When ‘introvert’ isn’t a complete description


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During the summer of 2007, as I was wrapping up my year in Los Angeles, our little volunteer community took some personality inventories.

I don’t know why we took these assessments at the end of our volunteer experience. Perhaps it was meant to serve as confirmation of behavior and preferences rather than uncover new insight. I walked away with some enlightening information and yet there were still plenty of questions.

I learned I was considered very introverted. Scoring 9 or possibly 10 out of 10.

These tests did more than just gauge introversion or extroversion. They evaluated our temperaments. I had learned a little bit about temperaments in high school, but not enough that I could define myself in the categories.

If you’re looking at the basic temperaments, I fell into the melancholic area. I found it helpful to explain certain things (especially emphasizing my introverted tendencies):

  • my need for quiet
  • my need for isolation to recharge
  • why socializing was draining rather than energizing
  • my preference for written communication versus talking on the phone
  • striving for perfection
  • setting unattainable and impossible goals in pursuit of that perfection

Yet there was still plenty that wasn’t explained in this evaluation. It didn’t explain:

  • my social awkwardness, not completely
  • the challenge of expressing myself verbally
  • the annoyance of so many little things that seem trivial
  • the jolts of anger when a lot of background noises competed for my attention and became too much to tune out
  • being easily overwhelmed with too many things happening at once or freezing up in my frustration

While I gained a somewhat clearer image of myself, there was still a big piece of the puzzle that remained hidden. The sensory processing part of the equation remained a mystery for three more years.

Like many people, I saw myself as an introvert because I was quiet; I didn’t talk much. And it took a while to realize that being quiet is not an accurate description. Introverts can be loud or quiet but the key is where their energy comes from.

So I considered myself shy, quiet, not a talkative person. I wasn’t aware until later that the internal struggles I had weren’t exactly consistent with being an introvert. There was more holding me back, more things getting in the way of sharing and carrying on a conversation.

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It was almost considered a badge of self-control: being able to think through what I wanted to say before sharing. I didn’t just blurt things out. They were well-formed ideas, logical, possibly even insightful! But the process I put myself through to get to that sharing point was an Olympic event!

My internal thought process went something like this: What’s my reaction to this situation? Okay, how should I word it? What’s the best order? How do I clearly connect it to the current conversation? Alright, now is it worth sharing? Will others relate to it, find it interesting? Hmmm, when do I speak up? The other person is still talking, I can’t interrupt. Oh, it looks like they’re slowing down. Okay, is what I have still relevant? Oh, we passed that part in the conversation about 5 minutes ago. Is it still worth sharing? And the other person just started up again. Guess you’ll let it slide.

I don’t mean to suggest that all of that internal struggle was sensory processing related, a result of my brain having trouble connecting ideas. I believe that is an explanation for my trouble getting started, struggling to grasp how I feel and react, how to word a response. The rest of that scenario represents additional hoops I put on myself over the years in an attempt to counter what I thought was a negative: beginning to speak without knowing where I was headed. Needing control and a plan for what I would share  and over time that process became more complex, more limiting, more of a hindrance. The striving for perfection began to impede the ability to simply share.

Being with a small group of people, a group of familiar faces, made sharing a little easier, and having a one-on-one conversation might be easy to navigate as well. But it depended on my comfort level with these people and how confident I was in what I had to share. The topic of conversation made a difference, too. If the topic seemed too superficial and meaningless, then I was less interested in jumping in. For instance, I didn’t see the value of joining a conversation about the latest episode of “American Idol” (the popular show at the time). I wasn’t regularly watching the show, either, which impacts things. But these conversations are part of how you establish common ground with people and build on shared interests.

I often needed to be asked direct questions to help alert me that others were interested in hearing my opinion. (I encountered that assistance during the camping retreat.) But those questions needed to be followed with time to think through my response and share. A lot of people took my silence as not having anything to add. But I didn’t realize it was okay to request, “Can you come back to me?” or “Can you give me some time to think about this?” The people waiting for a reply often became uncomfortable by the silence and just jumped back into whatever they had been discussing.

Because I had trouble navigating these situations, I often felt like what I had to share wasn’t worth bringing up. I was left thinking that others’ opinions and stories were more important and worthwhile than my own. And soon I just stuck with being the listener, not trusting my assessment of whether an experience was worth sharing or something I should keep to myself.

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