Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Insights of an Introvert

The first indication that I am a true introvert probably came when I was a sophomore in high school. I remember my parents coming home from parent/teacher conferences and telling me that I was doing great (I figured my straight As were evidence of that but whatever). However, my English teacher had commented that while I turned in great work, I didn't talk much in class. This shocked my parents. After all, at home I wouldn't shut up. I had something to say to anyone in our family of six who would listen to me. And actually, I've always been talkative. I have a lot to say, when I'm comfortable in my surroundings. And there's the rub.

Personality tests in both high school and college continued to confirm a diagnosis that I have spent years working to understand and accept: I am an introvert. While I am more borderline than hardcore, I gravitate towards more introverted tendencies than extroverted. I prefer having a close group of friends, I don't like large crowds, I prefer smaller parties, and I HATE making the first move.

I remember my highly energetic psychology professor in college telling us that in his marriage, he was the introvert and his wife was the extrovert. He preferred to sit in a small group and his wife loved to be in big gatherings. It made absolutely no sense. Here was a man who could get up in front of a full lecture hall of college students and freely discuss a wide variety of subjects related to Psych 101 and he was telling us that he was an introvert. Weren't introverts supposed to be people who never talked to anyone? Who kept to themselves? Who were just plain boring? But here I am a high school teacher who willingly and happily gets up in front of over a hundred students a day. In my classroom I'm in my element. High schoolers don't terrify me. Usually they entertain me. And I get to spend all day every day talking about some of my favorite subjects with students who at the very least feign some kind of interest in what I have to say. It didn't make sense to me that a introvert could possibly be a college professor and get up on that teaching stage every day, but now I understand that when it is a stage on which one is completely at home, extrovert/introvert doesn't matter.

I keep hoping that my self-awareness will make me a better parent, especially to my little girl who, at least personality wise, is my near clone. Like me, she loves to play with other kids, she has good friends at school, and she thrives on controlled social interaction. And we know that she has many little friends at school because every time my husband or I drop her off she has several classmates clamoring to tell her hello. But that doesn't change the fact that several mornings she shyly clings to my hand as I drop her off in her classroom, waiting for one of her classmates to invite her over to play with them and join them in whatever activity they began before she arrived. Like me, she won't ask to join in the activity but eagerly does so when invited by her peers. She highlighted this point very recently on two occasions. The first example was when we saw one of her little classmates at the park one evening. She has been home with me all summer (except weekly gymnastics lessons) and so hasn't been around her school friends, but she took forever to warm up and play with this little friend. The second example was when we were camping last weekend. By some strange coincidence we ended up camping right behind their old babysitter and her family. Again, she was shy and took forever to say hello and talk. She just needed a little time to warm up in both situations. Oddly enough, she tends to be more open with strangers in the store than with people that she knows and sees on a regular basis. I will probably always worry about her social development, only because I don't want her to be devoid of any social life, but I know that as long we don't move her too often (or at all) she will be fine and will most likely grow into a highly functional introverted adult.

Being an introvert is not a curse. Often I see the advantages of my "condition," which I only put in quotation marks because there are those who see it as some kind of social disadvantage. Are there times that being an introvert has held me back? Absolutely. While growing up we moved at the most inopportune of times. When we moved in fourth grade I entered a classroom with a group of girls who readily reached out to me and offered me their friendship. I was even invited to a slumber party before the school year started. For two years I had a great core group of girlfriends and was happy as could be. And why not? They had made things easy for the introvert by inviting me into their circle. Then in sixth grade we moved again, at the beginning of those dreaded middle school years. This time making friends was difficult. Adolescents tend to stick to their group of friends and often don't reach out. In a period of mean girls, it is easier to stick with the devil you know than go with the devil you don't. It was a hard transition, not only because of my age but because I was not one to reach out. And the reality for me is that when I try too hard, it tends to blow up in my face. High school was an easier transition because we were all starting at the bottom of the heap and I made great friends with classmates as we learned and suffered together in our classes. Then we moved again my junior year and I was stuck with trying to make friends halfway through high school with people who already had friends they had known most of their life. The few good friends I had those last two years of high school were friendships that grew due to proximity (my locker partner) and activities (friends in choir). Once again I had a hard time stepping out of my comfort zone and initiating friendships, preferring instead to survive the next two years until I was once more a lowly college freshman.

This has crippled me in some ways as an adult as well. When I directed high school theatre I had a difficult time reaching out for help and making phone calls to different people and places when I needed it, and often had to bite the bullet and just do it for the sake of the department and my students. As a teacher I'm not a huge fan of calling parents and prefer to use email whenever possible (my career lifesaver). I tried doing direct sales when we first moved to FW to make money to help us break even but once my small group of contacts ran out my so-called home business dried up. And moving hasn't gotten any easier. I still have a hard time stepping out of myself to reach out, preferring to be invited in as opposed to doing the inviting. I find that when I have to do too much inviting I start to sound needy and desperate. Even as an adult my closest and best friendships are those that have just happened due to proximity and circumstances.

But there are advantages too. First, as a parent I have a frustrating yet keen insight into my daughter's behavior. Frustrating because I hate to watch her clam up, but good because I also know how to help and encourage her without pushing her to do things that will make her truly uncomfortable. She may need encouragement in making friends and inviting them over, and that will require me to step out of my comfort zone as well, but I'll look at it as a growing experience for both of us. Second, as a teacher I am aware that just because a student isn't speaking up it doesn't mean that they don't know what is going on. This does cause some difficulty in the grade department (especially since part of my grading system requires participation) but I know to give grades for things other than just talking in class and to give students a chance to discuss outside of the classroom as well, thanks to the wonders of the internet. Finally, on a personal level I feel it enhances rather than detracts from my own writing. I hate public speaking (which is slightly ironic considering I used to direct theatre) but I have spent nearly 30 years honing my writing skills because that has always been how I communicated best, which might be why I find writing a blog so therapeutic.

I really do try to avoid letting my introverted tendencies hold me back, but in a world that praises the extroverts for taking action I need others to take some time to appreciate and understand the introverts in their lives. I don't prefer to be at home because I am a recluse. I prefer to be at home because it is comfortable and intimate and where I can be most myself. I don't go around inviting people to various functions because I like my quiet time and time with my family, but I love to be included and don't want to be left out of the loop. I'm not usually going to corner you and spout off all of my problems (again, that might be why I blog) but that doesn't mean I don't have them. If something seems to be wrong, I might need to be asked because I tend to keep it to myself (unless, of course, I feel I can share it with the whole world via my blog). And if I don't have an immediate response it might be because I need time to process (maybe even time to write about it) before I can give an honest answer. Treasure the introverts in your life. If you take the time to ask and listen, you might learn that your assumptions were wrong all along.

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