Coming out as a secret introvert

Part 1: Free to be you and me (well, sort of)

Recently, I saw this wonderful graphic about introverts being passed around.

While there are some points that apply to everyone — “don’t reprimand them in public” is just a generally sound piece of advice — the rest do hit home for a lot of introverts, including me. If you know me, you’re probably thinking, “I’m sorry, what? You’re one of the most outgoing people I know!” In person, when someone said this to me, I laughed and told them, “Just because I’m an attention whore doesn’t mean I’m an extrovert.”

My cousin Cheryl is a therapist, and when I brought this up to her, she said, “The quickest way to tell if you’re an extrovert or an introvert is how you recharge: do you recharge best around other people, or on your own?” The answer for me is resoundingly the latter. I’ve made this joke often to my peers, but in every joke there is a grain of truth: I live alone with a dog. I’m a freelance consultant. I work from home. You may notice a theme, here. It’s all on purpose, happily. I need that much space and time on my own to manage life.

I spent a lot of my early adulthood paying much more attention to my need for external validation than my inner self’s desperate calls for quiet time. Susan Cain, author of the new book Quiet, has a TED talk about introversion, and how introverts ignore or misinterpret their own signals and needs. (It’s also a great history of introversion!)

Introversion and extroversion are funny things in the culture we live in. Extroversion is prized and rewarded above all else. I know I spent a lot of time, especially throughout my twenties, almost frantically searching for people and things outside of me to tell me I was alright instead of listening for another message from myself. Our social networks (offline, especially: not just Facebook, and Twitter, but the actual webs of people with whom we have relationships) are critical for professional success. In the past, it was the old boys’ network— with its golf outings, bar nights, club memberships, anything else you’ve seen in “Mad Men”— that dictated professional mobility. Today, it’s a more fluid set of structures and relationships, but one’s ability to socialize and put in a lot of face time is still critical to success. 

Thus extroversion gets the gold star — remember, it’s about feeling recharged after spending time with people. You’re going to keep doing things that make you feel recharged, so if you’re an extrovert, you’re going to socialize a lot. If you’re an introvert, you might be inclined to socialize less, and thus be labeled “shy.” Shyness and introversion are simply not the same thing. An introvert needs to express herself just as much as an extrovert; the form that expression takes may differ.

I get frustrated with this idea that introverts don’t need external validation or are afraid of public speaking. I don’t think I’m an anomoly as an introverted person who enjoys performing, teaching and speaking, even though I have a hard time with the interpersonal stuff that comes along with that. And I know plenty of extroverts who are terrified of stages. So, can we drop these stereotypes somehow and really tune into our needs and motivations?

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Part 2: What’s your deal?

Just in the last few weeks, at least three people have told me that everyone around them is convinced they’re extroverted when they feel like the most introverted people ever. These conversations were even bigger pushes to finally finish this post, but also a giant wake-up call that I wasn’t crazy for writing it in the first place, heh. So, I know you’re out there— what are your stories?

I remember clearly the moment that I realized that I had to craft an extroverted version of myself to get by in the world. I was an exchange student living in Germany when I was 17, and the first few months were the most painfully lonely months of my life. At home in the US, I was awkward and self-conscious with my peers (though I seemed to do fine with adults), but I at least had a best friend to whom I could express myself and joke around, and a few friends at school. My family was also pretty tight and we had a lot of laughs together. In Germany, though, I was unanchored: new family to live with and try to understand, new kids at school, new language (!), new styles of humor (!!), new everything. I had no familiar touchstones except for my older host sister, who’d lived with my family in the US, who I saw on weekends. I was adrift. 

For a while, I did what I’d always done— retreated into my own world. I borrowed all the English language books from the library and spent my allowance on even more. I wrote stories and poems and letters. I doodled. I had a great bedroom at the top of my host family’s house that felt secluded and safe. But loneliness kept creeping up, in a way that I hadn’t experienced before. I needed to establish my social network there, and to do that, I had to start liking spending time with people.

It was more than a big help, ultimately, when I realized that this crafted persona could be anything. There was no previous small-town-small-school history confining her. On top of that, my grades, for the only time in my life, didn’t actually matter, so for the first time, academics didn’t have to play a part of my identity, either. I created The Extrovert, made friends, and had a ball. This public persona is still largely the one that colleagues and acquaintances think of when they think of me. If they only knew, it was all a ruse to get German teenagers to like me!

Of course, if it were truly singularly crafted without a shred of relationship to parts of me that are real, I’d be a sociopath and likely would have fallen apart psychologically by now, 20 years later. I don’t deny that I genuinely enjoy spending time with friends, meeting new people, and being on the go. I just recognize now that it takes a lot out of me, and that physical repercussions (exhaustion, migraines, digestive issues, skin disorders) will ensue if I don’t take care of my needs.

Here are some of the things I’ve done to keep my introverted self sane in an extrovert’s world:

  • Create the safest, most nurturing home environment possible. For me, that was living a little farther out in Brooklyn than many of my friends to have a little more space. This creates the possibility of being able to afford to live alone, and have a separate part of my home be my office. It has a door on it. It’s important for me to shut that door when I’m not working.
  • When traveling (which I do often), schedule in alone time. It’s easy when you’re traveling for work or to conferences to book every available slice of time into meetings and events. Don’t. Hold your ground. I actually write into my calendar when I’m going to have downtime (or naptime, which I need almost daily when I travel).
  • When not traveling, I host out-of-towners at my house a lot. Added benefit of having a bigger place is that having guests is easier than it used to be. It gets me some good social time with friends and family, without the ongoing stress of a full-time roommate.
  • Have boundaries around social events. Lots and lots of boundaries. I schedule myself pretty tightly and am ruthless about adhering to that schedule. Because I’m home all day every day, it’s fine for me to go out 3-4 nights a week to work events (important for continuing to build business), and to see friends. I’m often home on Friday & Saturday nights recovering from the week. I say “no” a lot, and I’m just now finally starting to be comfortable with that. 
  • Speaking of saying “no,” I also schedule all calls and meetings on Wednesdays and Thursdays only, with some flexibility on Tuesdays if necessary. Mondays and Fridays are strictly for my own work, whether that’s writing or doing client work. This has frustrated a lot of people, I’m sure, but I’m so much more productive. 
  • This comes down ultimately to managing expectations. I feel like a lot of the world’s problems would be solved if people just expressed their needs clearly and dealt honestly with the repercussions. For example, on the social boundaries front, I often tell people explicitly if I have an expectation of leaving an event or meeting at a certain time. If that’s problematic, we work it out. But then no one’s pissed off when I disappear an hour into a large social gathering.
  • Romantic relationships get tricky because I’m often overwhelmed with balancing the need to Greta Garbo and to demonstrate that I’m interested in spending lots of time with a guy without seeming cray cray. Plus, expectations and boundaries are already weird in dating life, so they often just get extra weird. Especially when I say that I don’t want to get married, don’t want kids and intend on mostly living alone til I kick the bucket. Solution? I got a dog. (read: haven’t figured this one out yet. But, this dour New Yorker article about the increase in singleness in America desperately needs to read this awesome Boston Magazine article about the same phenomenon.)

So, fellow secret introverts — what are your secrets? Have you crafted an extroverted persona to manage in the world? Do you ever feel inauthentic for doing so? And if you do, how do you manage that?

And what about our online lives? I know I feel that online social networks give me the validation/reward system I need for and from socializing, without draining me in the same ways that in-person socializing does. How will this continue to take shape as digital becomes so much more integrated with our daily lives? Will introverts be excused from the heavy-lifing of creating super-charismatic fronts? What does the future hold for secret introverts?