I have such distinct memories of forcing myself into social situations growing up. To talk louder, to find the right time to join a conversation, to attend every outing so I wasn't the weird one, quiet one, or – horror of all horrors – be labeled as shy.
Somewhere, at some point, shyness became mingled with the word introvert, and it was not lost on me that it was a derogatory word.
In Susan Cain's book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, she calls this the “Extrovert Ideal.” Fellow introverts, you may know what I'm talking about – western culture praises and rewards loud, confident, and big personalities. So, if we can help it, we introverts fake it to find success in our lives. We force ourselves to do things that feel unnatural to us with the understanding we very well will never get ahead in life if we can't live and work loudly.
After reading Susan Cain's book last year, however, my mind started to shift in how I saw myself. After all, at least one-third of people in the world are introverts, so I'm not as alone as I thought.
Cain argues how totally undervalued introverts are in our society and how we all can benefit from their strengths. Strengths that introverts must learn to recognize in the first place, like how they "think before they act, digest information thoroughly, stay on task longer, give up less easily, and work more accurately." We have "the power of persistence, the tenacity to solve complex problems, and the clear-sightedness to avoid pitfalls that trip others up…"
And yes, introverts also hate small talk in favor of deeper conversations, they are highly empathic, they prefer to work alone, are good listeners, and have a more quiet, mellow disposition.
While there is no shame to be had about being an introvert, the reality still exists that we must navigate our surroundings more strategically than an extrovert might. The scale of introversion to extroversion correlates to preferences in stimulation, and we can do our best to optimize our days for our preferred level of stimulation. Cain calls this "sweet spots," and finding yours can make you "feel more energetic and alive than before."
Yesterday, I spent the day with my work partner building a project proposal that took a lot of collaborating, talking, and – because we're best friends – laughing and silliness. But by the middle of the afternoon, I felt totally and completely drained. I was falling out of my sweet spot. So, I called it a day and took off for a yoga class where I spent the next hour in sweet solitude, in dim lighting, and I felt realigned.
I know a lot of work places are more restrictive than mine is, as someone who works for herself and has a bit more control. But there are moments throughout the day you can plan for – and even being aware you're playing a sweet-spot game helps! It's mindfulness in action. Maybe after a long meeting, you take a walk outside, or grab a coffee for yourself. Or maybe plan a work-from-home day during a particularly busy and socially-demanding week.
Sometimes I spend a full day working alone at home, and by the end I'm bored and under-stimulated, so I go to a happy hour with friends. But perhaps that goes on too long. I've had enough small talk with acquaintances and it's time to go home and watch a movie or read a book by myself.
Finding the sweet spot isn't just for work, but your hobbies, vacations, and social life too. It's just being aware of what you're feeling and not having any guilt or shame for asking for and doing what you want and need to be comfortable in your own life.
Fellow introverts, if you need a support group to navigate this Extrovert Ideal-life, we are here for you! There is nothing more empowering then learning about yourself, so check out Cain's book, Quiet, and be proud of your strengths that the world, and especially its leadership, needs now more than ever.