Tuesday, November 27, 2012

I'm an Introvert and I'm Okay!

About a month ago, I read a book about introversion and its hidden benefits, in a culture that values extroverts. (The book-- if you care--is Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain. I recommend it.) I gobbled up the book in about a Manhattan second. I always knew I was at least "kind of" an introvert, but thanks to the book I was able to give myself a nearly 100% pure pedigree.

If you're thinking I couldn't possibly be an introvert because I share so much about myself in these blog posts, well, it turns out introspection is part of introversion, and so is expressing oneself in the semi-anonymous comfort of cyberspace. Here are some other things I learned about us introverts:
  • We prefer to work on projects alone because of our need for uninterrupted thought, not lack of team spirit.
  • We recoil from loud parties and group events because of sensory overload, not unfriendliness.
  • We may seem aloof in a crowd, but our warmth emerges when we're one-on-one.
  • We really enjoy being alone for long periods; it's not automatically "depression" or "isolation."
  • We can be cautious and risk-averse, but still open up fully in relationships if given time.
Do you detect a theme here, in the way introverts experience ourselves versus how others experience us? Susan Cain cites research showing that one-third of people are introverts--that's a lot! And, not surprisingly, introverts are misunderstood in a culture that emphasizes group identity, teamwork, and being visibly "sociable" and "productive." I didn't even have to read a book to know that part. I've lived it for 41 years. And, sadly, I've misunderstood myself and judged myself harshly for what turns out to be an immutable and potentially advantageous trait. Well, no more. I'm out--or should I say, in?--and I'm proud!

The truth is, despite all the times I've pushed myself to organize playdates and mingle at parties and join political protests, I've never enjoyed it half as much as doing the more quiet activities that come naturally to me. This doesn't mean that I put everything social or humanitarian in the category of "unpleasant character-builder." I'm no misanthrope. I can host a party for 20 people and enjoy every minute, as long as I schedule plenty of down-time before and after. I enjoy online forms of activism and community-building, and I do intense one-on-one interaction as an ER social worker. But at the end of the day, given the choice between a group tour of downtown LA and a solitary garden stroll, I'll be scoping the varietal roses, thanks.

Two years ago, I quit a job at a community mental-health agency, not because I disliked the agency or the population, but because I couldn't stand the "medical model" of service delivery being imposed upon us by our funding source. (Stick with me, this ties into introversion shortly.) A primary feature of the medical model was that every service had to be "billable"--meaning, we had to document that every single five-minute increment we spent with clients resulted in some measurable outcome. We had to use techniques with clients, and clients had to respond by gaining social skills, joining groups, getting jobs, and so forth. Sounds good, right?

The problem was, we weren't dealing with that kind of tidy, predictable world. We were outreach workers, going into the community to visit people who were quite ill, homeless, and traumatized. There was more value in just spending unpressured time with people than in forcing interventions upon them. As an introvert, that was my strength. I understood that some people just needed their space; maybe it was a symptom of paranoia or depression, maybe it was just who they were; it didn't matter. I was comfortable with Tuesday after Tuesday of what seemed like stasis, knowing that I was building trust and creating room for the person's own goals to emerge. But the "medical model" was all extrovert. It wanted me to be an extrovert, and to almost forcibly turn clients into extroverts. I left the agency because I felt this whole approach was shortsighted and did not actually make people well. It certainly made me, as an introvert, feel sick on a daily basis.

The whole experience, in retrospect, shows a larger bias toward extroversion in our culture. I knew plenty of clients at my former agency who were happy living alone and having minimal contact with others. I know from my own experience that even when depressed, being alone is not always bad for me. Certainly when I've felt suicidal in the past, it was necessary to push myself to talk to someone. But plenty of times, a long walk or a journaling session has rescued me from dysfunctional thinking and set me back on course. In her book, Susan Cain discusses the recent phenomenon of "open work spaces" and frequent team meetings, and how these approaches stifle introverts and prevent them from performing well. She points out that this is a huge loss, since one key strength of introverts is our cautious, well-considered approach to solving big problems. And the corporate world mirrors the world at large--overstimulating, mired in groupthink, filled with too many half-baked ideas and not enough good ones.

This isn't to say extroversion is bad. Not at all! But the virtues of extroversion need tempering with those of introversion. Many of the world's greatest thinkers are introverts who may be socially odd and awkward, but whose ideas we can't live without. I'm not going to make that boast about myself, but from now on I'm going to trust my gut when it steers me toward quiet joys...and away from people coming toward me on the sidewalk. (The book says: classic introvert! Not antisocial. Whew!)


Lisa Sniderman, LCSW received her M.S.W. from the University of Chicago in 2003 and has been a licensed clinical social worker since 2005. She is a past member of ETD's Mental Health Advisory Board as well as one of our storytellers. Click here to read more posts from Lisa.

1 comment:

  1. Lisa, I adore your writing and the honest way you assess yourself. It is so relatable. I look forward to your posts every month! Thank you for sharing.