(This is one in a series of essays I’m writing about my life. A specific kind of autobiography, I guess. The rest of these essays are here.)
When I take part in a technical event for the WordPress community, or lead a meeting, or present to a conference hall full of people, it would be hard for the people listening to me to understand just how much of an introvert I am. Introversion has always been part of my character and, through many years of self-analysis, has taken me a very long time to properly understand.
When I present on a topic in front of a group of people, I’m not nervous, because I know that it’ll never be as bad as bullying I experienced during my years at school. As long as I know my stuff, then I am confident and know how to communicate my knowledge. If I didn’t think I could present well and in a vaguely entertaining way, I wouldn’t put myself forward as a speaker.
Presenting to a room full of people doesn’t conflict with my introverted character because there is a psychological barrier between me and the audience. The audience members have chosen to be there because they know me, or because they’re interested in the topic about which I’m speaking.
However, put me in a group at a social occasion and it’s a different matter. Where the discussion can go in any direction, or the people are put together in a more random grouping, I struggle. I either have difficulty following the conversation or – more usually – I feel that I have nothing to contribute. The pressure to try and contribute or make “small talk” is one which clashes horribly with my introversion and it usually leads to me getting away from the situation as quickly as is polite. This doesn’t just apply to group environments but even in one-to-one situations.
This all comes across as being highly anti-social, but that’s not an accurate assessment of who I am. I thought for many years that I was anti-social, because I felt my stress levels rising when I was in a social environment. After many years, I realized that I’m not anti-social at all, but an introvert in the proper sense of the word. Even a psychologist’s simple explanation rings all the bells for me.
If a crowded cocktail party feels like a holding cell to you, chances are you’re an introvert. Introverts are drained by social encounters and energized by solitary, often creative pursuits. Their disposition is frequently misconstrued as shyness, social phobia, or even avoidant personality disorder, but many introverts socialize easily; they just strongly prefer not to. In fact, the self-styled introvert can be more empathic and interpersonally connected than his or her outgoing counterparts.Simple explanation by Psychology Today
When I read a few articles about introversion, one aspect spoke strongly to me and hit the nail precisely on the head: that I am drained by social encounters or environments where there is a great deal of even indirect sensory input from other people. Half an hour in a busy supermarket exhausts me. A visit to a well-attended art exhibition is usually cut short because I can’t concentrate when there are other people around. A week at work in a busy team environment means that I’m mentally exhausted on a Friday night – the thought of going out for the evening is a no-go.
In order to recharge the energy I use up by interacting with other people, I need time on my own. To allow my brain to rest and to focus on things which I can enjoy entirely on my own. Whether it’s watching a t.v. show or going hiking; writing a blog post or editing some photographs. This can often be mis-construed by some people who don’t know me well as a slight against them; that I can’t (or don’t want to) spend time with them. That’s rarely true: it’s more that I need a certain amount of time to energize myself again.
So far, this all sounds negative. But I’m glad that I’m an introvert. The up-side of my character is that I’m more empathic towards people, more creative than many, even if I’m not especially talented in many creative pursuits. I get much more from situations than many people I know: even sitting here in my office, I can enjoy the light and shade cast by the sun shining through gaps in the shutters and the sounds of birds chirruping in the tree outside the window. I enjoy and notice aspects of the everyday which a more extrovert mind may not notice. In a city, I am enthralled by the play of light and shade on the buildings and the little interactions within the hustle and bustle. But the hustle and bustle itself exhausts me.