when the door clicks shut on the way out, the sigh of relief they heave is just as big as our own.
(The only point of that paragraph really is to say that if we have ever asked you into our house for anything at all then you’re in the inner circle. And if you thought we were friends, but we haven’t asked you into our house yet, you’re probably in the inner circle too, but we’re just working up to it… Stick with us.)
I am slightly worried, in this new place, that people will think I am anti-social. Introversion is the emotional equivalent of the physically unfortunate phenomenon known as resting bitch face. It can be misinterpreted as being standoffish or unfriendly. It means you sit in the playground waiting for your son and really feel you should say something more than hello to the other parents, but you’re not quite sure how to. But then you see a familiar face and you sigh with relief. Someone else who you know has staggered out of the house and had to psyche themselves up for social interaction. A fellow introvert. A potential friend.
I am a little sorry I am an introvert. I’m sorry that I seem to have passed it on to DorkySon, and I hope that as he gets older he stays comfortable in his own skin, rather than trying to shape himself into something he is not.
But I’m not sorry too. It’s just who I am.
My name’s Ruth and I am an introvert.