I’m an introvert.
I know, not a big announcement. I’ve talked about that here before, but I think it still catches me off guard when my reactions to an event are completely different from other people’s. A party is the biggest example, and most can understand when I say I don’t enjoy parties, but it’s not just that. A dinner with friends, close friends, but numbering more than three? If it’s canceled, I feel relieved. Even if I wanted to hang out with them.
No offense, friends.
Social things require energy. Putting me in a room with more than three other people will drain me, especially if I haven’t prepared for it. Last minute invite? Nope. First answer is always no for last minute, and I used to think it was because I was a mean person, or not a good friend, or that I was anti-social.
But it turns out I’m not. I’m actually a really social person. (Ask my brother. He says I talk too much. I do. Sometimes I hear myself talking and all I can think is oh my word, shut up.)
A few years ago, I read a book by Susan Cain called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. She basically told me everything I already thought about myself and my personality. But no one had ever said it out loud before–or with such conviction as to its rightness. With that free pass to be ‘anti-social’, I actually became quite a lot more social.
Cain talks about personality as a rubber band. If you’re an introvert, whose defining characteristic is that social events drain energy from you (as opposed to extroverts who gain energy in a social situation), then you can stretch yourself beyond your inherent limits through practice and exposure, but you will never be an extrovert. She gives a compelling real life example of this university professor whose classes are extremely popular. His office hours are wide open, he offers himself to his students whole-heartedly. Many of his colleagues deemed him an extrovert.
But it turns out, before most of his filled-auditorium classes, he hides out in the bathroom, in peace and quiet, to gather his thoughts and gird his loins (so to speak). During the summers, he is entirely out of reach and out of contact; he and his wife go to their mountain home retreat and don’t speak to another single soul.
Because he’s an introvert. He needs all summer to recharge batteries that were draining all school year. He gives himself to his students, but it has a price. Cain suggests that he’s not flipping back and forth between introversion and extroversion, he simply has learned how to stretch.
He just has to be careful he doesn’t snap.
For myself, this was an encouragement as well as a reassurance. I’m an introvert; I don’t have to be anything more than what I can handle. At the same time, I can handle more than I think if I prepare myself for it.
Preparation for me, comes by charging my batteries to the full in the weeks ahead of a planned event, and by thoroughly considering all the details surrounding the event. This never used to be a conscious thing for me; I was merely in self-protect mode all through high school, going home to recharge every day, avoiding extracurriculars, and keeping my friend group rather small. Organized sports were a small horror. Football games on Friday nights were impossible (and I never understood why anyone wanted to be there; it confounded me).
But sometime after college graduation, I began working with a family whose oldest son has autism. He was a skinny little thing, two years old, eyes as big and helpless as those Keane paintings.
Working with the Keane boy meant 60+ hours of therapies a week, from PT, OT, and speech, to ABA, EFT, and floortime. One of the most helpful things we discovered early on were something called Social Stories (trademarked) created by Carol Gray in 1991. It’s just a story we told little Keane to help him get a handle on an upcoming event. These stories could be as simple as explaining that Mom has to do laundry: the washing machine is going to be turned on and last for twenty minutes and it will clean our clothes. Or as complex as how to go trick or treating: you’ll wear your Cookie Monster costume which might be a little hot, you’ll carry your pumpkin bucket, I’ll be holding your hand when you knock on a door, and when the home owner comes to the door, you’ll say trick or treat. Explaining to a kid with autism exactly what is going on in his world and why–well, it turns out that helps a lot.
Don’t you feel better when you know what’s happening around you? When you know what comes next?
I do too. I found I needed stories like that in my own life. I realized I did it subconsciously all the time. I rehearse phone calls before I make them, I research the driving directions to a restaurant I’ve never been to before (and thank God for Google maps, where I can see exactly what the building looks like, where it is on the street, what I might have to deal with on the road). I tell myself who will be there, the layout of the place, the people there I can count on for conversation and laughter, and I talk myself into the social event.
It’s not as drastic as what we did for Keane. The washing machine doesn’t panic me, and I drive places I don’t know without agonizing. But I’ve incorporated the story into my preparation for social events, and it helps.
I’m not anti-social! I’m free to find one person at that party and hang out with her, trading book recommendations or the last Netflix show we binged. I keep my hands busy with a drink or plate of food, or I find space on the couch or on the floor and park myself there for the remainder. I bring a friend with me, or I make a deadline of three hours and then I leave. I still make mistakes that have me cringing, and I’ll find that flutter of nervous anxiety in my throat, but I keep going to parties. I allow myself the grace of being an introvert in a world of extroverts, or extrovert-wannabes.
The best part is that feeling when I make a connection. I find out this woman’s cousin loves the same author I do and we just can’t stop talking about him. We’d never have met if I hadn’t gone to this Halloween costume party (no, I didn’t dress up as Cookie Monster), and now I have someone I know I can talk to about that author, or talk to at all.
Stretching my personality, my boundaries with social events, has brought so many rewards. Not just gaining confidence with people I don’t know, and not only working on my endurance for those draining batteries, but also in such little ways too.
I’ll tell you another story. When I first started working at my job (on a school campus in the library), the guy in charge of the whole school decided I should also man the main desk in the middle school office during lunch. Every day. For two hours. He said it would be ‘good’ for me. And the office manager, Julia, would get a much-deserved lunch break.
A new office. A new group of people to work with. Two hours with the principal of the middle school who would think he was my boss. A wide open front door where 12 and 13 year olds would come in and out and want things I didn’t even know about. And worst of all, the phone calls. Mothers and fathers who wanted passwords for the website to look at their kid’s grades, who asked if soccer practice had been canceled, who wanted to know why their kid had called them and not left a message, who needed to rant about their co-parent, who blasted the school for how we were treating their kid… on and on. Social interactions galore.
The first two years of doing this ‘second’ job, I hated it. The middle school was a foreign community for me, a strange culture with rules I didn’t know. But the head of the school wasn’t going to change his mind about it; I simply had to change mine.
So I did. It took two years, yeah, but I made social forays… and it paid off. I talked to the teachers when they came into the office to make copies or drop off a test for an absent student. I went out of my way to be accommodating to those people who were especially in need, whether that was a student who had bitten through his tongue or a teacher who couldn’t figure out how to make the fax machine work.
Because I put in the social ‘work’, I’ve been rewarded. The office manager who finally gets a lunch break when I show up? Julia and I have become such good friends; she’s like a mother to me, helping me out, swapping stories, bringing me a Coke from McDonalds, leaving me notes. I fix her computer troubles, show her how to make fireworks show up on her text messages, do some of her errands in the mail room. We share the load, share the stories, and we manage, together, to make the day a lot more enjoyable.
Recently, I bought a boxwood wreath online since it had just come back in stock. I was so excited, and knowing Julia’s love of interior decorating (she’s seriously fantastic at it), I pulled up the site and showed it to her. I wanted to make that connection.
She loved it, she gave me a few ideas for what I could do with it when it wasn’t the holiday season, and she finally said, “Do you have a mister?”
I was slightly confused. But she pulled her finger back like pulling a trigger and it hit me. A spray bottle. “It has to be watered?” I asked. I thought it was a fake wreath. How could a wreath be alive?
“Google care for preserved boxwood,” she said. “You’ll see.”
It turned out I have to mist the wreath with water every thirty days or so if I want it to remain fresh. That will keep it from drying out. And it will make the wreath last for years and years. I spent fifty dollars on that wreath because I had already dried out two others, not knowing they had to be misted, think they had just been cheap.
All because the boss of the whole school made me walk across campus to a different building and engage myself in a community I wasn’t comfortable with.
It turns out, I’m not anti-social at all.