Sometimes you find valuable life lessons where you least expect it, and last night that was during an episode of Gilmore Girls (our current family viewing of choice). Who’d have thought a moral tale of introversion in the face of the extrovert ideal would be front and centre of the episode? For those who don’t know the show, it follows the lives of a mother Lorelai and her 16-year-old daughter Rory.
Last night’s episode raised a lot of my introvert hackles as Rory was called firstly to the school counsellor’s and secondly to the headmaster’s offices to discuss her ‘social behaviour’ and lack of participation. Her crime? Reading a book at lunchtime in the school cafeteria. The implication was not only that her behaviour was unacceptable, but that the school would not be able to recommend her to universities because of her lack of ‘social skills’. For the record, Rory is an excellent student who regularly gets high grades and will contribute in class when she has something valuable to say.
So, what can we learn about introvert myths from this example?
Firstly, I know that the show was made a while ago (it started in 2000), but I think a lot of the misconceptions around introversion still stand, and not only at school.
The negatives/ misconceptions:
Participation is the only route to success
Rory’s school revere group participation as a route to future success. But what if group activities are not always your thing? Rory contributes to the school paper, but that is not deemed sufficient and the counsellor urges her to be more social. She jokingly asks if there is a reading and Walkman listening club which falls on deaf ears. The expectation is you are either a participator or not and the definition here is very narrow.
Rory contributes in class (which is not always easy for introverts), gets great grades and has a best friend and boyfriend outside school. Plus, she is very close to her mum. Sometimes introverts have small social circles, and there is nothing wrong with that. Think quality rather than quantity. However, Rory is still made to feel lacking by her school. She is lucky that her mum completely supports her and they decide to play the system if it will help Rory’s dream of getting into Harvard.
Participation needs a broader definition and not one that only refers to the extrovert ideal’s definition.
Being alone is not okay
While the word introvert was not used at any point in the programme, it is clear that Rory’s need for time alone to recharge during the school day was not deemed acceptable by the school. They used the term ‘loner’ in its most derogatory sense, particularly when Rory is told by the counsellor that universities don’t look kindly on loners. There is only judgement of Rory’s quiet nature and no attempt at understanding.
We all need connection with others (and we can all benefit from time alone), but there is a big difference between solitude and isolation. For some people solitude is restorative, such as Rory’s need for quiet to recharge during her busy school day; whereas isolation is damaging, not restorative. People can choose solitude, but isolation is generally forced upon you.
It is important to keep an eye out for those who withdraw if you are concerned for their mental wellbeing. However, most introverts will use time alone to recharge not because they are withdrawing, but because they need it.
Schools value noise over quiet
Speaking in class is still seen as the gold standard of the ideal student in a lot of schools. However, it is important not to confuse quantity with quality. Introverts are generally less interested in speaking for speaking’s sake, but will contribute if they have something relevant to say.
The introvert’s brain needs to think and process thoughts before speaking, whereas the extrovert’s thoughts and opinions form as they speak. Neither way is better or worse, but in the classroom’s “speaking up” scenario it is certainly easier for extroverts. The good news is there are plenty of tools and strategies that introverts can use in these situations. Even a simple holding phrase such as “let me just think about that” will allow the introvert brain time to process and frame their thoughts.
Have you ever been told in a parents’ evenings that your child “needs to speak up more in class”? I would suggest asking what other opportunities your child is offered to contribute instead of just a record of how much they speak. If students know what a discussion topic will be before a class, they have time to prepare their opinions. Submitting written contributions will also show the students’ understanding of, and engagement in, what has been happening in class. Speaking must not be the only measure of participation.
For me the ultimate irony is that quiet is requested and indeed mandated at times they want the children to concentrate, particularly in exams. I think the value of silence could be beneficial at other times too and not just for the introverts.
Introverts can all stretch if they want to
Rory made an active decision to go along with the school’s expectations and sets about trying to increase her social circle. Getting into Harvard was the motivation that she needed to be able to stretch herself to embrace situations she wouldn’t normally choose.
Now, Rory’s ambition may not resonate with other introverts, but there will be other dreams that motivate you to stretch yourself out of what is comfortable for you. This is something all introverts can do if they want or need to. Stretching yourself whether it is giving a presentation in front of a class or attending a party where we are not sure if you will feel comfortable is possible – in fact anything is – as long as you know you can return to your natural quiet self afterwards.
Often introverts need to take small steps out of their comfort zone rather than throwing themselves into something. It’s the way we’re wired and brain imaging shows how introverts and extroverts react differently to stimulation. Introverts find it easier to participate in anything that they feel passionate about and it is in these situations that they are more likely to join in and be able to speak up. As my previous blog on comfort zones mentions introverts and extroverts have a different relationship with comfort zones and how to grow and learn works differently for them both.
Introversion will find its own way to succeed
The school’s rigid one size fits all approach suggests that there is little room for individuality, but by the end of the episode (*Spoiler Alert*) the headmaster’s opinion has changed and you see Rory happily eating her lunch while reading and listening to music. There is even a kindred spirit who joins her with their own book but doesn’t interrupt her.
Rory’s choices both socially and academically come to be respected and she is able to return to being her quiet self without judgment.
There is still a huge lack of awareness about what introversion really is. Fundamentally how you manage your energy the key element to what makes introverts and extroverts different. There are also many strengths and benefits that introverts can bring to all situations. Our society needs reflective, highly observant people who thinks before they speak and wonderful listeners and creative problem solvers. Introverts and Extroverts complement each other and both are essential for a balanced and successful society.
Parental support is key
For me, one of the most important parts of this story is the value of parental support. Lorelai is there all the time for her daughter and tells her daughter not to doubt who she is and who she should be. When Rory is trying to be friendly with a new group of alpha females, Lorelai lets her get on with it and is there for her during the fall out. Together they come up with a plan to help Rory succeed, but do it on their own terms
Helping teenagers to be independent is one of a parents’ key duties; and here Lorelai seems to get the right balance of allowing Rory to be Rory while having her back whichever way things play out. They are able to communicate easily, which I know isn’t always the case, but it is a great example of a parent and introverted teen succeeding together.
I’m wondering what I need to watch to get my next introvert inspiration!
PS, if anyone is interested, the episode I am referring to is Season 2, Episode 7 Like Mother, Like Daughter https://www.netflix.com/browse?jbv=70155618