Similar to my post about depression, today’s topic is not about an aspect of my gender journey that is unique to someone having such a journey, but is something that a lot more people probably know about. At least 33% of humans, according to some studies, and perhaps as much as 50%. What is this condition? Introversion!
Similar to gender, you could visualize introversion as one end of a spectrum, with extroversion on the other end. People tend to fall on one or the other side, but a few are in the middle, which is known as ambiversion.
What is introversion?
The best way I can describe what it’s like to be an introvert is to describe how I interact with other people. I find deep and thoughtful one-on-one conversations to be delightful, but small talk to be exhausting. I enjoy small groups of good friends, but big parties wear me out. I’m fine watching a movie or eating dinner by myself, and can spend an entire day engulfed in a good book. Speaking in front of a large group of people used to petrify me, but I’ve learned that I can do it (and be pretty good at it) if I’m prepared with what to say or if I know my subject material really well. I would not do well with improvising a speech on something I don’t know all that well, and you wouldn’t want me to give you a toast at your wedding – it would be very short and to the point. If I don’t know you very well, you’ll probably think I’m either shy or maybe even think I don’t like you (which would not be true), but once I get to know you, you’ll discover I’m a fiercely loyal friend. In school, I hated group projects and team-building exercises; I’d rather work independently or with just one person, and get to know a group of people organically – not by some silly game but by working together towards a real, practical goal.
Another way to look at introversion is where a person gets their energy, and what drains their energy. I’m energized by being in a quiet environment with minimal distractions. It doesn’t have to be solitude, but it’s better if I feel a degree of control over the amount of stimuli I’m exposed to. Large chaotic groups drain my energy faster than anything, so I may tend to avoid large social events full of people I don’t know. I can “fake” extroversion for a while, but it takes a lot of my concentration and effort to do so – I will probably need a block of time before to prepare, or after to recover.
What is introversion not?
An introvert may be a shy person, but the shyness isn’t necessarily a product of the introversion. An introvert is not stuck-up and is not anti-social. Being an introvert does not make one any more prone to depression. Introverts can make great leaders, especially when they surround themselves with the right people. Introverts do not dislike people, we just like to cultivate a small group of close friends rather than be friends with everyone we’ve ever met.
But don’t you feel like you’re missing out on things?
Most of the time, I don’t. I’m glad that other people enjoy being around others, but the bars and big parties are not my scene. I envy some people’s ability to be charming, friendly and outgoing with anyone they meet, and recognize that as a useful tool for navigating our world. That’s why I’ve learned to be able to be extroverted when I need to be, but as I said, it is tiring (though not necessarily unpleasant).
How does this fit with your gender?
I’m still figuring this out. As an introvert, I prefer to not attract attention. I’d rather just fit in and be a part of the background, not the star of the show. But part of crossing gender boundaries means that I will be attracting some attention, because I’m not conforming to people’s notions of gender norms. So I’m working to find the things that I can have some control over – where I go, who will be there, what will be expected of me – and using the situations where I feel the most secure to build up my defenses for negative interactions and situations that are sure to come at some point. I’ve been lucky that most of my forays while crossing gender boundaries have ended up either being non-events (where I perceive no reactions from anyone) or positives (where I receive some affirmation / acceptance of my expression). Statistically, I’m overdue for something negative, so I have been preparing myself for that inevitability, at least as much as one can be prepared for something like that.
I’m not an introvert. How can I best interact with one?
Why thank you for asking such a thoughtful question! Realizing that an introvert needs to be interacted with differently than an extrovert is important. Remember that introverts typically don’t do well with forced interactions, so whatever you can do to allow the introvert to engage on their own terms is helpful. Basically, find a way to acknowledge that you are aware of that person’s presence, and you welcome it. But don’t force a conversation if you can help it. Offer something useful – a nugget of interesting information or a question which shows you’ve been thinking about something important to the person. If they engage, then congratulations, you’ve made it into their hamster ball (see Dr. Carmella’s Guide to Understanding the Introverted); if they don’t engage, don’t worry! Just let it go and return to what you were doing – sometimes all we need is reassurance that you’re not trying to take our energy, or perhaps we’ve already spent our energy and need a little recharging before we’re ready to engage again. For me at least, if I know somebody wants to engage in a meaningful conversation, I will find the earliest opportunity to connect; giving me the space to control how and when I engage does a lot to help me feel comfortable and safe. If you can grant me that space but remain interested in me, we will quickly become friends and you may have a hard time getting me to stop talking!
Even so, I don’t find silence awkward, so don’t feel like you need to fill gaps in conversation. Those moments are when I’m thinking. I may be solving a problem that has been vexing me, or trying to find something else you will find fascinating. Or I might just be caught up in the beauty of something I just observed – a hawk soaring high in the sky, a ladybug crawling across a leaf, or a magnificent sunset turning the sky pink and the mountains purple. My brain rarely turns off, but I can easily get lost in thought. Don’t worry, I’ll find my way back to you.
Please understand that if I don’t phone you, I’m not avoiding you (well, I kinda am, but not because I don’t like you); I probably feel like I don’t really have anything to share with you that you would find interesting and I don’t want to bother you. I probably won’t mind if you cancel a party you’ve invited me to, in fact, I’ll probably be relieved (not because I didn’t want to be with you, but because I was worried about how much energy I’d need to spend participating in a large group). Invite me (just you and me) to a play or a movie or share an interesting article with me. Or invite me to do a ropes course or go whitewater rafting. I’m happiest when we can spend time and do things without having pressure to make small talk, so having a challenging task or an interesting topic is a great way to put me at ease.
Is there anything else I should know about introverts?
Wow! You’re really good at asking interesting questions! Keep this up and we’ll be friends in no time!
Yes, we are interesting people. There is a great book (Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain) which discusses the power of introversion and why introverts are valuable in many unexpected ways.
Just invest some time and effort in us and you’ll get so much back from us. Understand that we interact with the world differently than extroverts and grant us the space to engage when we are ready (and disengage when we need to). We’re worth it – I promise!
(I’ll just be recharging over in my hamster ball) until next time,
Interesting links about introversion:
Dr. Carmella’s Guide to Understanding the Introverted (this graphic was the impetus for me finally understanding that I am an introvert)
Extraversion and introversion (Wikipedia article)
12 things people just don’t understand about introverts
8 Things Introverts Are Tired Of Hearing
6 Myths About Introverts To Stop Believing