Growing Up as an Introvert in an Extrovert's World
Here's a story my dad loves to tell: When I was around four or five years old, my parents took my younger sister and I trick-or-treating (because you know, what's more enjoyable for two small kids than wandering around asking random people for cavity-causing morsels). Picture miniature me during this Halloween outing: I'm cowering behind one parent, a safe distance away from the strange person offering free candy. And where is my two-year-old sister during this time? Oh, she's striding right up to the front door and promptly marching inside as soon as it opens. To her toddler brain, that opening door was an invitation to come inside and make herself at home, candy be damned.
Now some people might read this tale and say well you were obviously a shy child and your sister wasn't. That's true - I was a shy child - and my sister most certainly was not. Case in point: that same brazen toddler also nonchalantly took my place as flower girl at my grandfather's wedding because I was busy bawling. (And yes, I did spend a significant amount of time shirking the "duties" imposed on itty bitty me. I repeat: Five years old.) But what I'm trying to say (in a very roundabout way) is that trick-or-treating is just one example of an extroverted child's dream - and an introverted child's own personal hell. Forced socializing, interacting with strangers, dressing up to draw attention to oneself - not exactly my cup of tea.
Unfortunately for introverts like me, our society has created institutions and preconceived social norms that favor extroverted behaviors. We teach our children to value certain attributes more than others: being sociable and outgoing, excelling in group settings, becoming a self-promoter. But what about the limitations these enforced characteristics place on introverts or individuals who fall toward the middle of the introvert-extrovert spectrum? Speaking from personal experience, I found these "desired" behaviors restricting and at times impossible to achieve. However - now that I've accepted I don't fit (and don't need to fit) in this box - I also feel freer. I'm proud to be an introvert, whether society values that or not. Because of our culture's extrovert bias, I'll admit I had some less-than-stellar experiences growing up as an introvert in an extrovert's world - but I've discovered some good things about my situation as well. Here's what I mean:
Navigating Our Education System
Our school setup is a budding introvert's worst nightmare. (And by "our" I mean America; I don't know enough about other countries' schooling systems to pass judgment on them...yet.) Whether we're five or 15, we're made to prance about like show ponies in front of our classmates. And while that may be fine and dandy for blossoming baby extroverts, it sucks beyond comprehension for introverted youngsters.
Throughout my years in school, it didn't matter whether I was learning math, literature, French, history, science, or music - inevitably I was forced to speak up, do a presentation, and partake in group projects. (Usually these occurred just often enough to prevent me from overcoming my fear of being put on the spot.) The truth is I take longer to acclimate to new environments and people, to feel comfortable and safe, to work up the courage to share my thoughts. And news flash: being shoved into classrooms filled with bubbly, outspoken peers and coerced into participating to receive a passing grade did not (I repeat, did not) make me feel acclimated or safe. Even in college, where I was supposed to be able to spread my wings and become my own person and all of that stereotypical bullshit, I felt perpetually anxious in class.
If I had been given the time, space, and support to speak out when I felt ready, I think my time in school would have gone very differently. I would be able to look back on my formative years with fondness, not a combination of embarrassment and relief. Somehow I managed to finagle a degree after 17-plus years, and you'll have to pry it out of my cold, dead hands if you want to challenge that achievement. (I had to confront a lot of innate introvert habits to acquire that $100K piece of paper.)
Dealing with Expectations of Social Outings
All my life I've felt pressure: to make friends and develop an outstanding camaraderie that lasts forever, to delight in parties and events, to fill my calendar with social commitments, to spend my non-working time catching up with pals or being adventurous or meeting new people. But quite often I despise all of those things. (Why yes, I did say despise.) I dislike meeting a lot of new people at once, I dislike feeling out of my comfort zone, I dislike forced mingling, and I especially dislike padding my schedule with so many events that there's no room left for me to just breathe. (Weddings and birthday parties are especially torturous, so if I show up to yours it means I like you enough to suffer through the anxiety. You're welcome.)
I'm sad to say that it took me the longest time to realize I don't have to do these things - if I do choose to do them, it can be on my own time and occur at my own desire of frequency. Only recently did I begin to grasp that these expected extroverted behaviors don't define my worth as an individual, and they are not necessarily the norm.
Growing Up Under the Weight of Societal Norms
As impressionable youngsters, we're told that high school will be the best four years of our life and college is when we'll come into our own and make life-long friends. But for an introvert, those assumptions can differ drastically from reality. I have zero idea how I made friends in high school, and college was no cake walk either. In fact, I spent the majority of my college years comparing my actual choices with the clichéd experiences of my peers. I didn't join a bunch of clubs, I didn't study abroad, I didn't find "my group." But I've since realized that that's okay.
I may not have followed the prescribed journey into adulthood or experienced the cookie-cutter college experience (which was totally developed by and for extroverts, by the way). But I don't value my time at college any less because of this. I still challenged myself academically, I attended soccer games and social events and parties, I pushed myself out of my comfort zone, I met interesting and exciting people, and I participated in an incredible writing program. And best of all, I faced off against many expectations rooted in extroversion - and I came out the other side a stronger and more self-aware person.
Becoming a Workplace Unicorn
First off, my apologies for the unicorn reference; I spend far too much time in the startup world where the unicorn label is all but unavoidable. Now back to your regularly scheduled program... As an introvert fumbling through an extrovert's world, I've discovered that my qualities are somewhat unique in the workplace. I'm ambitious but not a whiner; I keep my head down and do my work. (Okay, I lied. I do whine, but only to my boyfriend and trusted confidantes - much to their chagrin.)
I have high expectations for myself and am a dedicated employee, yet I don't seek the continuous praise demanded by a more extroverted colleague. I'm passionate and will fight for positions I feel strongly about, but I also know how to shut my mouth and follow directions. I'm overflowing with creative ideas, but I understand when not to push those ideas onto others. In addition to all of that, I'm considerate, incredibly attentive to detail, and independent as well as a team player. In short, I'm kind of a dream combination of characteristics for many employers. (And now I can't stop cringing. All of this accidental bragging is beyond obnoxious.)
Developing a Passion for Art and Creativity
Because of my tendency growing up to retreat into my mind, artistic endeavors speak to me in a way that doesn't happen for everyone. I may hate crowds, but I will happily put up with them to see a band I love perform or discover a new artist. I know people who feel meh about music or other art forms, and that's an absolutely bonkers idea to wrap my head around. (To be honest, I don't know how it's possible for anyone to not be moved by Lin-Manuel Miranda's work. I mean, he spent A YEAR writing a song of rhyming couplets all about Alexander Hamilton. Pure genius.) I can't imagine a life where music and books don't impact me in this way, so I'm eternally grateful to my introversion for having contributed to that.
Learning how to become an ambidextrous introvert
I've gotten quite good at knowing when to put on my extrovert face and play the I-can-act-extroverted-too game. I don't always love doing it, but I am fully capable of engaging in small(ish) talk, interacting with strangers, and being friendly and outspoken. (Though I must confess, I'm usually much better at it with a little help from an alcoholic beverage...or three.) I may not be able to replicate extroverted behaviors 24/7 (nor do I want to - I like my bubble, thanks) but I'm perfectly happy knowing I've the developed the skill set enough to maneuver both worlds.
My apologies for the excessive rambling today. I hope you (maybe) enjoyed the post anyway! (At least a little?)