Wrong, Weird, and Awkward

I just finished reading Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. This book kind of blew my mind up; in it, Cain paints a picture of introversion that describes everything about me that I once viewed as a flaw (at worst) or a quirk (at best). Not just my desire for solitude and my sometimes shyness, but also a sensitivity to overstimulation, an aversion to risk-taking, a tendency to think (sometimes “too much”) before speaking, an intense stress response to arguments, soft-spokenness (I have often been chided or kidded for speaking too quietly, unable to explain that I’m trying to speak up!), a preference for writing over talking, a distaste for speaking on the phone, trouble making new friends, an inability to multitask.

And on the more positive end, an ability to lose myself in the flow of my work (writing or drawing), love of learning about topics that interest me, and quiet confidence are also features of the introverted personality. Even some tendencies that I thought were highly specific turn out to be hallmarks of the introvert – for example, wanting to plunge into intimate talks about personal problems before making small talk.

Now I can see that where I did see glimpses of myself, and of Miles, in the description of the “spirited,” I was actually seeing aspects of introversion – the sensitive personality, the intensity of emotions. Sensitivity to sensory stimulation is something that I’ve always felt and at times struggled with (more so than Miles, I believe) - particularly with noise. In school I never understood how people could do homework while listening to music – I could only do one or the other, and if I’m trying to focus or I’m just feeling tapped out, too-loud music feels intensely stressful. If you’ve ever had to turn down the music in the car while driving through a tricky traffic jam, you know this feeling.

This inability to multitask, interestingly enough, can be the thing that makes introverts seem shy or socially awkward at times. Introverts tend to take in a lot more sensory information, and can’t help being thoughtful about a discussion while in the discussion, so the simple act of having a conversation sometimes feels like multitasking and can diminish our ability to read social cues, though we are just as good as extroverts at interpreting social situation after the fact when we’ve had time to reflect. I’ve experienced this so many times in my life, and it’s frustrating, knowing that I seemed aloof, awkward, or unfriendly, but in the moment I just felt a little overwhelmed and trapped in my head.

It’s immensely relieving and validating to realize that I’m not actually weird at all; in fact, I’m pretty much a classic, text book introvert. Of course, as Cain points out, most adults by the time they are my age have learned to cover, pass, fake it, and blunt the most squirrelly bits of our introversion, and I certainly have. There is a lot of social pressure to do so from a very early age in our culture. Learning to act like an extrovert has its benefits and can be a good thing when it opens you to new experiences and people, but it can also be exhausting, and, unfortunately, deeply hurtful to your confidence and sense of identity if you’re made to feel like the perfectly normal parts of you are wrong, weird, and embarrassing.

This is the part of Quiet that sends me into a tailspin, especially now that I am a parent – the unrelenting cultural pressure for everyone to be highly social, and essentially that means forcing introverts to be extroverts. In a way it’s not unlike earlier attempts to force left handed people to be righties, left-handedness being a trait that was viewed as deviant or even evil, for no good reason other than that most people are right handed. But forcing an introvert to act extroverted has consequences beyond a blow to the self-esteem; introverts are more easily stressed, less creative, more socially strained, and perform worse cognitively when they are taken out of their element. We can learn to compensate in some situations by preparing, rehearsing, and decompressing afterward, but it should be understood that things like collaborative work, open office floor plans, public speaking, and group activities are more challenging for us than for extroverted people – may, in fact, be highly stressful.

Learning more about introversion validated my decision, last month, to stop dragging Miles to Wiggles and Giggles, which he hated. The class was part of my attempts to provide Miles with more “socialization” per the recommendations of Early Intervention, but he never participated in the singalongs and group games. And probably the funniest part was that I think hated it even more than he did, because of the loud dodgeball game going on on the other half of the gymnasium. Instead, we are doing small weekly play dates with a group of moms and kids that we like. I’m more able to chill out about his “participation” knowing that if he’s mostly standing off to the side, that’s normal for him and doesn’t mean he isn’t enjoying the opportunity to be with other kids.

Cain does mention the dynamics between parents and children around introversion, describing how the introverted parent of an introverted child must remember not to project her own past painful experiences onto him, but simply use her ability to empathize to allow him to be himself. I remember that I was fine when left to my own devices, allowed to skirt the edges of the group, to participate when I had warmed up enough to feel comfortable. I must allow Miles to do the same, and not get hung up on whether he “should” be “overcoming” his introvert traits.

But it’s hard sometimes, when – I’ve noticed – a lot of the parenting advice we get, even from pediatricians, is skewed by our extroverted culture. It’s difficult enough not to compare your kid to other kids, but even more difficult to stand firm in this strong current of extroversion that’s so built into the establishment. And here’s where I might step on toes, or you might think I’m overreaching or being stupid: but I really am afraid, sometimes, that our culture has become so biased toward extroversion that we are actually pathologizing introversion.

Think about this personality profile for a moment: A person who doesn’t speak much, or talks a lot about his personal passions; is socially awkward; prefers to be alone; is easily overstimulated and highly aware of sensory input; has only a couple of close friends; is intensely interested in a couple of subjects; prefers routine and predictability. Is this a profile of a normal, healthy introvert? Or a person with Asperger’s Syndrome?

A lot of the red flags we are now taught to look for in young children may be signs that they have sensory processing disorder, or high functioning autism spectrum disorder – a sensitivity to sensory stimulation, social awkwardness or shyness, intense interest in specific passions like trains or maps – but these are also characteristics of introversion. There is a lot of anxiety and confusion around SPD and ASD these days, and I’m not going to say that a lot of kids are being clinically misdiagnosed – because I just don’t know if that’s true or not – but I am arguing that, at a cultural level, it’s all getting a bit blurry.

And in fact, when googling this subject I even found a Psychology Today article discussing a theory that introversion IS on the autism spectrum. (Susan Cain was asked about this idea in an interview and dismissed it out of hand.) This isn’t the first time that introversion has been been floated as a disorder; I read in Christopher Lane’s book Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness that American psychiatrists in the 1970s were flirting with the idea that Introversion could be included in the updated DSM as a personality disorder. I find this unnerving.

Consider that at least a quarter, and possibly up to one half, of all people are introverts. No personality trait can ever be proved to be 100% nature or nurture, but Cain describes scientific evidence that introversion is probably a largely inborn trait. Consider that many or perhaps most of the world’s artists, writers, and inventors were and are introverts. Is this really something we want to characterize as a personality disorder? Something that should be treated or cured? Introversion is not like, say, depression or addiction – unfortunate corollaries with creativity that can actually derail a person’s ability to function and produce. On the contrary, social withdrawal, solitude, and attention to our passions is what enables us to create. As an introvert, I know I would much rather be understood and accepted than diagnosed and treated.

(Of course, I think the ideal surely lies at this intersection: where we avoid pathologizing normal, if culturally non-preferred, behaviors and personalities in children – labeling them OCD, ASD, SPD, ADD, etc. because they don’t “fit in” to a certain ideal – but we also learn to truly understand and accept people who do have those disorders and avoid trying to cram them into the cultural ideal as well.)

I hope that we can generate a little pushback against the hyper-extroverted culture that keeps trying to shove our square pegs into round holes. It’s important to value what introverts bring to the table on our own terms and to respect our way of being as just as healthy and functional as what Cain calls “the extrovert ideal.” It’s important to me as an introvert and as a parent that we gain greater cultural understanding of this other (but far from rare) personality.

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