Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Being an Introvert

It occurred to me that I've done a lot of talking about introversion, but I haven't actually gone into much detail about the introverted aspects of my personality.

I'm five years older than the oldest of my two younger sisters, so there was a five year period when I was an only child.  My mom told me that she didn't really play with me much when I was a child, which I think is a good thing.  She (wanting other children) didn't want me to become dependent on her for my entertainment, and wanted me to learn on my own to use my imagination.  At least part of what makes me a good creative writer can probably be attributed to this.

So from a very early age I grew accustomed to and grew to enjoy being alone.  Right now all the people that know me personally are nodding their heads because it fits my personality perfectly.  My sisters, being younger and prone to girly things, were not companions for me at all until they were probably about fifteen, so most of the time I was either playing with Legos by myself in my room, or running around outside in our yard.

Even starting in kindergarten, I never hung out with a big group of friends.  I always had two or three best friends that I hung out with on a regular basis and did all the typical kid stuff like sleepovers.  I did know enough people to be able to invite 6-10 over to my house for my birthday every year, but for most of them, that was the only time they came over.  I've never made friends easily, and when I do, I always feel like it's a bizarre set of coincidental circumstances that has made us close rather than any actual friendliness on my part.  Actually, hanging out with the group of Sabres fans I've met online is really the first time in my life I've hung out with a large group on a consistent basis.

Throughout college, I was a pretty quiet guy.  I made my first friends at college only because a guy I'd been friends with in high school would be like "hey, these people are cool, we should hang out with them," rather than any work on my part.  I never went to a single party, and spent most of my free time alone in my room either reading or writing.  My friends were more prone to outdoorsy things than going out, so I never felt like I didn't have anything to do, and I certainly never minded my isolation.

That's the real difference between shy people and introverts.  The shy person looks out the window at people and wishes they could join them.  The introvert is happy being left alone in their room and to their own devices.  I've never looked at crowds, or parties, or any group activities and wished I had some quality that would make me more comfortable among them.  I've simply been happy as a solitary person.

There are some limitations to being introverted.  The most obvious is that American culture tends to reward extroverts, those that are good at engaging people, that thrive in large groups, and that are effective in winning over a room.  I am, quite simply, not one of those people.  Events such as parties and dances...well they don't quite terrify me, but they make me very uncomfortable.  I usually end up creating an artificial isolation for myself, either by finding a person I know well that I can talk to, or by blocking out the thoughts and opinions of everyone around me and acting oblivious to their presence.

I am really quite terrible at approaching people.  I remember when I was home for the summer, going out to various places around town and asking for job applications was like having teeth pulled without anesthetic.  It was an absolute chore, as was asking for things to do back when I worked as an engineer.  I had an immense difficulty in doing so.

That I think is the biggest reason why I never fit in, and why I was ultimately laid off.  I know that this is a topic I have commented on before, but it bears mentioning again.  The office was chock full of extroverts, of people that thrived on continual interaction with people.  They would describe themselves as go-getters, very outgoing, very engaging, noticeably excitable.  I am very much the opposite.  I tend to be stoic, a little closed off, polite and friendly, but rather quiet and not prone to engaging people.  I firmly believe that they were unaware of the differences in introverted and extroverted people, and that those traits are inherent, not malleable.  I was constantly told to be more engaging and to look more excited.  (Seriously, I was told to look more excited.  I was trying to be an engineer, not win a fucking Oscar.)  It's like asking a dog to be a cat, it just doesn't work that way.

I'm not someone who thrives on constant interaction, constant feedback, status meetings, progress updates, formal meetings, informal meetings, etc.  In fact, those things inhibit me.  They make me second guess myself, they make me nervous, like every minuscule mistake is more pronounced.  While working as an engineer, from day one, I felt like my job was constantly on the line.  Which I realize is an absurd notion, but no matter how often I tried to reassure myself that I was on the right track and needed only to work hard, and to think, that thought remained.  As a result, my work did begin to suffer, which brought about more attention, which made me feel even worse and ultimately led to my demise.

It was frustrating because on the few occasions when my introverted nature was allowed to thrive, I hit home runs.  There was a project that, after a brief overview and some background reading material, I was basically left alone.  I sought input when I needed it on various aspects, but I probably did 90 to 95% of the work on my own, and I did it so well I got a performance based bonus for it.

The funny thing is that while introverts are generally seen as weird and abnormal, studies show that the split between introverts and extroverts is about even in the United States.  It really shouldn't be that difficult for people to learn how to deal (for lack of better wording) with introverted people in a professional setting.  Hell, most businesses have an entire department devoted to knowing how employees should interact with one another called Human Resources.  But still, introverts get misunderstood and walked all over.  Taking the time to think about a problem rather than talking during a meeting is seen as boredom, or worse, stupidity.  A lack of constant feedback on a project is seen as apathy.  I can't be unique, I'm sure this stuff happens everywhere.  It's frustrating.

It might seem like I'm complaining, or I'm making excuses, but I'm not.  I adore who I am, I love that I can spend days alone without batting an eye, and I can work to overcome, or step around my limitations.  I just wish that myself, and other introverts weren't so often misunderstood.

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