I’ve noticed the terms “introvert” and “extrovert” popping up frequently in conversations lately. As a lifelong introvert, I also notice a lot of misunderstanding about what the term means.
I start, as you knew I would, with definitions. However, it happens I disagree with the online Oxford Dictionary definition of introvert, which is “a shy, reticent person.” As I look at other dictionaries, I find “shy” is widely used to describe introversion.
I’ve recently discovered a website called Introvert, Dear. I,D defines an introvert as “someone who prefers calm, minimally stimulating environments.“ Now that’s introversion! I’m not shy, but I do get overstimulated.
Introvert and extrovert are, inescapably, labels, and regular readers know I regard labels with a jaundiced eye. These two descriptors are not black and white. Rather, each describes one end of a continuum, and we all have a place on that continuum at any point in time. We may slide back and forth, depending on context, but there is no perfect or normal place to be. We’re the only ones who can decide what’s perfect and normal for us on any given day.
One of the biggest and most obvious differences between introverts and extroverts is extroverts recharge by socializing with others, while introverts recharge by being alone. Introverts are inward-turning, preoccupied with thoughts, feelings and experiences rather than external stimulation. Interestingly, science is discovering differences in dopamine production and reception may be related to introversion and extroversion, which is to say these parts of our personalities are neurobiologically and genetically wired in, like our eye color.
Introversion is not a defect of character, a weakness, or something that needs to be fixed or changed. Many artists of all types, including some big Hollywood names, are introverts. I relish my way of being and have no interest at all in becoming more extroverted. I’ve frequently been told I’m no fun, which used to really hurt but now makes me smile. Nobody on the planet knows how much fun I have every day by myself!
Introverts are not necessarily socially awkward or shy. We may be quiet and reserved at times, but needing to limit our social interaction doesn’t mean we don’t need, appreciate and enjoy social connection. We don’t hate people, but we may struggle with large groups of people and noisy environments because of overstimulation. Most introverts don’t like small talk, not because we can’t do it, but because it feels empty and shallow. We want and are able to make a more authentic and meaningful connection and contribution.
What this means is large gatherings like weddings, parties and reunions are a kind of nightmare for some introverts. Not only do we become overstimulated and exhausted, a wretched combination, but we are unable to contribute anything authentic and meaningful, which makes the whole event a painful waste of time and energy we’ll need a couple of days (at least) to recover from.
(How do introverts throw parties? Buy snacks. Invite no one.)
Which brings me to a sore spot in my own psyche. Feeling unhappy at large social gatherings does not mean I have nothing to offer. I have a great deal to offer, as do many introverts. Introversion is strongly associated with being a highly sensitive personality. Many introverts are intuitive, thoughtful, compassionate, creative people who are willing to explore life deeply. Because we choose only a few close connections, we have the time, attention and energy to be loyal, dependable, and good listeners and resources. We introverts give the gift of presence. Presence isn’t flashy or sexy or brightly colored, but it’s there, consistently reliable and steady. Sadly, presence is valued less and less in our culture. We’d much rather have a new phone, or a thumbs up, or a thing we bought in order to prove our affection.
A person who finds boundaries rude will certainly have trouble with introverts, because we need a lot of boundaries in this noisy, attention-demanding, chaotic, busy culture to protect ourselves. Introverts are often misinterpreted as being rude, cold, selfish, or stuck up because we must take care of our need for solitude in order to stay on our feet. This means we say no. Sometimes we say it frequently. For some folks, no is simply unacceptable for any reason. The fact is, I build and maintain boundaries with others because I want them in my life, not because I don’t. My no is not a rejection; it’s a choice to care for myself rather than care for another at my own (heavy) expense.
Some people define this as being selfish. So be it.
I’ve also received feedback that sensitive, introverted people “drive me nuts.” Here’s a newsflash: Those who insist on crowding us, drowning us out, violating and/or challenging our boundaries and being contemptuous of our marvelous sensitivity are driving us nuts! Please back off. Let us be. We don’t want to be like you. You be you. Allow us to be who we are.
One of the superpowers of introversion is the ability to enjoy my own company. I am never bored when I’m alone, though I’m frequently bored by the conversation of others. I’m self-sufficient. I don’t need other people to validate me, soothe me or make me happy. (Oddly, some people appear to find this fact highly insulting!) I’ve known people who can’t bear to sit quietly in silence with themselves or anyone else. This is as appalling to me as my glorious hours of solitude are to an extrovert!
What, exactly, am I doing during those hours of solitude?
I’m calming my environment with natural light or candlelight rather than electric light. I’m listening to music I find relaxing at low volume or relishing the sound of silence or the natural sounds coming through my open windows. I’m exercising slowly, deliberately and mindfully, being fully present with my breath, pulse and muscles. I’m sitting with a cup of tea, quietly gazing out the window or with my eyes closed. I’m reading. I’m ignoring the phone and my e-mail because I’m busy not being busy. I’m processing my hours and experience out in the world — observations, conversations, thoughts, feelings, interactions. I’m playing Mahjongg solitaire and remembering everything works out in the end, one way or another, and there can be order in seeming chaos. I’m doing spiritual work, ritual, and practicing gratitude.
I’m taking a walk. I’m swimming. I’m dancing with all the passion and sensuality I can muster (which is considerable). I’m sitting in the locked car in between errands, appointments, and working hours reading, or breathing, or dozing, or eating a take-out lunch.
I’m in my own soft bed with crisp sheets and heavy blankets. I’m reading. I’m sleeping. I’m just resting. I’m listening to the tick of the clock and drifting into a nap. I’m licking my wounds. I’m watching sunlight, moonlight, dusk or dawn steal across the ceiling and walls.
I’m writing, and writing and writing. All the time. Everywhere.
My hours of solitude make it possible for me to bring my best self into my treasured relationships. Ample solitude allows me to be fully present and supportive as a professional and team member at work. It allows me to push out of my comfort zone occasionally and do something more than ordinarily social, knowing I’ll have what I need to recover afterward.
It allows me to write.
I have delightful extroverts in my life. I value and enjoy them, and they drain me. I don’t think anything is wrong with them, and I don’t think anything is wrong with me. We have differing needs and personalities, and much to learn from one another.
I’ve always been fascinated by the psychology of survival. I observe that we as a culture are obsessed with heroes and rebels and the endless struggle between archetypal good and evil. Survival kits are becoming a thing in marketing. Preppers write blogs and have TV shows.
Interestingly, our social and cultural world actively inhibits our ability to survive in all kinds of ways. Public school education might be said to be a long indoctrination in anti-survival. We spend hours with our mouths open in front of screens in dark rooms, enchanted by movies and games. Congregations of fans share reverence for comic book characters and the happenings in galaxies far, far away. We debate, criticize and celebrate the way these carefully constructed heroes dress, speak, look, act and collaborate with special effects. We have high expectations of our heroes. We imbue them with nostalgia. We expect our heroes to be just, compassionate, intelligent, interesting, attractive, moral, humorous, strong and poised.
Meanwhile, dangerous events take place in our families; in our workplaces, subways, airports and schools; in our world.
We wait for someone to neutralize the danger, clean it all up, drain the swamp, and make it all fair. We wait for rescue. We turn a blind eye. We do whatever it takes to distract ourselves from uncertainty, fear and our own powerlessness. We watch the beast lumber toward us and deny its presence, deny its existence until we find ourselves in its belly, and then we still refuse to believe.
I’ve been reading author Laurence Gonzales. He’s written several books (see my Bookshelves page). We have Deep Survival and Everyday Survival in our personal collection. Gonzales has made the subject of survival his life’s work. He’s traveled extensively, synthesized studies and research and spent hundreds of hours interviewing people involved with all kinds of catastrophes, both natural and man-made. His books are thoughtful, well-written, extraordinarily well researched and utterly absorbing.
Gonzales uncovers the astounding complexity of human psychology and physiology as he explores why we survive, and why we don’t. He’s discovered some profound and surprising truths.
The best trained, most experienced, best equipped people frequently do not survive things like avalanches, climbing accidents, accidents at sea and being lost in the wilderness. Sometimes the youngest, weakest female has been the sole survivor in scenarios like this. It turns out some of the most important keys to survival appear to be intrinsic to our personalities and functioning, not extrinsic.
Photo by Tommy Lisbin on Unsplash
Gonzales does not suggest, and nor do I, that training, equipment and experience don’t count, just that they’re not a guarantee. In some cases, our experience and training work against us in a survival situation, because we assume a predictable and familiar outcome in whatever our activity is. We’ve made the climb, hike, journey before, and we did just fine. We’ve mastered the terrain and the necessary skills.
Mt. Saint Helen’s had never erupted before. Therefore, all those people who stood on its flanks and watched in wonder failed to grasp that something new and unprecedented was happening. Their inability to respond appropriately to a rapidly changing context killed them. The same thing happens during tsunamis. People are awed and transfixed. They have no direct experience of a tsunami bearing down on them as the water rolls back to expose the sea bed. They don’t react in time.
There’s a model called the OODA loop. The acronym stands for Observe,Orient, Decide, Act. Our ability to move quickly through the OODA loop is directly linked to our ability to survive.
Observation, the ability to be here now, the ability to recognize what is, is something everybody can practice all the time. No special equipment or training needed. What is needed, though, is the emotional and cognitive willingness (consent, if you will) to set aside our distractions, addictions, rigid preconceptions and expectations (often invisible to us, making them even more deadly) and dependence on stimulation. It also requires a mind set of self-responsibility. It turns out movie theatres, schools, concert venues and many other places are not safe. We can debate, deny and argue; protest and rally; scapegoat and write new laws. We are and we will. In the meantime, the reality is we are increasingly unsafe in many public places, and no one has the power to wave a wand and take care of that for us.
It’s up to us to take care of ourselves. That starts with observation.
In my post on self-defense I mentioned situational awareness. Our instructor emphasized that skill as being more important than any other move or weapon. If we see or sense something dangerous in our vicinity, it’s up to us to orient and move to a safer location.
That brings up another very important survival skill: instinct. At this point science cannot measure instinct, but Gonzales’s instinct about getting on a certain plane saved his life once, and many of us have similar stories. As far as I’m concerned, instinct is part of observation. What do we observe? How do we feel about what we observe?
Photo by Wynand van Poortvliet on Unsplash
Our instinct is blunted in all kinds of ways. It’s mixed up with political correctness, including racial profiling. Few of us want to demonstrate discomfort around others for any reason these days. I invariably feel guilty when I react to someone negatively, even if my reaction is entirely private. It’s bad and wrong to judge, to cross the street to avoid somebody. It’s ugly and hateful.
Additionally, I’m a woman and I’m highly sensitive, which makes me particularly attuned to body language, voice inflection and all the clanging (to me) subtext of communication beneath whatever words are spoken. I can’t prove my intuition. I can’t demonstrate it logically. I have no wish to diminish or disempower others. I’m not a bigot. All people have energy and sometimes it’s foul. I reserve the right to move away from it. If that makes me hateful, woo, dramatic or hysterical, so be it. I’m accomplished in the art of noncompliance, but many are not.
If we only see what we expect to see, we aren’t observing. If we fail to see what we’re looking at, we’re not observing. If we can’t take in the whole picture, we’re not observing. If we look for something instead of at everything, we’re not observing. We’ve already broken the OODA loop.
Observing and orienting mean coming to terms with what we see. The plane is down. Our ankle is broken. We’re lost in a whiteout blizzard off the trail. We can’t decide how we’re going to survive if we’re unable to accept and orient to what is.
As a young woman, I did fire and rescue work. I was an IV-certified EMT, and I learned in those days that panic, fear and despair are killers. They’re also highly contagious. People who survive lock those feelings away to deal with after they’re safe again. Gonzales found, amazingly, some people will sit down and die, though they have a tent, food and water in the pack on their back. They just give up.
I also learned that the hysterical victims are not the ones most likely to die in a multiple trauma event. They demand the most attention, certainly, but it’s the quiet ones who are more likely to have life-threatening injury and slip away into death. The screamers and the drunks, the ones blaming, excusing and justifying, are frequently the cause of the accident and retard rather than assist in the survival of themselves and those around them.
On the other hand, strength, determination and calm are also contagious. If just one or two people in a group keep their heads and take the lead, chances for survival begin to increase for everyone.
When I was trained as a lifeguard and swimming teacher, I learned something that’s always stayed with me.
You can’t save some people. It’s possible to find yourself in a situation where, in spite of your training and best efforts, the victim is so combative or uncooperative, or the circumstances so impossible that the choice is between one death or two. This fact touches on my greatest impediment to survival, which, ironically, is also one of my greatest strengths.
My compassion and empathy mean I frequently put the needs of others before my own. I do it willingly, gladly, generously and out of love. It’s one of my favorite things about myself, and it’s also one of my most dangerous behaviors.
Consider a scene many of us are metaphorically familiar with. Someone nearby is drowning. They’re screaming and thrashing, weeping, begging to be saved. We throw them a rope so we can pull them out. They push it away and go on drowning because the rope is the wrong color. Okay, we say, anxious to get it right and stop this terrible tragedy (not to mention the stress-inducing howling). We throw another rope, but this one is the wrong thickness. It, too, is rejected, and the victim, who is remarkably vocal for a drowning victim, continues to scream for help.
Photo by Lukas Juhas on Unsplash
On it goes, until the rescuer is exhausted, desperate, deafened and feeling more and more like a failure. Meanwhile, the “victim” goes on drowning, loudly, surrounded by various ropes and other lifesaving tools. We, as rescuer, are doing every single thing we can think of, and none of it is acceptable or adequate. In our frantic desire to effect a rescue at the cost of even our own lives, we’ve ceased to observe and orient. We’re not thinking coolly and calmly. We’re completely overwhelmed by our emotional response to someone who claims to want help.
The survivor in this picture, my friends, is not the rescuer. The so-called victim is the one who will survive. If they do grudgingly accept a rope and are successfully pulled out of the water, they immediately jump back in.
The will to survive is an intrinsic thing, and I can’t give or lend mine to someone else. People who can’t contribute to their own survival, and we all know people like that, are certainly not going to contribute to mine, and some will actively and intentionally pull me down with them, just because they can.
I don’t have to let that happen, but in order to avoid it I need to be willing to see clearly, accept what I see, cut my losses and act in my own behalf. Real life is not Hollywood, a comic book or virtual reality. It’s not my responsibility to be a savior, financially, emotionally, sexually or in any other way. The word survivor does not and cannot apply to everyone.
It’s a harsh reality that doesn’t have much to do with being politically correct or approval and popularity, and most people have trouble facing it, which will inhibit their survival if they ever find themselves in an emergency situation.
Gonzales covers this at some length in Deep Survival, and he rightfully points out that compassion and cool or even cold logic are not mutually exclusive. People in extreme situations sometimes have to make dreadful decisions in order to live, and they do. A compassionate nature that does what must be done may buy survival at the cost of life-long trauma. Ask any combat veteran. This is the side of the story the Marvel Universe doesn’t talk about. Survival can be primitive, dirty and gut wrenching. Sending blue light and thoughts and prayers are not the stuff of survival.
Clear orientation leads to options and choices. Evaluating available resources and concentrating on the basics of survival: water, food, shelter, warmth, rest and first aid are essential. Thinking coolly and logically about what must be done and breaking the task into small steps can save people against all odds.
Sometimes, death comes. Eventually, we all reach our last day. In that case, there’s no more to be said. Yet the mysterious terrain on the threshold between life and death is remarkably defining. I wonder if perhaps it’s the place where we learn the most about ourselves.
Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash
I’ve known people who stockpile weapons and ammo, bury gold in bunkers, build off-grid compounds and obsess about survival equipment and bug-out bags. Many wilderness schools teach basic and advanced survival techniques. Some folks put all their financial resources into prepping for catastrophe and collapse. I’m nervous about the state of the world on many levels myself, so I understand, but I can’t help thinking that investing in a story about living in a guarded, fully-equipped compound is not much better than investing in a story that water will continue to run from faucets, a wall socket will deliver electricity and grocery shelves will hold food, forever and ever, amen.
After reading Gonzales, I’m considering maybe simply living life is the best preparation for survival. Trusting my instinct; learning to manage my power and feelings; being aware of the limitations of my experience, expectations and beliefs are all investments in survival. Simply practicing observation is a powerful advantage. I don’t have money to spend on gear and goodies I might or might not be able to save, salvage or retain if things fall apart. The kind of investment that will keep me alive is learning new skills, staying flexible and adaptive, developing emotional intelligence and nurturing my creativity. No one can take those tools away from me and I can use them in any scenario.
We’re born with nothing but our physical envelope. Ultimately, perhaps the greatest survival tool of all is simply ourselves, our wits and our will.