Speak Up / Speaking Out

Owning your introvert-self: How to be one in a sea of extroverts

. 8 min read . Written by Shivani Kowadkar
Owning your introvert-self: How to be one in a sea of extroverts

A few years ago, my mother refused to attend my grandmother’s funeral because the sheer thought of being around so many people drained her off of her energy. At that time, we didn’t know she was an introvert.

Being in my own head is my favourite pastime. I’ve always known myself to be an introvert. And I have always been aware of the introvertedness spectrum, the fact that there is no way of being an introvert.

The kind of flack my mother invited by not attending grandmother’s funeral was unprecedented. Hers is a case of extreme introvertedness, and even when I know where her sentiment comes from, it was a while before I could reconcile with her decision.

My shade from the wide ranging palette of introversion

Knowing what’s happening on the inside is extremely important for me. I have to keep in touch with the inner me. Everything else is secondary to spending time with myself. Being comfortable with and aware of your inner work on a daily basis is refuelling for me. After all, I have to spend the rest of my life with myself. I am the constant. Introvertedness is how I am one with myself.

Books take you places without having moved, they say. Rumination is a form of travel too. It takes you through layers of your own self.

I have lost count of the number of times I have pulled a last minute no-show on various occasions because ‘I just didn’t feel like it’. People would associate this behaviour with general social awkwardness or just plain unreliability. My kin and kith jumps at the smell of an opportunity to label me unreliable. Explaining why I chose to lock myself up in the bedroom, while the guests lurked in the drawing room believing the lie I’d forced my parents to sell them, that I am not home, is a task.

Explaining why, at a cousin’s wedding did I choose to hang out with the ‘panditjis’ who wouldn’t utter a word instead of hanging out with cousins who wouldn’t stop uttering words, is a bigger task. It’s not general awkwardness. It’s not shyness or any other variable of awkwardness.

However, with the arrival of Susan Cain’s book Quiet in my life, life has become easier for two reasons. One, I know I am an introvert for sure. Two, I just quote a piece from the book every time someone asks me why I behave the way I do.

In my case, shyness and introversion don’t come together. I was active in the theatre groups of my city, very comfortable on stage and in conversations with strangers. Research was a major part of my education and it required me to strike up conversations with strangers on the streets which I did with utmost ease. My kind of introversion  translates into an aversion to high stimulation environments – lots of people and noise in particular.

If there were to be a ranking of the world’s most loosely and vaguely used terms, ‘introvert’ and ‘extrovert’ would both share the first place. Anyone quiet gets the former term thrown at them time after time and someone chatty gets to be called an extrovert. Simple.

This is a very simplistic and misleading understanding of the idea of introversion which I was sold on for most of my life. Simplifications bury so much of nuance! However, having read Susan Cain’s book, I got the chance to research and find out the true meaning of these terms.

In its essence, if you find spending time alone energising as opposed to feeling energised by spending time with people, you’re probably an introvert.

I like to dwell on the inside. That’s my home.

I have an active inner life. When I retreat to my inner life, I retreat to a world where the oxygen is as fresh as it was, or I imagine it to have been, in the 6th Century BC. My inner serene sanctum sanctorum sounds like the sea and smells like fresh lemons. That is how much I love being by myself.

My idea of a good weekend is just spending eight hours at a stretch by myself in a cafe where the probability of running into someone known is slimmer than sleak. Zoning out, something I’ve been told I am capable of doing at the drop of a hat, is in fact, ‘zoning in’ for me. Imagine deep sea diving – cacophony transforming into slow murmurs and then into silence, slowly approaching the seabed, engulfed by deeper blues with every passing blissful second.

This does sound like the back of a luxury tea brand packet, but when this happens in the middle of a meeting, it’s not the most efficient way of functioning in a workplace. Well, I’m working on it.

Some of my favourite fellow introverts also shared bits from their lives.

The introvert/extrovert switch

Our vivacious Head of Content at Kool Kanya walks into the office like a ray of sunshine playing George Ezra on her phone, wishing the best morning to each one of us, every day. I hadn’t thought of her as an introvert by any stretch of my imagination, until she told me she is one. Falling for the simplistic basis of judging someone’s introversion/extroversion, I judged too soon. As a Content Head, she cannot be within her shell and is required to step out of her boundaries.

For her, extroversion marks her public face and introversion, her private self. Neither of which is a pretence though. She switches from being an introvert to an extrovert very naturally. ‘It’s just different people within’, she says. The moment she walks out of office, she wants immediate quiet and that is why her cab commute is her private paradise. As an author, she has primarily been in the space of thinking. Alone time invigorates her fertile imagination, as she can hear voices within and mould them into words. Talking shouldn’t be the only way of communication, she says.

While her introvert/extrovert switch happens on a daily basis, a friend underwent a paradigm shift in life, from being an extrovert to an introvert. Back in school, he derived his energy from being around people. Today, he identifies as an introvert. The times when people accustomed to his old self meet him now, he leaves them surprised at his transformation.

Conserving social currency by choosing your silences

If I don’t have social currency, it shows on my face’. Social currency – is a term coined by another friend of mine for the limited exhaustible amount of energy she has to be ‘social’. Similarly, there have been very few parties where I haven’t been asked if I’m okay. There always comes a point when the longing for silence takes over. You just wish to be invisible to people around, to not answer or nod or acknowledge.

My mother, the mother of all introverts, was subjected to three hours of incessant one-sided chatting while she was driving. As she arrived at the point of her social currency exhaustion, she drew the car to a sudden halt and stepped out for five minutes to catch her breath. Left without any explanation, her alarmed passenger seat friend froze. And didn’t thaw for the remainder of the journey.

Stop pleasing people

A friend said she’d prepare a list of questions in her mind before approaching someone with a ‘Hi’. She invariably ends heaving sighs at the end of conversations, sometimes in the middle of conversations, even with friends. ‘Talking, whoever it is I’m talking to, is a draining task’.

As a child, everyone failed to understand her need to be by herself. She was compelled to participate in a range of activities, scheduled one after the other throughout the day, while all she wanted was an hour of solitude. When a 12 year old herself expressed the need to spend an hour by herself, doing nothing, they said she wanted to waste her time. Well habituated to her forced extroverted behaviour, she spent her school life occupied with everyone and everything but herself.

‘All of that was  a pretence. An act put up to please people. In hindsight, it makes me sad to see my schooling as an unauthentic experience’, she says.

In the 12th grade, her health took a hit. She underwent a mental breakdown. ‘No one around me could wrap their head around what struck me. They weren’t able to understand what I was trying to say’. Months of therapy later, she decided not to please anyone anymore.

For the world, it was hard to understand why an outgoing and ‘dynamic’ girl simply withdrew. For them, it was a major downturn. I did withdraw. But from a chaotic pretence to a calmer place. I talk when I feel like talking, I participate in social life as and when I want to. Period’, she adds with the smile of a seasoned person.

Bol bachchan-ism on a pedestal

We use the term ‘bol-bachchan’ to describe someone who is a sweet-talker or someone who wins over people with their gift of gab. At family gatherings, most episodes of my uncle’s ‘In today’s world’ series, valorised the virtue of ‘putting yourself out there’. He’d praise the dancing-singing-conversing cousins to the heavens and would foretell their successful careers.

A similar scenario would play out during Parent and Teacher meetings at school. While extroversion has always been considered an admirable way of being, something to aspire for, introversion has a negative connotation attached to it. But if introversion was indeed a disadvantage, the world wouldn’t have seen figures such as Mahatma Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, Stephen Wozniak, J.K. Rowling and many more.

The abilities of introspection, analysing, listening, observing and self-knowledge hold them in good stead and make them capable of succeeding in various roles.

There was a time when I’d see my introversion as a shortcoming. But now, I don’t. Before telling the world to accept nuances in people, I have learnt to accept my own nuance.

No longer do I spend hours beating myself up for not talking at a gathering or feeling drained at a party where I’m the host.

In spite of being an introvert myself, I took time to come to terms with my mother’s extreme introvertedness and its manifestations. I was squirming and shifting in my own introverted seat for so long, let alone comprehending someone else’s behaviour. But I’ve learnt to be non-judgmental towards myself first.

The next time a friend of yours has a hard time explaining why they didn’t turn up, give them space to not answer. If you’re a boss and have a team member who parks herself in a quiet nook with earphones plugged in, let her be. Don’t push them to be more, or rather, seem more ‘active’. Talking is not the only means of communication and of gauging ability.

We’re an assortment – introverts, extroverts, some a blend of both – bringing variety to the table and maintaining a good balance. There will be a colossal waste of untapped potential if we stick to biased parameters. Being more accommodative and respectful towards each other’s versions is a step in the right direction.