Tale of an Introverted Misfit

By Lisa Alber

I’ve spend much of my life feeling alienated, like a perpetual outsider, like there’s something fundamentally out of sync with me. And for as long as I can remember, this feeling has chafed at me like psychic sandpaper.

After awhile, feeling like this, anyone could start to believe there’s something fundamentally wrong with them. When really, the only thing that’s “wrong” with many of us is that we’re introverts in a society that worships what author Susan Cain calls “The Extrovert Ideal.”

As a Psychology Today article entitled “Revenge of the Introvert” states, “Introverts today face one overarching challenge—not to feel like misfits in their own culture.”

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It’s not like my being an introvert is news to me, but I’m just starting to understand the impact of our cultural norms on my general health and wellbeing, and my self-perception.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately as related to being an author. I’m preparing to go to a conference called Left Coast Crime next week. I’m a social creature, and I do pretty well in social situations. But, I get overstimulated fast. I need lots of down time. After awhile, if I’m not careful, the first thing out of my mouth in every new interaction is, “I’m sooo tired.” I lose my paltry grip on small talk. It becomes painful to even try.

Most of us introverts have learned to take on extroverted qualities the better to get by. We can’t not, in point of fact. But what does that mean for us?

If you’re anything like me, it means that you get more drained, are in need of more down time, get depressed, and so on. It’s a vicious cycle. It’s almost like we aren’t allowed to accept ourselves as we are. The insidious nature of, well, everything around us constantly signals us that we need to change. We need to be more social, more into group activities, and participate. This is called self-improvement.

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All this, when there’s nothing. wrong. with. us. except that we don’t adequately mirror the larger cultural norms.

Last week I started reading Susan Cain’s book, Quiet, The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. It’s fascinating and puts so much into perspective. I’m currently in the middle of a chapter called “When Collaboration Kills Creativity.” It reminded me of a classic introvert-in-a-extroverted-world incident from years ago.

Corporate job. Team-building exercise. Are you groaning? It’s every introvert’s nightmare. The point of this particular exercise was to prove that groupthink yields better results than  individuals thinking on their own.

On our own, we each rated a list of items from most to least important for wilderness survival. Then, we worked together as a group on the same task. Then, we scored our individual results and the group’s results.

The group’s score was supposed to prove the point by being higher than our individual scores. And that was true for everyone in the group–but me. I did better thinking it through on my own without the loud-mouthed extroverts in the group clogging up my thoughts.

Most of all I remember my boss’s disapproving reaction: as if by doing better than the group, I’d actually failed. I was made to feel bad about my better score. No wonder so many of us are prone to anxiety.

Imagine my satisfaction reading this in Cain’s book (page 74):

One of the more interesting findings … was that the more creative people tended to be socially poised introverts. They were interpersonally skilled but “not of an especially sociable or participative temperament.” They described themselves as independent and individualistic.

That’s me in a nutshell, my friends.

She goes on to make the connection between creativity and introversion by pointing out that solitude is often a catalyst of innovation and since introverts are by nature more solitary …

Given all that, it probably makes sense that I’m a writer. The problem is that the writing game I call “author-dom” is way too bloody social. It’s beyond frustrating. More and more it feels like I’ll only get ahead if I get involved. Become a Mystery Writer’s of America officer. Do more talks. Teach workshops. You know, be more of a public-speaker type of person.

It’s like freaking high school all over again–participating in extracurricular activities I’m not interested in so I can get into a good university.

In her Atlantic Monthly article, “An Introverted Writer’s Lament,” author Meghan Tifft asks, “Since when did the community become our moral compass—our viability as writers determined so much by our team spirit?”

Amen to that, sistah. The pressure to be an extrovert is as alive and well in the author biz as in the world at large. It’s disheartening.

So, next week I’ll go to the conference, and I’ll have a wonderful time. I will. The thing is, I love my writing community and all my writing pals; what I don’t love is the feeling of having to be a part of one, like a constant blistery pressure.

I’ll have a grand time — I can party with the best of them — but I’ll also be popping extra beta blockers and worrying that I’m not talking enough and yearning for afternoon naps and room service dinners.

Are you an introvert? What do you do to recharge your batteries in our increasingly hectic world? What about you, extroverts–what’s your take on all of this?

12 thoughts on “Tale of an Introverted Misfit

  1. Great post Lisa. Believe it or not I was an almost paralyzed introvert as a child. It wasn’t until my teens where I walked out of my skin and tried on a new one. Quite literally, but that’s a story for another time. As an extrovert I find I’m drawn more to introverts as friends. They/you exude a calming vibe :-).

  2. Wow, Cheryl — I’d love to hear that story sometime. I can’t even imagine how that could be accomplished. And the reverse is true, it’s fun to hang out with extroverts. I can play around within their energy.

  3. Love it. Its where you get your energy. I remember when my husband (extrovert) and I (introvert) were looking at houses. We looked at a lovely home with a big deck and a bathroom with a soaking tub. I imagined sitting on the deck, reading a book and sipping a glass of wine, or soaking in the tub listening to music. I asked him what he imagined about living there, and he related his vision of big parties of people on the deck, roaming the yard and th house, entertaining and didn’t even mention the tub. Too funny!

  4. It takes me at least a week to recover from a conference or long seminar. Sometimes, it takes two. I often get sick right afterward. My criteria for buy a house included “quiet” at the very top, and my realtor thought I was nuts when I stood in the “office space” of each house we visited, closed my eyes, and listened to the house and surrounds.

  5. I hear you, Eric. It sometimes takes me a full week to recover too. I bought my first every house 🙂 last year, and I was very careful where I looked too. I told the agent — I don’t want to live on a street with a line painted down the middle of it. So I love on one of those unmaintained streets that are around Portland — hardly any traffic and nicely quiet.

  6. I really relate to this. I was super shy as a child. I couldn’t go anywhere alone or first. My little sister had to. Luckily she is very much an extrovert. I finally got to where I can do things, if I have time to talk myself into them. And after I get to know people, if it’s a few at a time, I can seem “normal”.
    Sometimes at a conference, I would find a time for something that wasn’t a big interest, and go to the room, and be. That’s why I prefer conferences in hotels. 😉

  7. It is ironic, the extent to which I am perceived as a gregarious person, and yet am in fact deeply private. At conferences I retreat regularly to the privacy of my room. One of the things that I find hardest about writing is that it requires me to be so much alone, and at the same time it takes great effort to be with others. It’s like climbing up out of myself to manifest my public persona. Which doesn’t mean I’m being false or am not genuinely happy to be among my friends and peers. It’s a very contrary reality to inhabit.

  8. Ah hah! So I’m not nuts, nor am I alone in my resentment of a professional culture that requires something more of me than I seem able to give. Thank you for writing this, Lisa. It perfectly mirrors my experience as a writer and an introvert.

    • You’re welcome, Karen! Thanks for commenting. Nope, none of us are nuts, even though we so often feel that way. Such a relief to know this, isn’t it? Whew! I’m getting better at reminding myself when things are simply extroverted cultural things and have nothing to do with me.

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