The above picture couldn't be any more the epitome of introversion: a mug of hot chocolate and a nice book. And what could be a more appropriate way to write about this very book than on my blog in a quiet corner of the internet. This past year as I've come to terms with my social anxiety, I've been searching and longing for a book that would perfectly describe my very nature and reassure me that I was not alone in how I felt. I needed to find a book whose words would ring true for me and bring me comfort in knowing that I'm not the only one who has a bit of a phobia with the telephone and shrinks within herself when around other people.
I read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Caine earlier this year, clearly drawn by the title. I thought, yes, us quiet, introverted folk have to stick together! I hoped this would be the book to reaffirm who I was, but instead I was left disappointed in finding that this book was merely about quiet people overcoming presentation and networking skills in order to make it in the work world. Rather than feeling a sense of self-discovery, I felt more like I was being lectured at a college workshop. Frustrated, I went back on Goodreads.com and continued to search, when I stumbled upon The Introvert's Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World by Sophia Dembling.
Again, I was drawn in by the title, which is pretty similar to Cain's, and I don't know if it was the soothing colors or the cute, fat little man on a swing in the corner, but I felt really good about this book. My intuitions turned out to be true. While this book isn't focused on social anxiety, it's the closest I've come to opening a book and being able to relate to its content so deeply. Every couple of pages, I found myself agreeing with the author's confessions - which were written with such honesty and a quick wit- and thinking, Me too! All my life I've classified myself as an introvert, but until reading this book I didn't truly know what that meant.
Like many, I often confused introversion with shyness, or what I now know to be social anxiety: those who feel trapped within themselves, who face difficulty in coming out of their shell and interacting with other people. While there are surely common traits between introversion and social anxiety that may overlap - as Dembling reiterates throughout her book - ultimately, an introvert is someone who can interact with people and go out to parties, but who for the most part finds tranquility being by themselves, doing their own thing... and they're perfectly happy with this choice! It's less a matter of feeling imprisoned and more a matter of personal choice, as well as energy-in/energy-out. In other words, as introverts interact in social situations, after awhile they begin to feel depleted of energy, and it takes leaving to get some alone time to recharge and prepare themselves for the next social encounter.
I relate so much to this energy-in/energy-out concept. Even talking with relatives this past Christmas Eve, at the beginning of the night I was bubbly and present, but as the night wore on I could feel my energy level decreasing, leaving me a dazed zombie in a crowded room. There are times when I really feel I need to find a quiet corner to retreat to, or even just shut myself in a bathroom, to temporarily escape the loud chatter of a party. I'm most at peace when I'm having my quiet time, sitting cozily on the couch with just my dog, either reading a book or watching TV or on my laptop. It's here when I'm not constantly on alert, my mind scrambling for words to say, putting on a performance (what Dembling calls her "dog and pony show"). I'm at ease when I'm having my quiet time, knowing I don't have to try my hardest to make people see who I am or try to act natural despite cracking under the pressure of everyone's eyes on me, but that I can simply be myself with no one watching.
Besides the need to remove myself from a social situation to recharge, another common trait among introverts that I immediately recognized in myself is the tendency for introverts to not be quick processors. By this, Dembling explains how, when talking to other people or having to form a sentence on the spot, introverts have deep thought processes occurring, but it takes them longer to put these deep thought processes into vocal expression. So, where an extrovert could easily go off on an eloquent tangent on their life story, an introvert would be more like: Ahh, okay, he just asked me a question. Oh, god, there's so many ways I could answer this. This is such an open-ended question and I could talk about it all day! Where do I even start?! Okay, words. Have... to find... words... and put them into a coherent sentence. This doesn't merely apply to daily conversation, however. Whereas extroverts thrive in small groups where ideas are being thrown around, introverts thrive and concentrate much better in isolation, such as in a quiet room by themselves where they can be alone with their thoughts.
When I came across this section in the book, it was like a sigh of relief. I've always been self conscious of the fact that I can't seem to think as quickly on my feet, much less articulate my thoughts properly into words, in the presence of other people. I'm often left stumbling over my words, scrambling to translate my thoughts into a proper sentence, in the end only managing to humiliate myself. I'm also the kind of person who can't truly concentrate unless I'm shut away in a quiet room by myself. Even the soft sound of the TV in the background or casual conversation around me or - hell - even the slightest sound like the shuffling of papers, puts me on edge and makes me flee for some peace and quiet so that I can properly hear myself think. I've always associated these quirks of mine to be a form of stupidity because I often felt stupid for not being able to think as quickly as others who could easily ramble off perfectly eloquent sentences and didn't require the same alone space as I did in order for my brain to work. But now I'm beginning to understand that I was never stupid, that there was never anything wrong with me. We're all different and we all have our own ways of processing thought. For myself and for all other introverts, the saying "Quiet people have the loudest minds," could not be more true.
But going back to the differences between social anxiety and introversion: even as I related so much to a great portion of this book, Dembling also mentioned some traits of introversion that didn't quite fit me, which makes me question whether I am as 100% introvert as I always thought I had been. Dembling writes how introverts can often put on a sort of act during social events, seemingly playing the role of an extrovert. They can turn this ability on and off as they please (that is, until they run out of energy) whereas it's not so simple with me. Sure, sometimes I can push through and come across as bubbly, but oftentimes I find it difficult to be extroverted, no matter how much I wish I could.
This leads to another fact that Dembling brings up. In response to the misconception that introverts are very lonely people, Dembling claims that most introverts are in fact not very lonely at all and are completely content having their alone time and being away from the crowd. It's the shy extroverts, she points out (yes, there are shy extroverts!) who are the loneliest, for these are the people who want to be part of the crowd, but have trouble taking that first leap. This statement absolutely describes me. Countless times have I looked on at a social gathering, envious of the people laughing and engaging in conversation and having a good time, wishing I could be among them. Despite this, I'm extremely hesitant to go so far as to call myself an extrovert. I know I'm not an extrovert. It's never fit me, and other than this one section, I've related so much to the content within this book for introverts. I do love my time of solitude and being alone with my thoughts, but I also suffer from frequent feelings of loneliness, wishing that I had my own group of friends who I could go to the occasional party with and, together, have our own little adventures we could look back on years later. I want so much to have that free-spiritied social life of one living in their twenties. Does this really make me an extrovert? No, I don't think so. I think it all comes down to a balance, as Dembling clarifies as well. She admits that some introverts certainly can get lonely, but it's due to having too much alone time and not having a stable circle of friends, which can be just as debilitating to an introvert as too much social time.
So, with all this in mind - these similarities and differences - am I or am I not an introvert? I still think I am. The problem is that my social anxiety comes into play as well and complicates things. I know I enjoy the respite of being curled up on the couch, happy to have my own alone time. But I also understand that this alone time can only go so far before I'll begin to experience feelings of loneliness and desire my own tight-knit group of friends, to be among others in a social event even if I'm not the center of attention. After all, everyone requires some sufficient form of human interaction and relationships, right? Being an introvert can have its challenges, since introverts do not go so far out of their way to be social as extroverts do. But this combined with social anxiety makes it all the more difficult for me. I know I have barriers and that I have to try my best to get past them. This book has validated a lot for me: that I am not unusual, that I am not alone. Just as with my social anxiety, I have now come to understand that introversion is just a way of being, and I hope to use Sophia Dembling's book as my own personal handbook, an aid to understanding myself and to surviving in this world as I am.