I have been a pastor for almost twelve years and prior to that I had a career as an officer in the U.S. Army, both of these fields are frequently dominated by extroverts and require a level of social interaction that can be challenging for an introvert. Yet, both of these careers have times where individual learning is required, deep soul searching decisions need to be made, creativity is valued, and, especially in the leadership role, can be lonely places. There are a lot of gifts I brought to both of these vocations and yet there is a set of criticisms I’ve heard throughout my life that came to the surface reflecting upon the strategies of disconnection that were discussed in session five of the Living Brave class which Brené Brown has been leading me and many others through. I could talk about the ways in which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable, but what stood out to me this time was the way the same set of comments made me feel disconnected and in that place of shame, and how the other person probably never thought about the comments in the first place.
Introverts are not shy, insensitive, cold, reclusive or any of the other adjectives that frequently get associated with introversion. Introverts draw their strength from inside and from reflection rather than from interaction with people. For many introverts, social functions may be enjoyable but extremely draining at the same time. They have probably been taught that their introverted nature as a personality trait is “somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology” as Susan Cain can voice in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that can’t Stop Talking. Many, like myself, have invested a lot of energy and effort into becoming more social, in trying to learn how to interact with a noisy and often superficial world. They may feel uncomfortable mingling, but they learn how to do it anyways. They engage a world that is designed to fuel an extroverts need for continual stimulation by retreating for long enough to recharge and re-engage. They bring incredible gifts of creativity, the ability to listen deeply and a storehouse of knowledge gained from both reading and reflection. Many, despite their best intentions to blend in are singled out as not quite fitting in with the rest of the noisy crowd.
The following are not scientifically validated but rather come from my own experience as an introvert in extrovert dominant fields. They are things that create strong shame reactions within me because they highlight the disconnection that I may already feel in various moments. Especially in times where I have made incredible efforts to be social and engaged, expending immense amounts of social energy, hearing comments like the following make me, and I would guess others as well, want to retreat to a safe space, lash out or hide behind a social mask that is more extroverted than I may feel:
- If only you were a little warmer, relaxed, less serious. This is one of those I’ve heard many times and every time it is painful. More painful than it should be. I remember I was once going through an evaluation where many extremely positive things were said and then this was my area for personal growth. For all the work I had put in to being outgoing this made all the previously good things disappear in my mind and had the critic in my head going for several days. I am a very kind hearted individual but for many reasons I am not a person who will ever be carefree, happy go lucky, or bouncy. I can fake those things for a short time but it feels really inauthentic to me. I am the person you want in a crisis because I don’t get rattled easily but the other side of that is that I don’t get excited over small things. Yet, the comment reminds me that for all my efforts to fit in I have somehow failed to live up to the expectations of others.
- You are such an intellectual. On the one hand, when did being an intellectual become a bad thing. I get what the comment is trying to say, that I can live in my head and I am comfortable thinking things through academically and find it interesting. Frankly, I like that I can have internal conversations with authors and books and ideas and it helps me think. I also understand that most people are emotional beings who occasionally think rather than thinking beings whose emotions sometimes drive them. I tend to be more comfortable in the rational, intellectual space like others are in the spontaneous, emotional space. I also understand that we are living in an anti-intellectual culture that thrives as much on charisma as it does on substance. Yet, the comment still can be a shaming one. It drives home the reality that as engaged as I may want to be that I do not fit in. I may have attempted to adapt how I talk about something to a level I hope others can engage and it is a comment that highlights to me that I have still failed in that endeavor.
- Why can’t you be more like ______who is an extrovert. We all have times where we are compared with someone else in an unfavorable light. Comparison takes one quality in you and compares it with what may be the best quality in someone else. To be honest, I’m probably my own worst critic on this one. It is easy for me to compare myself with others who relate to others seemingly effortlessly while it frequently involves work for me. I spend more time with the issue of comparison in my previous Living Brave Reflection.
- Intentionally or unintentionally excluding from conversations. We all seek connection, even though it may be more challenging for some. Sometimes introverts feel very alone in a room and feel like they have to break in to the conversations that are already going on around them. Most find a way, but it helps to be invited in to a conversation. There are situations that are just easier for extroverts and sometimes it just takes the willingness to see the person nobody is talking to, invite them into a conversation and then allow them to be themselves. Many people know what it is like to be the one on the outside of all the conversations and it is a place that ultimately none of us want to be. We all seek those connections and a sense of belonging.