Many people have a mental image of introverts that includes reclusiveness, social awkwardness, very few friends and an empty calendar. Certainly there are introverted people who embody that stereotype. They are visible, even though their conspicuousness comes in varying degrees.
Perhaps they go so far as to bring a book to a party so they can tuck themselves into a corner and scrupulously avoid talking to anyone. Or they intentionally wander from one small grouping of people to another, offering the appearance of engaging, but escaping before being sucked into actual conversation. They may offer short, yes/no answers to informal questions and completely disregard the societal norm of expanding on their answer or even – gasp! – asking a reciprocal question. They tend to find or create jobs (like refilling the veggie tray, collecting dirty dishes, checking on the children) because it’s easier to be busy helping than it is to be witty and charming.
Visible introverts are known and recognized as introverts. They can get away with being stand-offish or aloof. It is a standard assumption that they will arrive late and/or leave early. Their family and close friends accept them as they are and everyone just goes about their business. No big deal.
I’m here to tell you about the hidden introverts. The invisible ones. Those who blend into the social scene. The introverts whom most people assume to be extroverts.
That would be me.
I am a competently social person. I am quite capable of witty repartee in a group. I can function reasonably well in one-on-one conversation, be that in the role of good listener, mentor, or simply holding up my end of the dialogue. But the underlying stressor is the constant unknown of “where is this going and what’s coming next?” That’s why I’d much rather be on stage than in a small group discussion. If I’m the only one doing the talking, I am free from the anxiety of constantly preparing myself for whatever the other person is going to say or ask.
I know I’m not the only person on the planet who feels the social awkwardness of an introvert yet is perceived by many to be extroverted. So how can we differentiate between the two spectra and be more understanding of those who seem to overlap?
Here’s a simple categorizing tool. It’s a question of whether being with people is draining or filling.
Extroverts are filled up or energized by social activity. Conversation and connectivity fuel them and stabilize them. Being alone quickly feels like loneliness. An isolated extrovert is an antsy, unhappy person.
Conversely, introverts are filled up or energized by being alone. No matter their level of capability in social settings, being with people – being “on” – is draining. It requires effort. And that effort has to be preceded and followed by some serious solitude in order to maintain an appearance of sanity.
Hence my disturbing anxiety at having to do seemingly simple things like grocery shopping on a Monday after a full weekend. (Why can’t people just let me read a book and eat pie all day?!?!)
Shopping is a whole beast unto itself. For an introvert, one of the greatest inventions of all time is the self-checkout lane. It ranks even higher than self-serve pay-at-the-pump gas stations. The goal of shopping is to get in, get what you need, and get out…without having to interact with anyone. I have been known to leave without some of the things I need because it’s easier to put it off to another day than it is to ask someone to help me. (I do know that “easier” isn’t necessarily “better”; I’m slowly improving my fake confidence.)
Going to a new grocery store is always a monumental hurdle. I don’t know where things are. The carts are different. The brands are different. The check-out procedure is different. It all makes me feel like a lost, bumbling idiot, and that just makes me feel conspicuous.
Learning how to shop in Ethiopia was the worst. The worst! I am quite sure my family would have literally starved to death if it weren’t for sweet friends that led me by the hand through the stores and taught me how to shop. Eternal blessings upon Beth and Colette (who had to go by “Nicole” the whole time she lived in Ethiopia because “colette” sounds like the Amharic word for testicle. Just thought I’d throw that in there for my own amusement, if not for yours).
Just to prove that I am indeed growing in this area, I went to the market on Saturday and bought things. Most previous attempts at market shopping have involved me wandering from stall to stall, too nervous about the procedure to do anything but pretend that farm-fresh, local, pesticide-free produce isn’t good enough for me, and I come home with nothing. This time I pretended to know what I wanted and I had my own shopping bags with me and I paid cash and I bought apples, peppers, sweet potatoes and carrots! See? Progress!
Telephones are another anxiety trigger. They’re worse than face-to-face conversations because you can’t get clues from facial expressions or read lips if there’s too much ambient noise. Cell phone conversations make me want to go for a ride in the dryer; those half-second delays in transmission…the starts and stops as we figure out whose turn it is to talk…I can’t stand it! Just send me a text or an email so I can respond if/when I want to!
Okay, enough. Let me somehow bring this to a coherent close. Being an introvert means that being with people is tiring. That doesn’t mean I hate everybody (even though I may temporarily feel that way by the end of the evening). It doesn’t mean I don’t have friends. It doesn’t mean I don’t want to ever be with anybody anywhere. It just means I have to balance that social time with alone time, and if I don’t get the required alone time, I’m probably (definitely) gonna get crazy and cranky and unreasonably angry.
And so begins summer break. Lord, bless and protect these 4 kids who deserve better than Psycho Mama.