Updated: Feb 28
(originally published in The Ascent)
I have always been an introvert. Ever since I was a little girl, I preferred, even craved, alone time. Quiet, introspective, and “deep in thought,” were often used to describe my personality. No one called me an introvert, though. I was considered “shy.” I also understood pretty early on that being shy was not a good thing. Countless adults told me to talk more, to come out of my shell. If I didn’t immediately open up to strangers, adults shrugged, unable to understand my inclination to step back and observe rather than jump straight into conversations.
As an adult, I am exactly the same way except for one key point: I have learned to embrace my introverted side. Introverts are not necessarily “shy,” I have learned. I have also learned that being quiet isn’t a bad thing.
Four years ago, I started a new teaching job at my local community college. Actually, I had worked there before, but I moved away and was rehired. (It’s a long story.) As a full-time English professor and academic, I am surrounded by other introverts, but my department actually contains more extroverts than anywhere else I’ve ever worked. I was immediately afraid of drowning in a sea of big personalities. When it came to meetings and social events, I couldn’t keep up. In the past, I forced myself to speak up in meetings, but I had also had moments of wanting to give up before even trying. I just don’t fit in, I remember thinking more than once.
Everything changed when I watched Susan Cain’s TED Talk, “The Power of Introverts,” and read her related book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. She says, “I dream big and have audacious goals, and I see no contradiction between this and my quiet nature.” She has helped lead a quiet revolution via her talk, her bestselling books, and her now her blog and podcast. She speaks all over the world about the power of introverts. There are few moments when one truly encounters an epiphany, but Susan Cain’s ideas about introversion helped form my own personal aha moment.
By understanding the power of introverts, I have become more confident and more comfortable in social situations. My social life improved by taking three important steps.
The three moves I made to appreciate my quiet personality were not easy or fast; it took time to retrain my thinking and truly embrace the introvert in me. However, the changes have been almost miraculous. Not only have I made more friends and formed close relationships, but I have challenged myself in new ways that would have never seemed possible before.
We have Carl Jung to thank for the terms “introvert” and “extrovert.” His 1921 book Psychological Types is the foundation of that personality test you’ve probably seen many times, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. In Quiet, Cain clarifies the main difference between introverts and extroverts, according to Jung: “Introverts recharge their batteries by being alone; extroverts need to recharge when they don’t socialize enough.”
To understand introversion, it is important to distinguish between the word “shy” and the word “introvert.” They are not the same thing. An introvert can be shy, of course, but an introvert isn’t shy by definition. This is why many introverts flourish just as easily as extroverts in fields that involve public speaking or performance (acting, teaching, leadership position, and so on). One of the key differences is that the introvert is more likely to need to wind down and be alone after being “on” for an extended period of time.
According to Cain, “Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation, while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating. Shyness is inherently painful; introversion is not.” Once we understand this key distinction, we can open the door to seeing the power of introverts.
By implementing the three steps below, I went from feeling self-conscious and awkward about my personality to enjoying a richer friendship circle and feeling more confident at work without changing my inherent personality.
Recharging my batteries
While it is helpful to understand the ideas of Jung and Cain regarding how introverts need alone time, I learned this lesson on my own out of necessity. As a professor, I stand in front of a room of students and talk. Sometimes I talk a lot. I answer questions, guide students through classwork, and I facilitate discussion. I cheer for their success in my office hours and I attend meetings or professional development sessions, sometimes daily. This is all part of the job.
However, one semester my schedule was overbooked. I was teaching an extra class (an overload that gave me six classes) and I had agreed to serve on one too many committees. The impact on my mood and health was noticeable right away. Within the first week of classes, I left work each day with a migraine. After teaching three classes in a row one day and then seeing a line of students outside my office, I almost burst into tears. I was hungry and tired and I had to use the bathroom. I just needed a minute.
I knew something had to change in order for me to survive the semester. This is when I started to close my door between classes. It seems like such a simple solution, but I had never tried it before. Now, even if I only had five minutes of alone time before the next meeting, I close my door to recharge without interruptions. Sometimes I put a note on the door to let my coworkers and students know that I am there or that I will be right back. It works like a charm.
Instead of feeling constantly frazzled and impatient with other people, I reclaim the time necessary for me to be alone before being social.
Now, when coworkers ask if I want to get drinks after work, I don’t run the other way, exhausted by the thought of another hour of socializing. I started accepting invitations to get coffee or attend social functions. By taking care of myself during the day in small ways, I have more energy for beginning and maintaining relationships.
This works at home, as well. I can tell my husband that I need a few minutes alone without feeling guilty. He understands because he is the same way. We take our time to recharge and can function as better parents and spouses after a few minutes to ourselves.
Capitalizing on my strengths
After the revelation of watching Susan Cain’s TED Talk and reading her book, my whole mindset changed. I started to think about all the positive qualities of introverts. For me, this included my listening skills, my calm demeanor, and my attention to detail. Once I began to truly embrace these qualities, I chose activities, committees, and social activities that played to my strengths. And once I realized that extroverts are not always the ideal, I felt renewed confidence.
The best example of capitalizing on my strengths is from my committee work. I am required to serve on at least two committees each year, though many faculty members end up doing much more. In the past, I said “yes” to every committee invitation regardless of the group’s responsibilities and tasks. It felt necessary to accept work-related tasks because it was part of my job (which, of course, left me depleted at the end of the day).
Instead, I started declining committee invitations. If I could tell the group was a large one where individuals talked over each other and butted heads, the answer was no. Smaller committees where my voice could be heard or where I thought I could make a difference were more my style. I wanted more opportunities to be creative rather than problem solve.
In these situations, I formed stronger workplace relationships rather than retreating to my own safe corner after a meeting. In addition, my ability to contribute my perspective and skills boosted my confidence.
The same concept applies to my social life. A large party full of strangers is not well-suited to my personality. A small outing with people I know and trust is my ideal. No, I do not always get to dictate the size of meetings and social events, but I can accept or decline invitations without guilt. When I used to decline every invitation, I noticed that coworkers and friends eventually stopped inviting me at all. Now that I make more of an effort to show up, some my coworkers have become my closest friends. I spend more one-on-one time with people in situations where my personality shines through rather than draining my reserves in large group settings.
Reversing past scripts
Susan Cain calls it “The Extrovert Ideal,” the rise of “The Culture of Personality” that she attributes to beginning with Dale Carnegie. “But nowadays,” Cain writes, “we tend to think that becoming more extroverted not only makes us more successful, but also makes us better people. We see salesmanship as a way of sharing one’s gifts with the world.”
The idea that being extroverted is somehow better than other personality types is not a fact, though. It is something we are taught and that many of us grow up believing. However, if we can change the way we think about our personalities, our lives can also change in interesting ways.
For example, for much of my professional career, I believed I was a follower rather than a leader. It didn’t feel bad about this, but accepted it as just part of my personality. Leaders were the louder, exuberant personalities. Confident and naturally charismatic. Then I started to notice other types of leaders in my workplace. Not everyone had a big personality. In fact, many of the most effective leaders I witnessed led groups in quieter was. They let others talk and delegated when needed.
When I accepted my strengths as an introvert, I stepped up for more leadership roles. I knew that I had the ability to take on bigger challenges and succeed. I no longer believed that the extroverts make the best leaders or that they are the most popular and most loved. It took effort to retrain my thinking, but I have developed a habit of talking myself back into situations and opportunities that I previously talked myself out of doing.
There’s no reason I can’t be successful at this, I tell myself. I bring unique strengths to the table. My quiet, introverted side is my hidden superpower.
It feels like a mantra sometimes, but it works for me.
The lasting results
It is not easy to change a lifetime of negative self-talk. In my case, I had trained myself to think being an introvert was the less interesting and less effective personality. It took quite a bit of work to make myself think otherwise. I also do not know that the changes I’ve made are quite as obvious to my friends and coworkers. They know I am quiet, but they like me anyway, and they know I’m good at my job. More importantly, I am a good friend. I’ve always been this way, but now I know how to show it.
There isn’t always time to be social and go out after work or meet up with friends on the weekends, but I am always glad when I accept an invitation on my own terms. In the times when I feel the need to be alone and recharge, I make sure to take care of those needs. Taking care of myself is beneficial to my family, my coworkers, and my students. It all stems from knowing who I am and liking my personality.
And I like that I am quiet.
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