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.”
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.
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?