What It's Like Being An Introvert

(Friday, March 24, 2006, 8:48 p.m.)

copied from Myspace blog

My previous short reply to Joe's comment on my last blog fails to even remotely capture the blog I spent two hours preparing and which Myspace sent to the bit bucket. What I wrote was largely couched in terms of the man of the previous allegory. In the interest of sparing the time it would take to reconstruct this and maybe even allowing myself to be more widely understood, I'll just speak plainly. For those of you who happen to also be introverts, especially those that are better socially-adjusted than myself, this will probably seem like so much whining, and I suspect that some of you extraverts may also be annoyed that I seem to be dumping my personal issues at everyone's feet. I understand that perhaps the easiest way to drive people away is to dwell on one's own issues overmuch since this tends to make people uncomfortable and sours the good-feeling environment on which natural, enjoyable discourse seems to generally rely. Nonetheless I feel I have little to lose by indulging myself and speaking out for a change.

As most of you probably have guess, I often feel like the man in my previous blog, and I have for much of my life thus far. Were I in my 20's feeling like this, perhaps it wouldn't seem like such an issue, but I have reached officially my mid-30's, and I often find myself asking why I'm not at a much better place in my life than I was 15 years ago. Some of my issues have to do with career-direction, time-management, and the like but I'll leave all that aside because the overshadowing other issue is the fact that I'm an introvert living in a country and perhaps a world where there seems to be a premium on an extraverted personality and where I feel out of place and out of tune. I don't know what sort of advice I could hope to ask for to address this, and I certainly don't have any demands to make, other than maybe some kindly forbearance while I try to communicate my own peculiar perspective as an introvert.

The white room allegory isn't a bad place to start, though, to be fair the house has a door and the man does physically get out from time to time. (But enough of the allegory.) If you've ever had a period in your life where you feel like you're pretty much alone and there's no-one near you can quite depend on or turn to or even just hang out with, you've got an idea how I've felt for much of my life, including most of my stay in Bloomington. For me and for perhaps most introverts, relationships take a long time to develop and even then can be quite fragile. An introvert tends to be inward focused; there are some old brain theories out there (which I admit I haven't studied in depth yet to validate or critique) that suggest that introverts receive a higher level of brainstem activation of their cortices which makes them tend to want to minimize external stimuli to compensate for the high base-line cortical activity. Whatever the cause, introverts tend to like less external stimulation than their extraverted peers. Crowds, noise, and blaring music (though I like to listen to aggressive enough music when it's on my terms) generally make me very uncomfortable. I recently had some friends from out of town visit me for a football game here, and we went to the Upstairs pub, and I was nearly in physical pain from the smoke and the deafening volume of the music. Even as an undergrad, I couldn't stand the bars, though everyone else around me went to them about every night. My idea of a good time socially is to have a nice quiet conversation with one or maybe two other people in a relaxed environment. I get that hardly anywhere I go because everybody seems to prefer meeting in large groups and going to noisy clubs or crowded parties for an outing. If I'm lucky, I make one or two close friends and am able to spend time one-on-one with them, but it would seem that this has not happened for me in Bloomington for whatever the reasons might be.

My last place of long-term residence was in San Diego, California where I stayed 7 years. I probably made 5 good friends there during this time, and am now in regular contact with only 2 of them, and have lost contact completely with others. It took me many years to make these friends and hardly any time to lose them. For extraverts (like my dad, for example, who doesn't know a stranger) social life must be a good deal more encouraging. When you move somewhere new, you maybe lose touch with a lot of your friends, but new friends are just around the corner and you can always find somewhere to go hang out and feel at ease, unless the situation is really pathological, because you're just better at meeting people and making connections.

For an introvert, it's usually harder to meet people, and because they are inward-focused they tend to be focused on their own reactions to their interactions instead of the social situation as a whole. (I have gotten better about not dwelling on questions of "What on earth am I doing here?" when I'm at a social event, but these kinds of thoughts are typical self-conscious introvert thoughts.) I may have some additional perceptual issues because I have problems hearing and understanding what someone is saying in a loud or crowded environment: I'm bad at the cocktail party problem. Most available options for socializing for me are non-ideal because they are not suited to the sparse environment I naturally prefer. Because I've availed myself so little of what options are there, and never had any siblings to interact with, my overall social skills I'm sure, even one-on-one, are not as they could be.

Of course, I've made due over the years. I try to make a few very close friends and stay in touch with them. Whereas most kids did a lot of sports and social kinds of things, I drifted naturally into intellectual and artistic matters. (If I have any more real profundity of thought than the average person, I attribute it mostly to this, the diversion of my cognitive focus away from the normal channels by one or another handicap.) As an introvert and someone with a lot of idea-inclined interests, I can stand being alone probably a lot better than most people. When I'm engrossed in something, I can go for a few weeks (2 or 3 maybe) with no face-to-face contact with other people, and even little external contact through email or phone. But if I'm at all troubled by something, even a week is hard. (I was home alone over all of spring break, and in a funk waiting for an email from someone (out of town), and this was when I left the last blog on Myspace. She finally got in touch with me, so that is resolved, and thus I'm in better spirits.)

The trouble with being an introvert, I guess, or at least being me, is that I don't naturally tend to feel comfortable and welcome in the company of people who aren't already close friends. I always have a sense of not fitting in, being out of synch, not belonging, not having anything to contribute, etc.

I'm not sure how much of this is my own little misperception of how my presence is being received, or how much of this is me genuinely picking up on other people's discomfort with me, but I never quite feel at home. I am naturally poor at initiating activities and interactions with other people, and it is an underdeveloped skill in me. Because socializing for me tends to go against the grain of the comfortable, I don't end up doing a lot of it, and I also feel reluctant to invest too much time doing it when my connections with people are so fragile, and I'll only be moving to a new place in a few years, anyway. As a result, I am usually alone (alone with a frequency that would probably make most people crazy), and I may come off as being aloof and unfriendly, though I am neither hostile or resentful at heart (unless I'm in an uncommonly bad mood).

I'm not sure if writing this accomplishes anything, but if it at least gives a little insight into the nature of the introverted soul, it will have served some purpose. I don't believe for a minute that I had a choice about whether to be an introvert or an extravert. That is a trait that may even have some physiological basis. I suppose I do have a choice about how hard I try to interact with people and how much effort I make, how much time I invest, etc. But what I hope people will understand is that the bar on the hurdle is higher for the introvert. Their very instincts seem to get in their way when they're trying to relate to people, so it's often easier for them to give up and withdraw into the often more congenial land of fantasy and solitary intellectual pursuits.

What I'm hoping will happen in time (thus my hopes for the man of the allegory) is that circumstances change for the better for me, and I become less of an idle spectator and more of a valued and active participant in life. The world certainly won't allow me maintain my current level of isolation very long. (I'll need to get a real job at some point just to meet expenses.) But everything is uncertain, except that some change of sorts is coming, for better or worse.

On more mundane matters, this weekend is a busy one. I have a presentation to prepare for a paper on Tuesday, undergrad stats to grade, taxes to complete, and writing to do on my dissertation proposal. The semester has been generally a good one, and I wish it would last longer, so I had more time to get this proposal written at my leisure. (The damn thing is already 48 pages single-spaced and I'm not even done writing.) I have my first journal publication out in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience as of February, and I have another paper I still need to edit, but which I can then submit to Adaptive Behavior. Academically and research-wise, I wouldn't say my performance has been remarkable (especially compared with my lab-mate who has some 5+ papers out by now), but I'm on schedule and think my dissertation topic is good.

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