As you will probably know, I am passionate about being an introvert and all things introversion. Through my work I hear about other’s relationships with introversion and as part of National Introvert Week, I wanted to share my own story.
Firstly, I only really understood introversion in my 30s and it wasn’t until I read Susan Cain’s Quiet that it finally felt like all the pieces dropped into place and I understood why I am the way I am. I had heard the word before, but didn’t really know much about it. It was synonymous with being a loser, a loner, a wallflower (in fact the dictionary definitions and synonyms are still shockingly negative – but that’s for another post).
Since that time, I have fully claimed my own introversion and am proud of what it offers me and how I can use my own understanding and experience to help others realise that they do not need fixing: they are simply introvert. By working with rather than against my introversion I feel more capable and confident than I ever was in the past. So where did it all start?
As I child I found groups of people I didn’t know intimidating and would hang back and observe until I felt I had the lie of the land. I also didn’t find it easy to talk to new people or to speak up in class. People would refer to me as shy, and there may have been an element of that. Introversion and shyness are not the same thing, though, and looking back I recognise that introversion played a huge part in my reticence.
With a group of friends, I have always been chatty and would even get asked to stop talking in class at times by my teachers. Not typically introverted behaviour, I guess, but then there are many different types of introvert. And I was definitely an introvert: and observer, a dreamer, someone who would learn by watching and needed to think deeply before contributing to a group discussion. I was quiet in new or over-stimulating situations and I was happy in my own company. I used to play for hours with my dolls house and write books and poems; later listening to music and reading voraciously.
As I moved into my teenage years these traits stayed with me. I was lucky that I had a wonderful group of friends, but still found it hard meeting new people and would sometimes be thought of as standoffish where I was really just awkward and insecure. I’m guessing that here social anxiety was mixed in with my introversion and the edges blurred. I often had the feeling that I was different to others, that there was something wrong with me. I needed my time at home to recharge and relished writing my diary as a place to decompress.
I think it was at this time that I started to experience introvert hangovers (yes, they are an actual thing!), although it would take until my 40s to understand what they were. All I knew was that every few months, through my teens, 20s and 30s, I would need to go to bed for a day or two. Occasionally longer. I was always worried I was skiving as I wasn’t really “ill”, but equally I knew that could not keep going. After my couple of days in bed I would be right as rain and get back into everything at full pelt. I now understand that this was by body’s way of telling me that I had not respected my introvert’s need for quiet time to gain energy and had effectively burnt myself out. I still sometimes push myself too far, but I am much more aware of my needs and respect my energy much better now.
Moving from school and university to the world of work threw up more of my introverted traits. I was diligent, hardworking and leaning towards perfectionism, but didn’t like putting myself forward and still struggled to speak up. I wasn’t 100% sure what I wanted to do, but I knew it needed to be something creative. I worked in design agencies in London and Madrid helping to organise events and product launches, which I loved. This may not seem a typically introverted job as it involved being around lots of people, socialising, networking and travelling. And here again is another introvert myth. We are not hermits. We need people and connection just like extrovert and ambiverts. I thrived in my job as the one who got things done behind the scenes, the coordinator of everything, the client’s sounding board, but never the centre of attention. It suited me brilliantly – and would have suited me even better if I’d understood my introvert nature and prioritised my need for quiet time.
After my children were born, I had a career break and relished my time at home with them. However, I struggled with the playgroups and the constant expectation to be able to talk to and to bond with others simply because you were both parents. Seeing myself standing on the edge of a noisy hall, observing and wondering who to speak to, I hadn’t changed since I was a child. I made an active decision to find groups that suited me (and my kids) and listened to my gut if there was somewhere I was forcing myself to be, rather than somewhere I wanted to be. And so, I made good friends, with shared values and priorities. I was beginning to respect my introversion and learn to work with it.
The travel and late nights in my previous career were not compatible with the family life I wanted to lead and I knew I needed a new challenge. I retrained as a coach and found that here I was able to employ my introvert skills to their full potential: listening deeply, being an observer to what is going on with my client, being comfortable with silence to allow them time to think, noticing things that other people miss and being able to reflect and process deeply what they are talking about. Being with a client is never about me and always about them. So many come to me and share their dreams with me saying “I’ve never told this to anyone before, but…..”. It is a privilege to be part their journey with them and to help them step into their introversion. I feel that I am exactly where I need to be and am so grateful to my introversion for making me the way I am.
I regularly have lightbulb moments when I realise why I behaved or felt the way I did. Putting all the pieces together of how introversion shows up in my life is fascinating. I now know why I don’t enjoy going to the hairdressers (being the centre of attention and having to make small talk – no thanks!). I also know why I am keen to go home after a night out when everyone else seems to want to keep going. My social battery is flat and needs quiet time to recharge.
And you see, this is the thing, I haven’t changed, but what is different, is that I understand myself and respect my own needs and my own temperament. I am more confident in having boundaries and asserting myself than I have ever been. Now I know there is nothing wrong with me and I don’t need fixing – I’m just an introvert. And introversion is a gift.
Happy National Introvert Week!