I just recently watched an excellent TED Talk by Susan Cain about introversion. She argued for the need for solitude in society in a world that is quickly becoming more and more of an extrovert’s world. I found her message to be powerful: We need more balance in society so that the insights of both introverts and extroverts can be heard and encouraged. As cities grow larger, and schools and workplaces encourage more and more open “collaboration”, it is easy for introverts to get lost in the commotion.
Retreat and Recharge
I am an introvert. There, I said it. Of course, introversion and extroversion lie on a spectrum, and so I generally fall on the introverted side of the balance. This does not mean that I am “shy” or a “loner” or “anti-social”. What it means is that stimulation, especially social stimulation, drains me. I enjoy time spent with others, but I also need time on my own to “recharge”. While extroverted people tend to seek out stimulation in order to energize themselves, I find time spent in quiet contemplation to provide me with the needed energy.1 Even when I do participate in social interaction, I prefer the company of a few friends over the noise of a crowded room of strangers or acquaintances. I love to talk, but I would much rather have a deep discussion about philosophy than engage in shallow small talk while “mingling”. Of course, these qualities are not true of every introvert—introversion and extroversion are a cluster of traits and preferences—but they are qualities that define me.
It can be difficult to live as an introvert in an academic atmosphere, within a crowded city, within a society which lives and breathes stimulation and entertainment. Sometimes it can seem like being handcuffed to a treadmill. Even after the point of exhaustion, the treadmill continues to operate, and one longingly looks over at the chair and the towel and the water bottle: the place of rest. With meetings and social engagements and promises you made to your friends several weeks ago, oftentimes the breaks between these activities don’t line up well with the times when you just want to go home and curl up in your comfy chair and read for a while. Of course, that’s life, right? But when one is cognitively depleted and irritable after a week of continual engagement with others, it can be frustrating. And unfortunately, others don’t always understand “I’m just mentally drained and need some alone time” as a valid justification for blowing off a party or a get-together. Friends can think it is personal, which it isn’t. It’s just the product of living in a hectic climate and needing to catch those valuable breaths of air when one can.
One of the connections that the TED Talk helped me to draw is my need to protect my “safe spaces”. I imagine that other introverted people do the same as me. I jealously guard those places (and times) when I can be alone in a quiet space. Right now, for me, the only spot I have is my apartment, and even that can be violated at times by the noises of the tenants upstairs.2 My solitude is constantly assaulted by the crush of people on the bus, the chatter of students walking down the hallway outside my office, and so on. As long as it comes in moderation, with chances to get away, I am totally fine, but those times when the day has been long and tiring, and home is calling, but then one faces the prospect of a bus full of noisy people and the walk from the bus stop with the clamour of the cars—it can be unbearable. The world is no longer peaceful, and introverts must cling to the nooks and crannies that they discover where solitude can still be found. And once a place is found, it must be guarded and protected for fear that if this one is lost, the next will be far away. Like a break in the ice to come up for air, or an oasis in the desert, one cannot stray far from the safe spaces.
I don’t often host parties at my place. I generally justified this to myself by saying that I was a pretty bad party host (which I am). But as of late, I wondered if perhaps it was just because I was a selfish asshole. Parties are work, and it’s much easier to leave others to do the work for you. But now I wonder if perhaps it is more a matter of guarding my safe space. Here in my home, things are quiet when I want them to be quiet, and loud when I want them to be loud. I have control over the way things work here. But of course, when one invites people over, it can be difficult to say after a few hours, “Okay, I’m done, everybody out. Go away.” That’s a little rude, especially when one is dealing with friends. I generally try to avoid being rude, so it’s much easier to just avoid inviting people over in the first place. This gives me just an ounce of control in dealing with social interactions on my terms. It’s not that I’m obsessive and must have things my own way, but when one’s safe spaces start shrinking, it’s difficult not to become defensive over what’s left.
A Call for Control
My hunch (and this is an empirical question) is that introverts generally feel less sense of control over the world than extroverts do. When an extrovert gets bored and antsy, there are a million ways he or she can find stimulation. The world is filled with it. But there are far fewer ways than a million to say, “Get out of my house.” At least while being polite, anyway. This sense that one lacks control can take a variety of forms, but I think in many cases it just manifests as a vague sense of being uncomfortable. Almost like a sense that one does not really belong here. For me, the feeling comes and goes, and depends on the situation in which I am at the time. But at times, there’s just a twinge of “please get me out of here; I just want a place to call my own.” Many times it is drowned out by the din of other noises that comes from living in the real world. But in those moments of solitude, where everything is quiet and still, and thoughts can finally run free and play and dance, finally that small feeling is satisfied. Finally it says, “Yes, here it is! Here is home.” And I must protect my home from harm, for it is home that gives me that space to be me. My thoughts are me, in my truest form, and that place of solitude lets them out to breathe. Finally I can relax. Finally I can recharge.
In this sense, when I speak about seeking “control”, I don’t mean seeking to manipulate the external world to bend to my will. I am flexible, and I interact with the world as it is quite well. I don’t mean seeking to dictate what others do, because they are their own autonomous creatures that should have the ability to choose their own courses of action. But seeking control as an introvert is seeking that autonomy: control over one’s own self. As I said, my places of solitude are home for me, the spaces where I can let myself be me. And as others encroach on those spaces, it can feel like invasion. I don’t want to dictate what others can do, but I also don’t want to let others bulldoze over the one place that I can call home. Defensive action can seem necessary to regain that control—not over others, but over myself.
Right now, I am writing this in a place of solitude (my apartment), and I know that I could not write it anywhere else. Here my thoughts can spill out on the computer screen, but elsewhere they would come out tangled and fragmented. To rob me of solitude is to rob me of my very thoughts, and that would cause me anguish. I know that for those who are naturally extroverted, it can be hard to understand what introverted people need to thrive. That’s okay; I don’t really understand extroverts very well. Their way of being is entirely foreign to me. But I will try to keep the peace, and all I ask is that you try as well. Understand that solitude is sacred for an introvert, and denying them that place of quiet reflection is denying them their very self. If people of all shapes and flavours can learn to respect the boundaries and the needs of others, society can truly help everyone to flourish.
And maybe one of these days, I’ll learn to host a good party.