I lead a solitary life.
By which I mean I spend 99 percent of my time alone. Even when I have a loving partner. Even though I have friends for whom I would give my life. Even when I’m been surrounded by family.
This has been true most of my life.
Over the years, I’ve struggled with this in various ways. When I was younger, and didn’t yet know that I was an introvert (“I have good social skills; how can I be an introvert?”), I thought I was just a boring and horrible person. I didn’t like parties. Group events freaked me out. My friends complained that I didn’t spend enough time with them. Many people who met me thought I was a snob or that I didn’t like them.
When I turned down social events or activities, I tried to explain my actions away by saying I was too busy, or that I had other plans. I said that I needed a lot of time alone in order to write. None of those things were untrue, but they weren’t really getting to the heart of the matter either.
At 40, I am coming to have a better understanding of myself. I now know that I’m an extreme introvert, that I’m very shy, and that I’m easily overstimulated. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately for two reasons: One, I’ve been reading Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. Two, I’ve been at a writing retreat this week where my solitary nature is in direct conflict with my desire to spend time with other interesting, creative people.
One of the things that Cain touches on in Quiet are studies that have shown that very young babies who are easily overstimulated (responding a certain way to loud noises or unexpected movements) often grow up to be introverts. She also postulates that introverts are deeper, more creative thinkers. While I don’t know that I believe the latter, I do know that I have a harder time connecting to deep thoughts when there is stimulation around me. As a writer, this is an absolutely vital thing to know about myself.
Here is what else I know about myself:
- I know how to be “on” and social when it is required of me. If I have a “role” in a public event (even if that role is to set the table at a dinner party), I am much more at ease. I’ve taught classes, hosted events, and given presentations to hundreds of people and none of that makes me the least bit nervous.
- Loud conversations where people are jostling for speaking time easily overwhelm me and cause me to clam up and grow very quiet. Even if I think I have something interesting or useful to add, I am not likely to say anything if there isn’t space for me to do so (unless I’m teaching or leading something, in which case that’s part of my job).
- I am always grateful to the person who helps make space for me in a boisterous group, usually by asking me a question. (Even if I get flustered at the sudden attention and trip over my words).
- I’m much better in one-on-one conversations or small groups, especially ones where people listen well, take turns talking, and ask questions.
- I am genuinely interested in people, but find myself bored by (and am very bad at) small talk (This is a typical introvert trait, as it turns out). Tell me something that sits light or heavy in your heart, something that makes your brain pop, or even a well-told and organized story, and I am all yours.
- I am shy, which means that instant connections are difficult for me. It often takes me a few days to warm up and be comfortable with someone.
- In group events, I spend a lot of time worrying that others will find me standoffish or that they will think I don’t like them (I’ve had a number of current friends say they felt this way when they first met me). I also often feel like I’m missing out on interesting conversations with smart, creative people that I would like to get to know better.
There is a lot of interest right now in introverts, and a lot of books and articles geared toward the concept of “the care and feeding of introverts.” Most of these seem to be directed at teaching extroverts about introverts — it’s that whole “extroverts have been the majority culture for so long that now we’re rah-rahing introverts like mad” thing. Which is fine, but I also want to know more about extroverts: What drives them to be social? What benefits do they gain from being around people and leading the charge? Are there ways that introverts and extroverts can help each other in solitary and social situations?
Lastly, I wonder about other introverts and if there are ways that we can help each other. One of my favorite people (and a fantastic extrovert) taught me this wonderful trick at conventions: Find the person who is alone at an event and introduce yourself. Not only does this make the person feel warm and welcomed, it allows you to connect with someone in a quiet way (and often, the person who’s sitting by themselves turns out to be either shy or introverted or both).
It’s always going to be a trade-off and a struggle for me, this need for solitude combined with this desire to connect with the people that I care about. Right now, as I write this, I’m sitting in a quiet, sunny room surrounded by the soft sound of other writers tapping their keyboards. It just might be the best of all possible worlds for a solitary introvert like me.
Kiss kiss bang bang, s.