An article over at the Atlantic Monthly called Caring for Your Introvert has been making the rounds lately. I wonder if it’s popularity among blog authors is indicative of something.
I have mixed feelings about the article. I am, and always have been, very introverted. At the extreme end, this bordered on agoraphobia. I would generally consider myself a “high-functioning” introvert these days. As Rauch suggests, I am exhausted by being with people, especially in non-goal-oriented sorts of meetings. (These are also called “parties” by the better-adjusted. :) It’s not that I’m misanthropic — at least not most of the time — I actually like people in the abstract. But when it comes down to the concrete process of interaction, I would prefer to be doing something else.
I think the article is helpful, in some ways: just because I leave parties early (and I was told that this has been noticed in the department) doesn’t mean I don’t like the people there. Even among people who I feel very close to, it is stressful to participate and interact for a long period of time. Some would see this as antithetical to my (learned) comfort in front of an audience of a couple hundred students several times a week. Likewise, very few people would peg me as introverted, since I manage to fake it very well through most social situations. But as Rauch notes, introverts are often well suited to such activities, it’s just that it takes a lot out of them.
The down side is that the article smacks of “fat acceptance.” I’m fat, and I don’t like being discriminated against for it, but I think the efforts put into defending “the fat” could be better spent in a gym. That is not to say we shouldn’t all be a lot more accepting of those around us in general, it just means that we should recognize that some practices lead to inherently less fulfilling lives, and we should not celebrate this.
This is my worry about the article. Going back to Jung, it suggests that introverts and extroverts are just two different personality types, that neither one is better than the other. It does, however, note that extroverts tend to be more wealthy, and more successful politicians. Much of this is tongue-in-cheek, but it does seem to suggest that introversion is “OK,” or at least would be if introverts weren’t put at a disadvantage.
It would be nice if the world was more permissive of those who are introverted, but it would also be valuable to teach those who are introverted to make their way better in the world. Two things helped me to cope immensely. One was becoming an actor. I could always fall back on a character, and realized — counterintuitively — that one of the most powerful ways of connecting with people is to play someone (“else”). There is nothing overtly manipulative about this, one can be perfectly honest while wearing a mask. The other is becoming close — and very close, in the case of my wife :) — with extroverts who tolerated my peculiarities, and helped to smooth out some of the social bumps. Finally, the academy is a great place for introverts, and for socially dysfunctional people of all sorts, to fit in. In my chosen profession, I find that I am not nearly as introverted as many, perhaps even most.
So, now, after decades of dealing with this, I am able to handle most of the social situations I am obliged to participate in. Doesn’t mean I have to like it, though.