I am a closet introvert.
I was voted "friendliest" in my high school graduating class of 400. When I participated in the high school Junior Miss pageant, no one commented on the performance of my endlessly rehearsed piano piece played in the talent section. But many people commented on how natural I looked on stage as I thanked the pageant producers and handed out flowers to our coaches. By eighteen I had carefully observed and adopted the survival skills of extroversion. I went on to major in journalism in college, become a reporter, then a trainer and finally the executive director of a marketing certification program.
Answers to the Meyers-Briggs personality test landed me squarely in the "extrovert" category.
It took me awhile to figure out that my leaning toward extroversion came to me as a survival skill in an extroverted world. Susan Cain's book gave me courage to believe I will not only survive, but thrive, as I continue to unleash my introverted self.
Though I found the entire book to be thoughtful, well researched and inspirational, the section about "highly sensitive" people showed me that what Western culture considers a weakness, should, instead, be considered a strength.
Cain tells the story of a psychologist who was described by an associate as "highly sensitive." "It was as if these two words described her mysterious failing."
I feel that way all the time. People who know me always tell me that "I'm too sensitive." I believed them for a long time and tried to toughen up my hide. But in all situations, that approach made me miserable and unsatisfied.
The psychologist Cain wrote about decided to explore the inner lives of thirty-nine people who described themselves as being either introverted or easily overwhelmed by stimulation. Says Cain, "She asked them about the movies they liked, their first memories, relationships with parents, friendships, love lives, creative activities, philosophical and religious views. Based on the interviews she created a voluminous questionnaire that she gave to several large groups of people. Then she boiled their responses down to a constellation of twenty-seven attributes. She named people who embodied these attributes "highly sensitives."
Here's a few of the insights her researched showed. The highly sensitive tend to:
be philosophical or spiritual in their orientation, rather than materialistic or hedonistic
dislike small talk
describe themselves as creative or intuitive
dream vividly and can often recall their dreams the next day
love music, nature, art, physical beauty
feel exceptionally strong emotions
process information about their environments unusually deeply
be highly empathic (as if they have thinner boundaries separating them from other people's emotions)
It's taken many years for me to recognize and trust these aspects of my personality. But it changed my life. I stopped apologizing for my penchant to stay home and read a book, or write, or knit, or paint. I learned that the experiences which I find most fulfilling and interesting require a great deal of solitude. I learned to feel lonely and to enjoy that loneliness for what it allowed me to create. I learned the satisfaction of simply listening to my own reactions to the world, my expressions and creations.
I have accepted the freedom and discovered the benefits of invisibility.
Introverts have such a well-honed negative reputation as bores. And yet, they might be the most interesting people in the room. Whether in a classroom of children, a family meal, or a boardroom of executives, the extroverts will be heard, but the introverts will likely have the truly thought-provoking ideas.
Like Susan Cain's. But will it be only introverts who read her book?