The Inner Lives of Introverts

stock-photo-8149894-businesswoman-with-finger-on-lips PAID FORWith the recent launch of her second edition of Introvert Power, Laurie Helgoe, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author, is back to tell us about hiding places, luscious solitude versus dreaded loneliness, and some surprises about acting for introverts.

NA: Describe a highlight of the new edition of Introvert Power.

LH: The second edition is enriched with reflections from introverts from around the globe. Peeking into these solitary spaces was like looking into warmly lit homes while on an evening walk. It’s a great privilege to “grow” a book, to let it learn from new research, from my added life experience, and from the discoveries shared by other introverts. It’s also a bigger book—it feels good in my hands.

NA: How do you maintain a public persona as an author—particularly now amid another book launch—and balance that with your need to honor your introvert’s nature?

LH: I ready my hiding places. I am one of those introverts—and there are a good number of us— who loves public speaking, especially when I’m speaking about something that has been cooking inside me for awhile. As number nine of 10 kids, it was hard to get a word in, so having a platform to share what’s inside me is wonderful. That said, being “out there” does make me miss “in here,” and that’s why it’s crucial for me to also indulge in hiding.

I used to push aside my fantasies about running away, about being unknown—wishes that ironically come hand-in-hand with dreams of fame—and try to rev myself up for being out there. Now I nourish those fantasies, let them come with me on speaking gigs, and promise them fulfillment after hours and in-between. I was talking with Beth Buelow, the Introvert Entrepreneur, recently about how we sometimes go out to a social event just to experience the joy of returning to that luscious solitude. When I’m on the road and know I can look forward to a quiet walk, a private hotel room, strolling solo in a new city, I can more freely indulge in the self-expression of public speaking. And when I agree to give a presentation, I’m upfront about my need for time to myself.

Though I’ve been talking about public speaking—it’s on my mind because I’m preparing to speak in three different regions of the United States in one week—most PR these days happens right from home, through phone interviews and writing. Right now, I’m sitting in the quiet of my office, sun streaming over my desk, writing about hiding—pretty good gig for an introvert!

Writing is a favorite form of expression for introverts, because we get to be thoughtful and say things just the way we want to say them. But even when I put myself out there online, I need the balance provided by my journal which stays at home, my sloppy time on the couch, the book I’m reading or the jigsaw puzzle I’m constructing, and my evening run in my quiet neighborhood.

NA: We have many quiet strengths as introverts, yet speaking on the spot isn’t typically one of them. Preparing for important meetings and practicing for presentations takes us a long way toward putting our best foot forward, especially on topics that aren’t our areas of expertise. Studying improvisation can take us the next step—to trust ourselves to share our first, unedited thoughts. From your background as an actor and a psychotherapist as well as an author specializing in introverts, what else helps introverts speak effectively off the cuff?

LH: The reason I love acting is because I get to start with a script and a character. The better I develop that character and learn that script, the more freedom I have. The words and actions start to become my words and actions. I think we can use the same approach to prepare for our more informal, spontaneous interactions. Think about who you are, how you got to be that way, what you believe, and as a director might ask, “What’s your motivation?” You can even use a questionnaire from an acting text and write down the answers. In acting, the more “self-aware” you are in the role you are playing, the more easily your actions flow from that.

Introverts often feel they have to choose between being real and being public because we so often associate “public” with the demand for a pared-down, superficial version of who we are. So we guard our best selves and put out there what we think people expect. Successful performers have the ability to respond in an unexpected, but very real way, making others think, “I wish I’d said that!”

I think it’s a myth that good improv comes out of thin air. I love that you used the phrase “off the cuff” in your question. When I looked at the origins of that idiom, I discovered that the cuff was a place where people kept notes! British pub owners kept tallies on the starched cuffs of their shirts to keep track of patron’s tabs, and public speakers in the ’30s were said to use their cuffs for jotting down last-minute thoughts. So if you want to type a few thoughts into your smartphone for easy reference, you’ll be drawing on a long tradition of planned spontaneity!

NA: What advice can you give to bosses and parents of introverts who are hell-bent on pushing their introverts out of their shells?

LH: I would tell bosses and parents that, instead of assuming the shell is harmful and you need to get the introvert out, consider the function the shell is serving and learn more about what’s going on inside. Is your employee generating good work from that shell? Is your child enjoying imaginative play? Is the quiet employee or student contributing by listening and considering what others are saying? If all is well in the shell, perhaps you are responding more out of your own anxiety or expectations about what being a good boss or parent means (and maybe you’d like a little more of what the introvert is having!).

Butterfly emerging from cocoonIf the introvert is closed off in a counterproductive way, investigate why. Maybe the shell is protecting the introvert from overstimulating surroundings. If so, pulling the introvert out into the chaos won’t help. Bosses will profit more by asking these introverts how the company might better support their productivity: Could we move you to a quieter location? Seek your input via e-mail so you can write out your thoughts? Make a better effort to recognize you during meetings? Designate an interruption-free window of time each day? Bosses can also be proactive by identifying employees’ personality styles and determining what helps them work at their best. I’m thrilled to be speaking at an upcoming Diversity Best Practices conference that is focusing entirely on how to work with personality diversity.

Parents need to remember that they are shaping the way the child feels about his or her introversion. They can help by: 1) recognizing that introversion is healthy; 2) supporting their child’s decisions to seek solitude, read books, or participate in individual sports, 3) telling their child that they love the fact that he or she knows how to enjoy time alone, and 4) letting the child know that half of all people in America are just like them.

NA: If you look at images of happiness on TV, in advertisements, and throughout our culture, you’ll see groups of people socializing, gesticulating big, and yukking it up. Yet, to introverts, too much of all that can be exhausting. Describe your ideal of happiness for an introvert.

LH: Introverts enjoy a lower-key version of happiness, what scientists call “low-arousal positive affect.” That includes feelings like calmness, tranquility, peacefulness, and relaxation. We also like to savor feeling good, rather than broadcasting it to the world. Though we can enjoy high-energy happiness too, a revved-up, smack-on-the-back sense of “feeling good” can actually be overstimulating to an introvert. So, paradoxically, trying to cheer up an already-content introvert might sour her mood! Unfortunately, in American society, we tend to confine our definition of happiness to the excited, revved up version. And when that version is in the room, we overlook the subtler manifestations of happiness. In societies that have a more introverted bent, such as those of China and Japan, calmer emotions are more valued, and it’s the high-volume happiness that looks suspect.

NA: In the new edition of Introvert Power you tell how you wrestled with loneliness when your husband worked a two-year stint in Afghanistan. Explain how an introvert, who is by definition energized by quiet time, can still experience loneliness. And in your case, what did you do to manage the loneliness?

LH: I asked myself the same question. I knew I would miss him, but I wasn’t prepared for some of the challenges that came with living alone. I had come to rely on having my “comfortable person” around – that person I don’t have to be “on” with or interact with all the time, the one who knows me intimately and is there for me. Because introverts don’t readily fill the void by seeking out people, we may feel the absence of a loved one with particular intensity. When my husband is home, though we aren’t together 24/7—that would be another problem! —I always know my solitude will eventually be broken by his presence. When he was gone, I had long stretches of solitude without the ability to call him at will—he was sleeping on the other side of the world during my afternoons and evenings, and he would wake up just as I was going to bed.

Sometimes it was an indulgence to have our home to myself, to move at my own pace and be in full charge of the remote control. And even when it was hard—and it was very hard at times—I was selective about how to fill the solitude. I learned to plan ahead for weekends. While I enjoyed my empty home at the end of a busy weekday, an empty weekend was a bit much. I learned that I needed to get out, if only to enjoy that relaxed sigh when I got to return to my cozy home. And I did make some new comfortable connections and expand others: having movie nights with a neighbor I really enjoy—an introvert who had lost her husband and also enjoyed low-key entertainment, or hanging out at a close friend’s house as part of the family.

But there were many times when I stayed with the solitude and learned to be a better friend to myself. I love that about being an introvert – we are friendly with solitude even when it challenges us. I also learned that solitude is not always this rich, generative source. Though we may avoid small talk, we are capable of small thoughts—petty or repetitive or self-defeating ruminations. I learned the importance of engaging and feeding my mind. What I read and watch and look at and do with my mind makes a difference. I have to say that, through it all, I have fallen more deeply in love with solitude, even as my love for my husband has deepened through the stretch we had to make across the world to stay connected.

For some introverts, using the telephone is an efficient way to connect and even a vehicle for deep conversations. Yet for others, phone conversations—not to mention the likes of Skype and other media that enable both parties to see one another—can be an energy drain. I have introvert clients who avoid phone contact, and reply to most voice mails by e-mailing or texting. Yet others love the one-on-one aspect of most phone conversations. Occasionally, I’ll even meet an introvert who loves making cold calls. How do you relate to using the telephone as an introvert?

LH: Isn’t it wonderful how customized our introversion is for each of us? I am eternally grateful to Skype for having kept me connected with my husband during his time abroad, though I haven’t used it regularly for other contacts. When I want to get out a quick message without having to engage in a long conversation, I love the option of texting rather than calling. As for the telephone, I have mixed feelings As an introvert, I don’t like interruptions, so I often let voicemail pick up and then call back when I’m more present. I hate to navigate a phone conversation when I’m with someone else—and equally dislike when others talk on the phone when they’re with me. When I’m alone and present and focused, I can enjoy a leisurely phone conversation. There’s something intimate about talking to a close friend while plopped on the couch at home. But, too often, one of us is distracted, and it’s too easy to multitask while on the phone. There’s no substitute for sitting across the table from each other and having a face-to-face conversation. If we’re together, we’re both more fully present. I guess my bottom line is, I like to be either in the conversation or out of it – not somewhere in between.

Copyright © 2013 Nancy Ancowitz

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