Re-Joining the social world outside my mind, home, and computer has stirred up all kinds of interesting thoughts lately. After my Big Breakdown in my mid twenties, I chose to isolate myself from most of the world. It was just me and my babies at home. Hubby was not even allowed in any more. I’m not sure any of that was a conscious decision or if it was a necessity born of a lack of coping skills. My severe depression, then unknown PTSD, suicidal thoughts (and a few actions) over those years forced me to hide myself deep within a thick-walled protective fortress of my own creation. I had no idea that my inner child had always been buried in there, and it took my Big Breakdown to find her and introduce her to the young adult me. I found her in there, scared, alone, and trembling. I didn’t entirely know why, and it took a long time, years of intense therapy sessions to get the entire story and start on this journey of becoming whole.
I know so much about myself now. I am understanding my needs and doing my best to fill them. Now I am not talking about cute new shoes or the latest smartphone. If you know me at all, those are not needs. My needs are soulful: I need to be understood (first by my own self, and now expanding this to a few safe others), I need to be creative, I need to be alone often, I need to be helpful, I need to keep learning, and I need to love and be loved. Sometimes I need chocolate ice cream too, but that’s a whole different story.
Therapy this week we explored my aversion to small talk in any social situation. I have written about it before here. I get bored, then annoyed, then feel actual physical pain, and feel anger when I am forced to listen to pointless stories full of details that I don’t need to know. I care about people, deeply. And so I do my best to listen and participate in something that is so obviously a need for most people. At least for most extroverts I think.
I am not shy. Not at all. I have no fear of saying anything to anyone. I have no fear of scolding other people’s children (in front of them) if I notice feelings getting hurt or the child is about to get hurt. I love being the leader, giving presentations or speeches, and I really love performing and being the center of attention. But I hate talking about personal nothings, like what we had for dinner, where I bought my shoes, or if I saw the latest movie. And I really hate listening, or attempting to listen when others go on and on about these things. Especially when they talk about their kids or pets. I have kids and pets and have very little I would want to randomly share about them.
My therapist asked me if I remember anyone going on and on with small talk when I was little. At first I thought she was nuts and just going back to those memories that therapists love to dredge up. But then I heard myself say, “My mom.”
And then I was transported back in time to the millions of occasions that my mom would be on the phone – talking for hours – and we were not allowed to interrupt her even though we could hear she was talking about the latest movie star scandal from People magazine. She would ask us to write her notes if it was an emergency, because to her it was rude for the person on the phone to ever hear her children in the background. I assume this was important in keeping up her facade that she was a perfect mom and we were perfect children, not pesky or unintentionally rude as is normal for small kids.
And then I remembered how many times I was dressed up in a perfect ruffly dress, and taken her friends’ houses to sit silently on the sofa while she chatted for hours. I was not allowed to interrupt there either, and if the friend asked me anything, my Mom would always answer for me, giving me a “keep your mouth shut or else” look. There would always be snacks on the table that I was instructed to say “no thanks” and stare at a plate of chocolate chip cookies for a few hours.
I was the youngest sibling. These memories are from before school age, when she was not working, and my brothers were in school, so I had to go every where with her. I didn’t want to wear the itchy lacy things she bought me. I wanted to wear shorts and climb trees. I didn’t want to sit still and “be a lady”. I did not care if anyone saw my underwear. Besides, why did she make me wear the lacy ones if no one was going to see it? I still remember how scratchy that felt on my little behind, and how I would squirm to try to itch myself politely, knowing Mom would hate it if anyone saw me adjust my undies.
So maybe, just maybe, some part of me does not want to be like my Mom. It is so simple, really. I am afraid if I enjoy the mindless buzz of talking that I will be like her? And of course my greatest fear is to become anything similar to either parent.
I don’t know, but I think it could play into it. Otherwise, it is simply my own extreme introversion. I’m convinced I would be introverted with or without childhood abuse. This is not a flaw, a disorder, or anything wrong with me. It is simply how I am wired and how I process my world. Two of my kids shows signs of some introversion and I try to respect that and give them alone time as needed. My youngest appears to be a full extrovert so far, which explains why he is extra exhausting to me.
I did some searching on this topic and found many irritating articles that do not understand introversion at all and only work to expand on myths and confusion. And to me, they stink of manipulation. Guides to manipulate those you talk to – to pretend to be interested, to lead conversations where you want them to go like a slimy salesman or lawyer. Yes – I could do those things, but I choose not to be fake. I choose to be me at all times. I choose to be the same me to everyone.
I’m only going to highlight a few ‘tips’ here:
1. Be curious about other people. “People are flattered when you find them appealing – and they naturally reciprocate,” says Dr Ann Demarais, psychologist and co-author of First Impressions: What You Don’t Know About How Others See You. Showing interest in others increases your likeability factor because it shows you’re confident. “And when you’re confident, you appear more attractive,” she says.
This first tip turned my stomach. I am not going to flatter people just for the sake of flattery. If I like your hair, I will genuinely say so. If not, I will be quiet unless you ask me about it. And then I will honestly say I liked the last cut better. I will not say I think you look like a Q-tip, although I may think that and actually visualize you cleaning giant ears. But my introverted vision is just for me. And the whole likeability factor? OMG. That makes me mad. I don’t give a crap if you like me. And I certainly don’t want you to like me based on some false flattery or something I am not. Ugh. Forget it.
And the thing is – I am curious about other people – genuinely. I can see the pain on faces, notice limps or twitches, see underlying sadness. I know when people are speaking vaguely and avoiding pain. I feel frustration. I sense tension. And I know when people are not being true. I heard the argument between the husband and wife as they walked up the driveway and I’m not fooled by the plastered on smiles. I’d much rather talk about what I see and feel and dig into what really matters. But most people don’t want to talk about real life, and I know that, so I usually pretend I don’t notice, to be polite and to talk about things appropriate to the situation.
5. Smile with your eyes. If your face feels and looks pleasant and happy, your conversation partner will feel relaxed. A happy face looks approachable and friendly. To keep your face open and happy, think positive thoughts: recall your last vacation, a funny joke, or last night’s episode of “Two and a Half Men.” Making conversation for introverts is easier if you’re happy and relaxed.
I struggle with this one, as my face does show my thoughts. I may look concerned while the mom is discussing her recipe because I am aware her 3 year old wandered out the door. I am not sure if she is aware, or if someone else is watching the little one. Many other moms are much more relaxed about watching children than I am and can get offended if I point out they are not watching theirs. So I have learned to watch them myself and speak up when needed to keep them safe. I purposely fill my glass only a little so I can get up often and look around. Or I know the friend with MS is in serious pain and shifting in her seat. I cringe right along with her. And then the one who is now living alone, her children grown up and her husband died. I sense her loneliness and longing underneath her silly story. I care about everyone and struggle to shield my reflection of what I feel on my face. I do have to remember to force a smile at time when my mind has wandered and I see everyone else smiling or laughing.
Bonus tip for small talk: wear a light scent. Research from Northwestern University shows that a light lemon smell increases your “likeability factor.” You don’t have to smell like citrus to make people like you – any pleasant, barely perceptible scent is effective. A light scent may give you confidence, especially if you have introverted personality traits.
There’s that likeability factor again. Oh man. Seriously? When’s the last time you decided to talk to someone because they smell good? Now I do think you should make sure you don’t smell bad, I mean a nice shower and a breath mint go a long way. But I have had many wonderful conversation with some very stinky people before, after a dance performance, after a run, heck, even after a child vomited on them. Smell is not high on my list of why I talk to people. Are so many people really this superficial??
I think everything works on a spectrum, and there is not a clear line of introversion vs extroversion. I believe I am extremely introverted.
This one seemed to understand introversion much better. I’m listing all 10 here.
Myth #1 – Introverts don’t like to talk.
This is not true. Introverts just don’t talk unless they have something to say. They hate small talk. Get an introvert talking about something they are interested in, and they won’t shut up for days.
Yes, exactly. I love talking. Get me going about brain research, education reform, biology, examining feelings, and so many other topics I am hard to shut up. The latest football game or what was on TV last night? I am not interested and probably clueless there was even a game or anything on TV. I live in my own world.
Myth #2 – Introverts are shy.
Shyness has nothing to do with being an Introvert. Introverts are not necessarily afraid of people. What they need is a reason to interact. They don’t interact for the sake of interacting. If you want to talk to an Introvert, just start talking. Don’t worry about being polite.
I love that – I don’t interact for the sake of interacting. I have no need for this.
Myth #3 – Introverts are rude.
Introverts often don’t see a reason for beating around the bush with social pleasantries. They want everyone to just be real and honest. Unfortunately, this is not acceptable in most settings, so Introverts can feel a lot of pressure to fit in, which they find exhausting.
I have been called blunt and dense more than once in my life. The social pleasantries feel forced and fake to me. I do my best not to offend though, and it is completely exhausting.
Myth #4 – Introverts don’t like people.
On the contrary, Introverts intensely value the few friends they have. They can count their close friends on one hand. If you are lucky enough for an introvert to consider you a friend, you probably have a loyal ally for life. Once you have earned their respect as being a person of substance, you’re in.
Yes – I value everyone. Even the person you are trash talking, so I don’t want to hear it. If you ever need me though, I’ll be the first one there.
Myth #5 – Introverts don’t like to go out in public.
Nonsense. Introverts just don’t like to go out in public FOR AS LONG. They also like to avoid the complications that are involved in public activities. They take in data and experiences very quickly, and as a result, don’t need to be there for long to “get it.” They’re ready to go home, recharge, and process it all. In fact, recharging is absolutely crucial for Introverts.
Exactly! The fair is fun for about 20 minutes. I’m done now. I enjoyed it, but I’m done now.
Myth #6 – Introverts always want to be alone.
Introverts are perfectly comfortable with their own thoughts. They think a lot. They daydream. They like to have problems to work on, puzzles to solve. But they can also get incredibly lonely if they don’t have anyone to share their discoveries with. They crave an authentic and sincere connection with ONE PERSON at a time.
Not always alone, but I treasure being alone because it happens so infrequently.
Myth #7 – Introverts are weird.
Introverts are often individualists. They don’t follow the crowd. They’d prefer to be valued for their novel ways of living. They think for themselves and because of that, they often challenge the norm. They don’t make most decisions based on what is popular or trendy.
No, I’m fine with being weird. I challenge everything. I am the pain in the butt that makes people change or see things differently. I don’t even know what is popular or how to find out. Fashion means nothing to me, I choose clothes and accessories for comfort, texture, and durability. I own one purse at a time, use it for a few years until it breaks. I don’t join the PTA at school because I know I would not keep my mouth shut and prefer to stay unknown in my small town.
Myth #8 – Introverts are aloof nerds.
Introverts are people who primarily look inward, paying close attention to their thoughts and emotions. It’s not that they are incapable of paying attention to what is going on around them, it’s just that their inner world is much more stimulating and rewarding to them.
My inner world is so much fun! Think Ally McBeal. I have musical numbers going on in here, people transforming in amusing ways, and words turning into poems. I swear my insanity keeps me sane.
I have attended ‘think tank’ titled meetings and visualized something some crazy smart mechanical tank barging in and shooting lasers to rescue me from boredom and whisk me away to save the universe with a young Harrison Ford. (Just found out that not everyone has this inner world . . .)
Myth #9 – Introverts don’t know how to relax and have fun.
Introverts typically relax at home or in nature, not in busy public places. Introverts are not thrill seekers and adrenaline junkies. If there is too much talking and noise going on, they shut down. Their brains are too sensitive to the neurotransmitter called Dopamine. Introverts and Extroverts have different dominant neuro-pathways. Just look it up.
Yes, yes, and yes. I will look up the dopamine pathway for introverts, never heard that before.
Myth #10 – Introverts can fix themselves and become Extroverts.
A world without Introverts would be a world with few scientists, musicians, artists, poets, filmmakers, doctors, mathematicians, writers, and philosophers. That being said, there are still plenty of techniques an Extrovert can learn in order to interact with Introverts. (Yes, I reversed these two terms on purpose to show you how biased our society is.) Introverts cannot “fix themselves” and deserve respect for their natural temperament and contributions to the human race. In fact, one study (Silverman, 1986) showed that the percentage of Introverts increases with IQ.
Hmm. I used to think there was something wrong with me. Then I thought there was something wrong with everyone else. Now I see we all fill our needs in different ways and no one is wrong. Just need to teach tolerance, understanding and acceptance rather than conformance. Teach kids we’re all different, and we’re all OK too. Stop striving for normal and fitting in. Instead celebrate our differences!!
So to sum this up, I understand myself a bit more now. My introversion is not caused by abuse, but my personality was shaped by my experience and I may be more introverted than without the abuse. I also attached an ‘abnormal’ label to myself all these years as I tried to fit in. Now I am finding ways to fit into social groups without compromising myself. I am finding people that value me as me. This is important, because I used to think only in terms of my past, my abuse. I thought it had touched all of me and made me who I am. It is important to see the difference that it yes it shaped me, but so did many other things. I don’t have a neon sign of “abuse survivor” on my head like I previously thought. I am not so damaged. I was hurt. I have scars – But I am not a scar. Huge change to my way of thinking about myself.
I am loving and gentle to myself now, and amazingly, others are acting this way too. My whole world is transforming and opening up to me – all because I have chosen to actually be me. Amazing.
If you are on this journey to, don’t give up. It takes practice to be kind to yourself. I still make mistakes. But I am allowing the nurturing parent and teacher in me to take care of my hurting inner child. I would never belittle my own kids, or those in my classrooms for stumbling when learning. It is to be expected. Learning is hard, but never impossible.