Confessions of a Happy Introvert
I like you, but the whole talking thing freaks me out.
I’ve always had a hard time “going out.” Don’t get me wrong. My love of travel has taken me all over the world, and I enjoy a rousing party every now and then. Oh, and I love going for walks. But most of the time, I prefer to be alone or with my small family, in nature or at home, writing, or working on the small press that is my literary labor of love.
As a kid, I spent hours alone in my room, contentedly writing and reading, and my mom would always say, “Why don’t you go out and play?” But I didn’t want to go out and play. What a lot of well-intentioned people have trouble understanding is that introverts are happier being alone. But this doesn’t mean that we don’t value friendships and relationships; it only means that we thrive with a smaller social circle, and that we take our social interactions in smaller doses.
In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain delves into the science of introversion. Introverts are simply wired differently, on a neural level. Too much surface-level interaction (think playground chatter, cocktail parties) leaves us feeling depleted very quickly. We need time alone, and we need quiet. Not because we don’t like people, but because we find long bouts of social interaction deeply exhausting. We do like people, but after spending time with them, we need more time to recharge.
Introversion isn’t about shyness, either. It doesn’t necessarily translate into social fear or awkwardness. I feel supremely comfortable on stage, entertaining an audience, and I consider this to be an important part of my job as a writer and storyteller. At parties where I don’t know anyone, I may not walk up and say, “Hi! My name is Michelle! I’m a writer!” But I’m likely to walk up, smile, listen, and ask you questions about the things I find interesting about you.
For all the bad rap introverts get, extroverts often like talking to us, because we tend to be interested in other people’s histories. During my dating years, I found meeting men to be extremely easy. I could hardly round a corner without meeting a guy and ending up on a date (I once ended up in a relationship with a guy I met in a car crash in Atlanta). My ease with the opposite sex had very little to do with looks and much to do with the fact that asking questions comes naturally to me. A lot of people like to talk about themselves, and for this reason, introverts make them feel heard. Who doesn’t want to be heard?
I wish someone had told me when I was a kid that it’s okay to want to be alone. I wish the studies on happiness as it relates to extroversion and introversion took into account the great contentment we introverts feel when we are engaged in a meaningful intellectual task. Writing makes me happy. My books then take me out into the world and engender a lot of connection with strangers — at readings and events, through emails, through the classes I teach. This connection is meaningful to me and brings me joy, but I enjoy it because I have the time alone that I need to write my books.
Like many introverts, I find it really easy to be in front of a crowd.
Put me on a stage, and I get energized. In a group, though, all that energy drains away. If it looks like I’ve zoned out, it’s because I’m on sensory overload, and I need a minute to refocus.
For introverts, balance is key. We may like you, but that doesn’t mean we want to go out for “a night with the girls.” We’re more likely to enjoy going out to coffee with you (and only you) every now and then, hearing what you have to say, understanding what’s really going on in your life. If I see a group of moms gathered on the playground at school pickup, I tend to stay away. Not because I’m shy, and not because I don’t like them — but because small talk depletes me. But if I see one of those women standing alone, it’s a different story. It is in smaller groups that the walls come down and we are better able to get past chatter and learn something real about another person: that the exuberant mother-of-four dreams of starting a business, that the lady you’ve only ever seen in yoga pants was, until recently, an intensive care nurse.
People are so much more interesting when you know where they come from, what they hope for, why they do the things they do. This information is hard to come by when everything is noisy and high-octane. The quiet moments allow for connection, and connection is important to introverts.
But in addition to connecting on an intimate level with others, introverts need time to think through things, to connect with our own thoughts and dreams. Yes, we are dreamers. As a kid, I never did very well in school. I spent a lot of time during most of my classes writing very bad poems. I know now that I did this because a day of school is exhausting for an introvert (I see this exhaustion in my son every day). Writing poems and daydreaming gave me an out — it was my quiet space in a world of chaos. It was my escape.
I had friends. I got along with my teachers. I made jokes (and was even voted funniest girl in my graduating high school class of 900, although I’m pretty sure the teacher who counted the votes skewed the results in my favor). But an entire school day of interaction was never easy, and so I used class lectures as a time to get away, inside my own head.
If you are an introvert, don’t let anyone make you feel bad for not wanting to “get out more.” And if you are an extrovert who is always trying to draw the introvert out of his shell: just know, the introvert may be happy just the way he is. Don’t assume that the introverts in your life don’t like you or find you interesting. If they don’t go to your party, it’s not because they’re shy, and it’s not because they’re snobby. Introverts are just like you, only quieter. We need our time alone, and sometimes, we need time alone with you — just the two of us, to really connect.
Michelle Richmond is the author of four novels, including Golden State and the New York Times bestseller The Year of Fog (read an excerpt on Medium), and two award-winning story collections. Her new novel will be published next summer, with foreign rights sold in 23 languages and film rights optioned to Twentieth Century Fox. You can find more stories like this in her Medium publication, The Caffeinated Writer.
Like this story? Please click the little green heart or follow me…thanks! Or download the title story of my latest collection, Hum (where love, lust, and espionage collide). You can also check out an excerpt from The Year of Fog.