Vol 3, Num 22 :: 2004.12.31 — 2005.01.13
My favorite friends are the ones whose faces would drop in horror if I showed up at their door, unannounced. Better yet, they might not even answer the door, hiding behind closed blinds and hoping I’ll go away. If they do answer the door, we would both try to smile through horrible, uncomfortable silences. An unannounced visit should always be a short one, so by the time of my departure, we would both just be warming up to each other.
In other words, my favorite friends are those who don’t drop in unannounced, and know that I won’t, either. Their feelings aren’t hurt when I take a day or two to return their phone calls. If I do pick up the phone, they ask if it’s a good time to talk, and understand if I have to cut things short, frustrated by the frequent interruptions that are part of every parent’s life.
They know that despite appearances, I love them dearly. Because when we do get together—at a planned time and place—we share parts of us that many others don’t even know they have.
It’s not that these friends are of superior character to my other friends and family, or that they are better, more forgiving people. It’s just that they know the soul of the introvert through firsthand experience.
Like any spiritual journey, coming to accept my introversion has taken years and has had its share of trials. You might recognize parts of the path:
I’m just like you, really. As a teenager, I had an outgoing personality by all appearances. I was a cheerleader, a flirt, a band member and in the science club. I was blonde and bouncy and could talk to just about anyone.
Unless you took a closer look. I was called a snob because I often looked away when I passed someone in the school halls. When I got home, after an hour’s bus ride of people noise and diesel smells and grinding motion, I often just lay on the living room floor for an hour or more. Not sleeping, or studying, or watching TV—just remembering to breathe, listening to my own thoughts as they crept out into the light again. My mother—divorced and overwhelmed—would come home after work to find I had done no chores. I didn’t know how to tell her, knowing how hard she worked, that I just couldn’t find the energy. Nobody told me that needing solitude to recharge was just a part of my personality—I suspected depression or another mental illness. I alternated between trying to get help and trying to hide this part of myself.
When I entered college, my freshman class took the Meyers-Briggs personality test. I was flummoxed by the questions that were used to separate the extraverts from the introverts. Did I prefer to be with people or to be alone? Did I find it stressful to be around people? My societal training kicked in. What kind of antisocial freak answered that they didn’t like people? I rated high as an extravert, yet became sulky every time I had to face the women who shared my dorm suite. Not because they weren’t nice people—they were—but because they were in my space. I was nearly always tired, because I was almost never alone.
I guess I am a freak. After graduating college and teaching middle school for three years, I couldn’t deny this particular personality trait any longer. Everyday I came home from teaching school exhausted. Lying still wasn’t enough—I slept, hard, for an hour or two. When I awoke, I rushed around in a panic, trying to do all the things that needed doing—dinner, cleaning, grading papers, preparing lessons—and hating myself for being so “lazy.” But I didn’t know how to stop.
On top of teaching, I was newly married to a man who was wonderful. (Still is.) Yet at times I want to physically push him out of our small apartment and lock the door behind him. The intensity of my frustration and emotion frightened me. Slowly, I began to learn to go to our one bedroom and shut the door. Later, I learned to tell him that I just needed a little time. It was a start.
Unfortunately, I didn’t yet have a word for my personality, or more precisely, I didn’t understand the word I had.
Introvert. Loser. Social misfit. Hermit. A Scrooge without Christmas. Howard Hughes wearing Kleenex boxes for shoes, with long dirty fingernails and greasy hair.
Sign me up.
In trying to figure out my problem, I found fault with the world around me—after all, if I couldn’t stand to be with people, maybe there was something wrong with them. Being tired and drained much of the time made it easy to pick up on annoying habits. I wove small faults into larger social issues—if a fellow teacher repeated stories a few times too often, I would see it as proof of her moral failing when I found out she also shopped at Walmart. I was a new Christian, and a new label, Sin, fit my misery. It was everywhere I looked.
As you can imagine, it was a lonely place to be.
Alone and not lonely. Years later, my still-wonderful husband came home from a training session at work, excited with some new knowledge. They had discussed the Meyers-Briggs test, and taken mini-tests. He brought home a secondary definition for a word that I have embraced ever since.
Introvert, redefined. The word, as used by Meyers-Briggs, is not a reflection on one’s social skills and abilities. The difference between introverts and extraverts is that introverts get their energy from being alone, while extraverts recharge by being with other people. Both can mingle at a party or lead a business meeting, and enjoy themselves while doing it—the time to watch is afterwards. Extraverts will be energized, while introverts will need some time alone to recharge. Extraverts can repeat what others say and can repeat themselves without self-consciousness—to them, it’s just part of the flow of conversation. Introverts find interruptions particularly exhausting. And so on.
I can still remember the conversation. He sat in our green corduroy rocking chair—a garage sale deal from those lean first years of marriage. I sat in the blue glider we got especially for the birth of our first son. The light came in the room low and from the southwest—it made our wood floors glow.
And in my head, Etta James sang At Last.
Like mother, like child. It turns out that my mother is an introvert, too. In her own way, she tried to create a space where her children could listen to their own thoughts. And I have a responsibility to my sons, to respect their personality traits as I have learned to respect mine. Recently, some other redefined words have come into our lives. Spirited. Highly sensitive. Intense. Persistent. Selective.
I prefer them to difficult, or stubborn, or picky.
A few days ago I wrote a request for help to some of my Internet support groups (a wonderful resource for introverts, I might add). These are groups for homeschoolers, unschoolers, and those who call themselves peaceful parents. Advise me, I wrote. How can I help my highly sensitive, introverted seven-year-old deal with the expectations of the holidays, the family gatherings, the tables full of food he doesn’t like, the noise?
E-mails poured in. Make sure he stays connected to you—check in on him every fifteen minutes, touch his shoulders, look in his eyes. Find a room where he can get away for a while. Bring snacks and drinks—set up a cooler in his getaway place, along with books or crayons or his GameBoy. Play with him before you leave your house—lots of dramatic, pretend, unstructured play—that will fill him up before the family gathering drains him again. I was given the address of another list, one more fitting for mothers of highly sensitive children, and there were more ideas.
Mothers from San Diego, Albuquerque, Detroit, New York, mothers busy with holiday preparations of their own, mothers whose own children have unique needs—they took time out of their day and answered me, supported me, sent me their best wishes and their most thoughtful ideas. My son’s holiday will be greatly improved because of their kindness and wisdom.
Why? Because people are, in great part, good.
Even though I can’t always be around them.