Not everyone who knows you really KNOWS you, even if they’ve been in your life for many years, even if they’re related, even if they watched you grow up or grew up with you because, depending on your personality, certain things just aren’t discussed unless someone actually asks.
Surprise! I’m an introvert. That term is often wrongly translated as shy, disliking other people, socially awkward, afraid of our own shadows… you get the picture.
So I want to talk a little about being an introvert as it relates to social situations, what it means and what it doesn’t mean. I sometimes find that people who don’t understand us – through no fault of their own – tend to make assumptions based on what they see and what they expect, without ever knowing or thinking of asking before drawing conclusions.
Introverts are generally not energized by social situations, crowds, group activities, teamwork, or noise. We work best on our own because more often than not it’s in our solitude that we’re most creative, deep thinking, problem-solving, and productive. We like one-on-one conversations, we can sometimes enjoy small group visits and definitely prefer small to large, but we have limits and we’re only energized and able to regroup when we’re alone in our own quiet space, or at least in a quiet space with someone who is also being quiet. That’s where we thrive and regain the strength to go back out into the noisy crowded world again. The world that often overstimulates our brains. That is the most distinct difference between us and the extroverts.
We do love to see our friends and family and to do fun things with them; we also tend to assess the group dynamics ahead of time and prepare ourselves mentally. In groups where we feel comfortable we can be outgoing, loud and funny (often others are surprised to learn that we are actually introverts) but the energy drains from us like water through a sieve. Ok, maybe not as quickly as water, maybe more like gravy? It’s just – to put it simply – exhausting.
I’m learning that people who do like the noise and the busyness don’t consider that maybe the reason people like me leave those situations much earlier than others isn’t a personal insult, it’s actually better for all of us. Without getting into all the behind-the-scenes-details, here’s a summary of what happens to me in a group situation that’s crowded and noisy – no matter where it is, who the people are, or how much I like them:
Stage 1 – It’s going to be nice to see everyone, even though walking into this already assembled group feels uncomfortable because everyone else ahead of me has found their chair, they’re probably already in a conversation, and I’ll be walking into the middle of it all. I don’t know how I’m going to actually be able to visit with everyone because in a big group you can’t have a deep conversation (introverts prefer dialogue about important things rather than small talk) so I have to put on my mask/public self for a while.
Stage 2 – This is fun, getting a chance to catch up with friends/family, I found a seat along an edge or in a corner and a few people to talk to. Glad I came.
Stage 3 – Getting tired, but it’s too early to leave because I don’t want to appear rude, so I can hang on for a bit longer and see how it goes.
Stage 4 – OK, I can feel myself becoming agitated and my head will explode if I don’t say goodbye now and get into my own space for a while. Smile politely, say goodbye/thank you, make sure you appear happy so you don’t draw unwanted attention to yourself, and get out the door.
Now depending on the day or the situation, I can go from stage 1 to stage 4 in about an hour, or I can stretch it out to three or four hours, but either way, when I get to the last stage, I need to remove myself, while I’m still able to be polite and friendly. It’s nothing personal, nothing or no one has necessarily upset me, I’m just “peopled out”. And this is where some would assume that I don’t care to spend time with them anymore, that I’m unsociable, that I think I have better things to do.
What they don’t know is that if I don’t pay attention to my need for quiet solitude, I will gradually become short-tempered and grouchy and it won’t be pretty because I might just blow up and say something we’ll all regret! I know myself well enough to know when enough is enough.
IT’S NOT YOU, IT’S ME.
Now add constant background noise like music or television to the above described social situation where people are trying to visit with each other and I can hit stage 4 immediately after stage 1, as soon as I’m inside.
I understand that some people love/need to have background noise all the time, which is totally their prerogative in their own homes, and that when people get used to it they often no longer notice that it’s even a distraction from social interaction as people like myself prefer not to compete with the noise. When I arrive somewhere, coming from my generally quiet space, and there is music or television while I’m expected to visit, I’m tired as soon as I get there because I know what the atmosphere will be for this social outing I’ve accepted and I begin to calculate when I can respectably leave. Sometimes my ears actually ache from all the noise. People who don’t experience this will never understand it, and that’s OK. It’s OK that we’re different. Just understand that whatever atmosphere you choose to create for yourself might not be one I or anyone else like me can endure for very long.
Do I ever have noise in my home? Of course, I do! But I don’t require it. I put on happy music if I’m painting or quilting or doing some other task where it is welcome. My TV goes on in the evening when I have specific things I want to watch. And sometimes there are actually other people in my home too! But then there is no music or TV because I want to be able to pay attention to whoever is there with me, and I would never want them to feel like watching the TV show is more important to me than their presence.
I have one child who is like me in this; we each know when the other needs quiet and we both love it. And I have one who is an extrovert, loves to be on the go, having various social opportunities to choose from, and loves to talk. About everything. All the time. Poor guy – he even whispers when he knows I’m fried because he still wants to chat but tries to respect my quiet zone, even though he just can’t stop! He can only stand my quiet house for so long, but while he’s here he does his best to respect my needs and I appreciate that.
Recently he experienced what happens when I’m really done, trying to be nice about asking for a few minutes of no talking (because we had just left a social group situation with background noise) and running out of ways to express that I REALLY needed to not talk anymore. I escalated from several polite and carefully chosen ways of asking for quiet to getting emotional and begging for silence to blasting out a scream I could no longer hold in. He almost spit out his drink from laughing and said: “that was a bit excessive”. I replied that I actually felt better!
I’m telling you, it builds up and it’s going to come out, so don’t push me to the brink if you don’t want to see the explosion. This explosion can, of course, be avoided altogether if I’m able to remove myself and regroup in solitude. Which is why I leave when I do. And it might be sooner than you want me to leave. But unless you want me to stand up and shout for you to turn off all the damn music and shut off the TV if you want me to stay and visit with you, believe me, you are better off saying goodbye and closing the door behind me.
If you’re offended or hurt because you don’t know why I left, or you’ve seen me do this many times and you think it’s somehow connected to you, please don’t assume. Just ask me. Directly. I’d be happy to explain, again, that it’s not you. It’s me.