Last week my son’s school held its annual Mosaic Night. The theme is diversity, and each classroom chooses a theme and prepares an exhibit on the theme. Some of them are related directly to what we perceive as diversity issues, like disabilities, race, etc. Other rooms explore occupations, personality types, and more. My son’s room did “Nature,” which I believe was code for “Granola Crunchers.” Posters in the room included stuff like alternative diets, yoga, and ecology.
My favorite room was the Intravert/Extravert room. The class had prepared T-shirts. One said, “Extravert” and, smaller, “and we need alone time too.” The other said, “Introvert/and we can be leaders, too.” There was a quiz you could take to find out which shirt was right for you, but I didn’t need to take the quiz to know that the white Introvert T-shirt was the choice for me. (The Extravert shirt was black.)
Introversion is often confused with shyness or social anxiety, but these are not the same thing. I am a shy introvert, and I’ve dealt all my life with others’ demands that I should change or be different. Both are a part of who I am, and I would not change them if I could. But the shyness particularly has presented obstacles to accomplishing my goals, and I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding of it out there.
I’ve heard people say that extraverts “get energy” from others, and that introverts “get energy” from being alone. I’m very suspicious of any explanation of a medical or psychological phenomenon using the word “energy.” In my experience, it that leads to crystal stroking. It’s not very scientific.
To me, introversion is like this: There is a lot going on in my head. Running monologues. Essays, stories and blog posts partially drafted. Numbers, calculations, days, months, dollars. TV shows I’ve watched or want to watch. Books I’m reading. To do lists. Any computer or book I have open in front of me becomes part of my interior world. All of you right now are inside my mind. It is a noisy place.
If I go out and socialize with friends, that’s even more noise. Conversations. Voices talking to me. Some people are boring and they talk for too long. Some people are fascinating and funny. And always in the background the running monologue, the blog posts, the TV shows, the dollars and calendars. It is extremely noisy.
As an introvert, I can only take high level stimulation for so long before I need some quiet time to recuperate.
I don’t know what it’s like to be an extravert. I actually think they probably have just as much going on inside, but in some way are able to tolerate or integrate it better, so the stimulation that comes with being around other people is comfortable. Possibly they even need some outside stimulation in order to feel normal, and have trouble fully relaxing when isolated. I believe introverts and extraverts need each other. We are all part of the mosaic of human society. (See what I did there?)
Writers are often introverts, and I imagine the reason is that writing is an essentially solitary activity, and we have a high tolerance for being alone. It’s not an absolute determinant, though, as obviously there are many extraverts who are very good and successful writers, too. It takes all kinds!
Shyness, on the other hand, is something else. At Mosaic Night, the information presented by the class said that shyness was “about fear of judgment.”
That feels so wrong to me, and so unfair, as if we could all just snap out of it if we could stop thinking wrong thoughts. What is going on with shyness or social anxiety is so much more primal than that. And, personally, I don’t see it in myself. I am not particularly worried about people judging or criticizing me, and yet I definitely deal with social anxiety.
I even know people much more outgoing than myself who have confessed to me terrible fear of judgment by their peers–at a level I can’t even understand. So I have to remind myself, “Sometimes people are really, really worried about judgment and criticism. Be gentle.”
To get past the shorthand for shyness, you have to dig deeper. Let’s talk about animals for a minute. I love animals. Shyness is a trait that is almost universal in wild animals. So much so, in fact, that it is pretty much the defining difference between a tame and wild animal.
In domesticated animals, shyness is a fault, and shy animals are culled to prevent the trait being passed to offspring. Shyness is genetic, but is it really a fault? Every elementary school teacher I ever had would say yes, but I have another theory.
You know another thing about shyness in animals? The more fearful or shy an animal is, the more curious it is. A fearful animal has to spend a lot of energy exploring its environment. It has to know what is safe and what is not safe. It can’t just walk into a room and plop down on the couch and take a nap. It must explore every object. Smell it, tap it, push it. Wait for loud noises, sudden movements. Advance, retreat, run away, come back, nose twitching. Only after thorough exploration could one attempt a nap on the couch. Shyness and curiosity are inextricably linked.
I have a cat, Simba, who is not the least bit shy or fearful. Simba is a great cat. Everybody loves Simba. There’s no question his lack of fear is appealing. He greets everyone like a friend. Guests at our house are in peril of having Simba leap on their shoulders. The bigger they are, the more Simba wants to jump on them.
Simba has been known to lie down for naps in the middle of the street, and wander into the homes of our neighbors. He is the life of every party. He’s a great dancer and a whiz at karoake.
However, Simba is also much more likely to be eaten by a coyote than our feral kitten, Athena. Oh, sure, we habituated her to humans and she’s a good pet. But Athena disappears in a flash if anything unusual happens, like a human walks into the room wearing a piece of clothing she’s never seen, or if she hears a noise. At the same time, she’s everywhere, and into everything. You can walk through a room and see her sleeping in a chair, and by the time you get upstairs to the bedroom, she is waiting for you, like she teleported. Nothing happens in the house that she doesn’t investigate.
Athena has survival skills, mostly because she is shy, cautious…wild.
Humans, too, are domesticated. Domesticated animals have a quality called neoteny. That means they look and act like juveniles for their whole lives. It makes them more playful and less fearful of threats. Humans also have the quality of neoteny. Compared to our great ape relatives, we resemble infants, and we retain juvenile traits (playfulness, sociability, etc.) into adulthood. Domesticating ourselves has been a successful strategy for our species, as there are now more than six billion of us on the planet. But just as with dogs, cats, or cattle, some individuals will be more domesticated than others.
Some of us are Simba. Some are Athena.
I am not nervous in social situations because I’m afraid of being judged. I am nervous because I am not fully tame.
Think about the primal human society. You might have a total of only a few hundred people in your band, and meeting strangers would be extremely rare. You might be called upon to socialize with strangers only a few times in a lifetime. Mostly, strangers are a threat.
In our modern world, we’re asked to interact with strangers all the time. Constantly. Even in my small city, there are strangers everywhere I go. Millions of years of evolution scream to me that it’s threatening. Twelve years of public schooling whisper that it’s fine and I’m broken because I can’t handle it. Guess which voice wins?
Maybe some humans have an adaptation to living in large communities and being exposed to thousands of strangers each day. Some of us definitely don’t.
(Remember, if I lived in a small hunter-gatherer band, there would be no exposure to strange people, and therefore nothing to identify me as “shy” in any way. I would be able to speak, sing, dance, sleep, relax, play, and do whatever I wanted with my group without experiencing social anxiety ever.)
Now, what can you do about shyness if it’s interfering with things you need to do? Some people will tell you to stop worrying about the judgment of others. That’s not totally useless advice. If you find you are worried about what other people think of you, then try to get a handle on that. Try to accept that some people will not like you, that some people will be critical, and get over it. Sure, that’s fine. Probably good advice for everyone, not just the terminally shy.
But the more successful strategy, in my experience, is desensitization. Baby step your way into comfort with the situations you will be facing. Take classes in public speaking, look for opportunities to deal with the situations that trigger your fight or flight reflex, and do it over and over. Eventually, it will go away. Like Athena kitteh, you will eventually decide that humans who wear bulky winter coats are just humans underneath, and you won’t have to run away in panic when they approach you.
It doesn’t happen overnight. These are deep-seated, primal responses. They don’t just go away. But over time you will be able to speak in public. You will be able to act or dance or sing–anything you want. You’ll recognize that the rush of adrenaline isn’t a flaw or a fault like your second grade teacher insisted. It just means you’re alive.