“I want to be alone … with someone else who wants to be alone.”
I was an introvert before author Susan Cain was a gleam in her daddy’s eye. I was a highly sensitive person (HSP) before psychologists had validated such a personality, and I was a fully developed INFJ personality before I ever heard of the Myers-Briggs type indicator. I’m an introvert. Not just an introvert, but a shy introvert (two very different things). A shy, highly sensitive introvert. I suppose I could change some of that if I could afford lengthy therapy, but it’s out of the question. And at my age, what’s the point? Nevertheless, having spent 72 years like this, I feel qualified to speak on the subject — not as a formal researcher or trained psychologist, but simply as someone with a lot of first-hand experience as both a shy person and an introvert. I won’t presume to speak for others whose experiences may have been vastly different. Instead, I’ll just tell you what it’s been like for me. Perhaps you’ll recognize yourself or someone else.
First, a distinction that many fail to make or simply don’t understand. Introversion and shyness are not the same thing. From Psychology Today:
“‘Sociability [one’s extroversion or introversion] refers to the motive, strong or weak, of wanting to be with others, whereas shyness refers to behavior when with others, inhibited or uninhibited, as well as feelings of tension and discomfort.’ This differentiation between motivation and behavior is consistent with the ability many of us have to behave like extroverts when we choose, whereas shy people cannot turn their shyness off and on.”
Or as Susan Cain explains it:
“Shyness and introversion are not the same thing. Shyness is the fear of negative judgment, and introversion is a preference for quiet, minimally stimulating environments.”
“Fear” might be too strong a word there; I’d suggest “overly concerned about judgment by others.”
As I child I faced one insurmountable and crippling problem: I blush easily. So I was shy. Or perhaps I was very shy because I blush easily. And as soon as I became aware that I was blushing, I’d get embarrassed and blush even more. It was a miserable situation that I couldn’t control. Whether shyness and blushing naturally occur together or whether it was just an unfortunate convergence of genetic characteristics, I can’t say. But it did make me timid around others because, as everyone knows, kids can be quick to target each other’s weaknesses. And when they discovered how easily they could make me blush …
On top of the hell of not being able to control my blushing, I’ve never dealt well with very emotional situations, and that can be very embarrassing too. Great happiness, sadness, beauty, tenderness, any strong emotion — all can make me weep. No matter what the movie or TV show is about, comedy or drama, I may get misty-eyed. My son learned years ago to just ignore it and pass the tissues. My sister once said she’d have to hire me as her professional crier; she says she “can’t” cry. I can’t even imagine what that’s like.
Childhood is also when I developed a habit that has not served me well — not making eye contact with others. As a tomboy who loved nature and the outdoors, one of the first things I learned was that looking an animal directly in the eye is considered a challenge, a threat. That reinforced my natural tendency as a shy person to avoid eye contact. As an adult, of course, such a habit can make you seem evasive, insincere, or perhaps even a liar. In the business world, I doubt many people dismiss it as just shyness, but I’ve never been able to break the habit. I’ll look in someone’s general direction, I’ll look at their forehead or the bridge of their nose or maybe their ear. I even discovered if I took off my glasses, I couldn’t see their faces clearly enough to care where I looked. But normally, looking directly into someone’s eyes feels too much like defiance. And worse, their return gaze makes me feel completely exposed and vulnerable.
In class I usually sat near the back because I didn’t want to be called on. Not because I didn’t know the answers but because being called on would make me the center of attention (horrors!) and likely cause me to blush, which in turn made me so self-conscious I couldn’t think straight.
I was a good student and generally got excellent grades. But I wasn’t particularly popular and had only two or three close friends. Even with them I didn’t sit around discussing personal feelings the way I assume girlfriends do. Such things were private and, worse, might leave me open to ridicule — and much blushing. Whether my shyness came across as aloofness, or it just wasn’t cool to be a good student, or whatever, I never knew; I simply wasn’t popular.
Obviously such shyness and introversion made it difficult to meet and enjoy the company of boys, and teenage boys are not the most sensitive, empathetic individuals in the world. I had my first few dates with a boy in 10th or 11th grade, only to have him confess later that he’d first asked me out just to win a bet that he could get a date with the next girl who walked through the door. That did wonders for my self-confidence.
My interest in writing bloomed in high school, especially under the tutelage of a particular English teacher who was also sponsor of the school newspaper. She encouraged me to get involved with the paper, but there was no way I wanted to be a reporter, no way I was going to approach people and ask prying questions that they might not want to answer. The interest in publishing stuck, however, and that’s where I eventually chose to work — in positions that did not require dealing with the public. Behind-the-scenes stuff, tucked safely in a quiet corner somewhere doing my thing with words and paper, not people.
For the most part I think employers appreciated my work but not what they might have perceived to be my loner attitude (“not a team player”). I was always unhappy having to join in office activities, company picnics, parties, etc. It always seemed to me that social activities should be purely voluntary. They’re social, not work related, outside the office, etc. But no, they all came with ATTENDANCE REQUIRED stamped in big invisible letters. Not that I didn’t have pleasant conversations in smaller groups or with individuals, but the whole time, in the back of my mind, I’d be watching the clock and thinking about how soon I could go home, change into something comfortable, and be alone again. It’s been said the difference between extroverts and introverts is that extroverts are energized by social activities and introverts are fatigued by them. That’s certainly been true for me, and it goes a long way toward explaining my feelings about being with others.
Even just saying I want to be by myself makes me feel selfish. It’s so “me, me, me” to talk about doing what I want to do, when and how I want to do it. But I was raised to be a pleaser, as were so many women my age. In my upbringing, I was taught to always be feminine, demure, ladylike, at the beck and call of others. Always helpful, never complaining. Always thinking of others first. A giver and a pleaser. Drill those lessons into a shy, introverted person and you get … a doormat.
One of the few places I was reasonably assertive was where my work was concerned. I was confident in my work, in my knowledge of what needed to be done and how and when. The difference was that it wasn’t about me and other people. It was about the job.
In the ’70s I went through a period of reading all the pop psychology self-help books I could find, looking for ways to “fix” myself. Assertiveness training was all the rage and I looked for a solution, a magic cure for what felt like a crippling social maladjustment. How to Be Your Own Best Friend. Don’t Say Yes When You Want to Say No. When I Say No I Feel Guilty. And those are just the titles I remember. There were many others on my bookshelf. Highlighted, underlined, dog-eared. But none of them really helped. In fact, the few times I summoned enough courage to try to act more assertively, I felt I was being rude. And it was sometimes perceived that way by others. I’d had no experience being assertive; I did it poorly, clumsily. And embarrassed by my ineptitude, I’d crawl back into my shell.
My activities as an adult haven’t always been of my choosing. My parents were well known in the community and as their daughter, I was not socially inconspicuous. I was neither expected nor allowed to become invisible and withdraw from society and the world at large. I lacked the assertiveness and confidence to “just say no” to demands, invitations, expectations, and assumptions. My mother made it very clear that “I’d rather not” was never a valid excuse. Besides, I was and am a lousy liar, and making up excuses never works. I get embarrassed trying to defend a lie. I squirm. I blush!
I’m such an introvert, I’m even uncomfortable with family. Even when I was young, “immediate family” was seven people. To me, that’s a crowd. That exceeds my comfort level. And of course, it only got worse with time as my four siblings married and had children and grandchildren of their own. I love my siblings. I’m so lucky to have a wonderful family where we all still love and respect one another. But I prefer to see them one or two at a time, for only a few hours at a time.
In the early ’80s, someone brought to work a long form Myers-Briggs personality assessment. I don’t recall if it came from a book or from one of our doctors (I was working for the medical association at the time). But in any case, the results showed I am an INFJ personality, bordering closely on INTJ. The score was equally divided between the “F” and the “T.” Basically the classification means I’m introverted (I) and my decision-making will be a conflict between my feelings (F) and my thinking (T), with neither really prevailing.
Each of these personality types constitutes only 1-2% of the population, and I have the misfortune of being trapped between the two. I’m often very indecisive, constantly weighing alternatives, unable to decide, reluctant (or unable) to disregard either my feelings or my reason. And I haven’t changed in the 30 years since I took the test.
It was reassuring to think I wasn’t a freakish misfit after all. I was a recognized, defined personality type. There were others like me. Famous, successful people. (Interestingly, Thomas Jefferson is claimed by both INFJs and INTJs.) I was okay after all. And that was comforting. Even if it was only a pop psych evaluation from a questionnaire conceived and written by non-professionals.
In recent years the Myers-Briggs assessment has been widely discredited. But it was and is an interesting exercise that can lead to a lot of worthwhile self-examination and understanding. Just be aware you’ve not been typecast for life. The methodology is badly flawed and you need to pursue answers elsewhere, from more reliable sources.
Travel: I’m not a well-traveled person. Traveling to new places for fun and adventure has rarely sounded like fun to me, and certainly not as a single. I wouldn’t know where to go, how to get around. I’d have to approach people — total strangers — for instructions and advice. And traveling outside the country would add language barriers. I grew familiar with northern Colorado during many family vacations when I was growing up, so it became the one place I could visit as a single adult and feel comfortable, in familiar surroundings.
Community: I’ve rarely been a joiner or a volunteer. If I feel strongly about a cause and can jump in despite my dislike of spending time with a bunch of strangers, I might do it. But to join a group just to meet people or get out of the house, no. My discomfort just being there and guilt at having ulterior motives far outweigh any other feelings.
Social Life: What social life? I don’t do social life. I can’t imagine anything more boring and uncomfortable than wasting hours sitting around with people I barely know, making small talk about things I don’t care about, and waiting for the moment I can get away and go home. If I know the people I’m with, and there aren’t too many of them (three or four perhaps), we’re talking about something worthwhile (eg, politics, space travel, the environment), nobody is getting obnoxiously intoxicated, and we’re in comfortable, quiet surroundings, then maybe, just maybe, I might enjoy myself for a couple of hours. Does this ever happen in my home? No. Never has, never will. I’m not interested enough or confident enough to play hostess to anyone.
Dating: Trying to get back into the dating scene after my first divorce was a joke. Despite my aversion to religious institutions, I tried going to several church groups because supposedly only nice people go there. The neighborhood church had an adult singles group that turned out to be two age groups; my age (yes, I was honest about it) made me the oldest person in the younger group. Not good, considering most single men seem drawn to younger women. I tried the church I was raised in, and the singles class there consisted of about 30 women and 2 men, both much younger than I. Again, not good. I got a few dates via singles ads in the local alternative newspaper (remember, this was pre-Internet). I always thought they went well, but the guys never called back. I even tried video dating; only one guy indicated an interest, and I had none in him.
Friends: You don’t make a lot of friends when you’re shy and introverted. When you do, or at least when I did, it was because we were drawn together by common interests. I’d meet someone in a class and discover we both liked art. Or horses. Or writing. Or I’d get to know the woman two doors down because our children played together. Or there were co-workers I enjoyed having lunch with or an occasional drink after work. (I was to discover later that co-workers are not the same as friends.) But even with friends, I never discussed deep personal feelings the way I assume most close friends do. Nothing so personal that I might feel embarrassed discussing it. And being introverted, shy, and excruciatingly modest, that covered a raft of topics.
Only in school did I make a couple of friends with whom I kept in touch after they moved out of town. As an adult, I’ve had few close friends. One neighbor and I kept in touch for a few years after I moved out of the neighborhood. The “friends” I had at work turned out not to be the friends I thought they were; not one called to see what happened after I was fired, and I was too embarrassed to call them. Maybe I just don’t know how to make friends. Or maybe I misjudge people, mistaking cordiality for friendship. And that makes me feel gullible and naive.
Marriages: I was married twice, once for 17 years, once for three years. I ended them both. Both failed for a number of reasons, but primarily because I needed more “me” time than they allowed, and I simply couldn’t find it within the constraints of marriage. At least that’s my assessment given the perspective of time. Maybe it just means I’m terribly selfish. I don’t know. It’s almost impossible (for me, at least) to objectively evaluate the problems.
Telephones: Oddly enough I’ve only read in the last few years about introverts hating phones. But it’s certainly true of me, for many of the same reasons cited on the Internet. A ringing phone is an intrusion. It’s jarring, at times even startlingly, and it’s a rude, impersonal interruption of whatever I’m doing.
At my last job there were only about 15 employees, but we had a front desk, receptionist, and switchboard. I’d ask the receptionist to hold my calls and take messages so my train of thought wouldn’t be interrupted. But management overruled that and told her to put the calls through. When we got a new phone system with voicemail, I thought my problem was solved. But no, management chewed me out for not taking the calls when they came in. How I hated that phone! I hate my home phone for the same reasons, but at least I can use the answering machine, choose a pleasant ringtone, adjust the volume, ignore and then block calls from telemarketers (hurray for my new phone!), etc.
And all of that adds up to my also hating to make calls. I suppose I assume the people I’m calling will feel as I do, that calls are ill-timed intrusions. And I hate being intrusive. Or, increasingly, I have to brace myself to navigate through voicemail menus. These require that I listen to a lot of filler or instructions. I also feel obliged to plan what I’m going to say before I call, especially if I know I’m going to encounter voicemail. Bottom line, receiving or making phone calls is a huge hassle. Anyway, moving on.
Eventually, after I’d been both retired and divorced for a few years, I realized that for the first time in my life I was free of all ties. I had no responsibilities or obligations to anyone but myself. So I did what I’d always dreamed of doing and moved to Colorado. Primarily because I’ve loved the mountains here for as long as I can remember, but also because my son’s work had already brought him here. However, I think there might have been another motive lurking somewhere in the depths of my subconscious: No one here knows me. I won’t be running into people I don’t want to see. There are no pressures or expectations to do anything I don’t want to do. No need to make up excuses. I suppose you could say I didn’t deal with the problems of shyness and introversion; I just ran away from a lot of them.
So here I am, happily living alone. I enjoy my solitude, my quiet little retreat in the suburbs. There’s a world outside my door if I seek it, but currently no friends. Occasionally I wish I had someone to share things with. Not everything, not all the time. But some things, sometimes. And it could be nice to have a single man my age living across the street or just up the block. Other than that, mine is a gentle stress-free life. It’s taken a long time, but I finally understand and am content with who and what I am.
ECHOES FROM ELSEWHERE
“I’ll be honest with you, I’m a little bit of a loner. It’s been a big part of my maturing process to learn to allow people to support me. I tend to be very self-reliant and private. And I have this history of wanting to work things out on my own and protect people from what’s going on with me.” ~ Kerry Washington
“Introverts, in contrast, may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while wish they were home in their pajamas. They prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues, and family. They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions.” ~ Susan Cain
“Introverts treasure the close relationships they have stretched so much to make.” ~ Adam S. McHugh
“All this talking, this rather liquid confessing, was something I didn’t think I could ever bring myself to do. It seemed foolhardy to me, like an uncooked egg deciding to come out of its shell: there would be a risk of spreading out too far, turning into a formless puddle.” ~ Margaret Atwood
“The only problem with seeing people you know is that they know you.” ~ Brent Runyon
“… because I rant not, neither rave of what I feel, can you be so shallow as to dream that I feel nothing?” ~ R.D. Blackmore
“Don’t think of introversion as something that needs to be cured … Spend your free time the way you like, not the way you think you’re supposed to.” ~ Susan Cain
“Isn’t it refreshing to know that what comes perfectly natural for you is your greatest strength? Your power is in your nature. You may not think it’s a big deal that you can spend hours immersed in something that interests you — alone — but the extrovert next door has no idea how you do it.” ~ Laurie Helgoe
“Companionship is a foreign concept to some people. They fear it as much as the majority of people fear loneliness.” ~ Criss Jami
“Telling an introvert to go to a party is like telling a saint to go to Hell.” ~ Criss Jami
“In terms of like, instant relief, canceling plans is like heroin.” ~ John Mulaney
“Pajamas over people.” ~ Christopher Hudspeth
“Often confused with shyness, introversion does not imply social reticence or discomfort. Rather than being averse to social engagement, introverts become overwhelmed by too much of it, which explains why the introvert is ready to leave a party after an hour and the extravert gains steam as the night goes on. ~ Laurie Helgoe
“Writing is something you do alone. It’s a profession for introverts who want to tell you a story but don’t want to make eye contact while doing it.” ~ John Green
“Solitude matters, and for some people, it’s the air they breathe” ~ Susan Cain
“The same person who would never raise his hand in a lecture hall of two hundred people might blog to two thousand, or two million, without thinking twice. The same person who finds it difficult to introduce himself to strangers might establish a presence online and then extend these relationships into the real world.” ~ Susan Cain
“I am rarely bored alone; I am often bored in groups and crowds.” ~ Laurie Helgoe
“Quiet people have the loudest minds.” ~ Stephen Hawking
“Introverts crave meaning so party chitchat feels like sandpaper to our psyche.” ~ Diane Cameron
“Introverts are word economists in a society suffering from verbal diarrhea.” ~ Michaela Chung
“For introverts, to be alone with our thoughts is as restorative as sleeping, as nourishing as eating.” ~ Jonathan Rauch
“I don’t hate people, I just feel better when they aren’t around.” ~ Charles Bukowski
“A bore is someone who deprives you of solitude without providing you with company.” ~ Oscar Wilde
“An introvert may feel asocial when pressured to go to a party that doesn’t interest her. But for her, the event does not promise meaningful interaction. In fact, she knows that the party will leave her feeling more alone and alienated.” ~ Laurie Helgoe
“I want to be alone … with someone else who wants to be alone.” ~ Dimitri Zaik
Photography: Jonas Andréasson
Also on Pied Type: I’m an introvert and I’m okay