I believe I have previously mentioned somewhere on here that I am an introvert… maybe here? So… I guess we’ll start from there.
Introversion can manifest in a variety of ways but, the most common connection made with introversion is extreme, practically painful, shyness. I am not that kind of an introvert. Some general qualities of introversion may include a preference towards one-on-one or small group settings; preferring to express thoughts and ideas in writing; caring less than average about wealth, fame, and status; disliking small talk and preferring topics, and work that allows one to dive in with few interruptions; doing your best work on your own; being drained by spending time out and about, even if it was enjoyable and many other things. Introverts can often be “soft spoken” or “mellow” but may not be.
A lot of what I am saying is discussed in depth in a book called “Quiet” by Susan Cain, which I highly recommend for anyone to read if you have an interest in personality development and leadership. I’ve honestly cut the list very short and removed a lot of the subtlety from it!
I probably have become more introverted as I have gotten older. When I look back on my childhood I believe I may have qualified as something nearer an ambivert initially. This fluctuation I believe stems from a phenomenon known as the “extrovert ideal” (again, see the book, it’s amazing).
The extrovert ideal developed in North America along with the rise of the culture of personality which occurred in the late twentieth century. Before the culture of personality the prevalent culture was one of character–your actions were considered to be representative of who you truly were in character centred culture–the ideal wasn’t a big personality, which might prove hollow, but a consistent, serious, and disciplined approach to your commitments that proved your value over time. The culture of personality took over as urbanization and nine to fives replaced our agricultural roots.
In urban business culture who you knew, how visible, bold, and charismatic you were, and your social standing became just as important to success as hard, consistent work were on the farm. North America, and the US in particular became fascinated with the bold and entertaining and the age of personal performance began. (Again, I really recommend reading the book!)
So how did an ideal that rewards extroversion reinforce my introverted tendencies? What happens if a kindergartener goes to school and plays in the corner on their own? The teacher gets concerned. Why? Because we believe that a tendency to spend time alone, a prominent trait of introversion, is inherently bad. Again, why?
The fact is, there isn’t a good why. While extroverts tend to advertise their best qualities more readily, that doesn’t mean introversion doesn’t have its advantages. However, our culture has pushed extroversion as the best way to be so vocally, for so long, that introversion is seen as an essential defect that needs fixing. So children who play alone or aren’t interested in changing task rapidly when they find one they like or who don’t want to read out loud with the rest of the class are pushed to do all these things.
Now the way I phrased that last sentence puts the introverted child in a negative light: these are the things they don’t want to do, but what if I rephrased it? This child exhibits independent interests as well as exceptional concentration in their areas of interest and enjoys reading in their personal time.
So this intro has gotten out of control… give me a few more sentences ‘kay?
What I’m getting at is that a fair number of my fundamental likes and dislikes were at odds with a public ideal when I was young, so being a malleable creature, with child-like brain plasticity, I adapted. How does an ambivert leaning towards introversion adapt to an extremely extroverted expectation though?
I developed two modes of being. I became a bubbly, talkative, interruption prone, self assured public presence at school and an extreme introvert at home, with a very small group of people I chose to interact with, a large stack of books, pets that I liked better than most people, and hobbies and routines many would think verge on hermit-ish as well as a tendency to be easily overwhelmed by sudden changes or demands put on me.
Now how does this relate to compliments and criticism, one might ask. Here’s the thing, a person who comes across as confident verging on domineering in public is assumed to have a robust inner assurance with which to deal with criticism and is assumed to be well aware of their value and strengths in such a way that they do not require reassurance or compliments to know they’ve done well.
This makes having a dichotomous personality extremely challenging because your public persona is at odds with how you receive and process criticism and how much encouragement you need to feel confident in a task or interaction. I am fundamentally insecure about most things privately: social interactions (did it go well, did I say the right things, what do they think of me?), work performance (they haven’t commented on anything I’ve done recently, are they seething internally but not telling me to be polite, if they don’t say anything is that because my performance was mediocre or because it was so good they don’t have any suggestions to improve it?), personal choices (if I cut my hair how will that change how people perceive me, is it weird to blow bubbles when chewing gum after the age of twelve, if I suddenly start wearing makeup will people think I look like a clown, if I do look like a clown will people be honest with me?) and so on.
This insecurity, however, is at odds with the character I portray in public and therefore not likely to be considered when people are interacting with me, whether its classmates, professors, or bosses.
During my recent hiatus from writing here this aspect of my personality came to a head in an interesting way. And… now I need to backtrack to fully explain that… bear with me please?
A couple of years ago I worked somewhere where the owners were married and their opinions as to where said business was headed was fundamentally at odds which meant I often found myself trying to balance two entirely different sets of priorities set by stressed people. This job was fairly high demand in some ways but low demand in others, and while management could be difficult the other employees were easy going and fun to be around. Partway through my time working there another person was brought on in a position of some authority to provide some relief for ownership so they could take some time off/ease back on their working hours slightly.
This new employee had a very different set of priorities than either of the owners, which now needed to be accounted for when trying to balance your day as an employee. While I tried to consider this as much as possible, I still prioritized what I found from ownership higher (in general) than the new employees thoughts on things. At the same time, in my interactions with ownership, I saw that while the new employee was an authority, they seemed to find some of her opinions rather silly. I was surprised that this was talked about behind the new employees back rather than addressed but tried not to worry about it.
After a couple of weeks with the new employee present I started to realize that she seemed to dislike me and was often snappish with me. My response was to try to remain relatively jovial and smiley in the hopes that it would dissipate this dislike. It didn’t, my balancing of priorities wasn’t to her liking and it came to a major head when we were alone at one point.
I think I asked about retrieving the next thing for whatever job we were working on when it happened. She yelled at me and though I’m not sure exactly how it began I do recall being told I make excuses, think very highly of myself, am arrogant in a way that is unacceptable in one so young, that I am bothersome, lazy, only do the jobs I like to do and try to pawn other jobs off on people, and overly exuberant and a variety of other things that culminated with the phrase, “And (Boss’s name here) thinks so too!”
I was stunned, I had no reply for it other than to look around the room to make sure I was still inhabiting reality. I couldn’t very well try to explain myself could I? Since I was always making excuses. I just sat in my brain, utterly overstimulated, harking back to an emotionally manipulative woman I worked for in Australia, and a barn manager who had said things that made me want to punch her in the face because “you don’t know me!” All these people, saying different but equally negative things about who they believed me to be internally and what they believed my motivations were.
I couldn’t understand why it was that these people didn’t see who I actually was. I couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t have brought these concerns to me privately, one at a time, calmly. Why was it people always just blew up in my face? And what the hell was so wrong with me? Was I really just continuously associating myself with mean-spirited people or was I actually the utterly shitty person they seemed to think I was? I went and started the next thing that needed doing.
The next day I approached another employee on my level and asked her if she felt I avoided certain jobs or wasn’t pulling my weight like she was. She looked confused and said no, and asked why? So I explained the situation to her. She considered my question again and reassured me that she certainly didn’t feel that way and since the tasks we were responsible for were shared she would’ve noticed, what she had noticed was that the new employee seemed to dislike me and intentionally try to make me look bad to others. While this was reassuring a part of me was still latched on to the last sentence of the verbal barrage.
It took a few days but I stewed about it until I could scratch together the confidence to ask my boss whether she felt this way about me, and if so whether I should find another job. She looked surprised and said no, although there were a few things she might like me to become more competent with or just more sensitive of. That was a criticism I could accept and work on, delivered calmly. What I didn’t expect was the massive blow up that then occurred between the boss and the new employee–which I suspect has severed the friendship that once existed between them to this day.
I can’t say my experience at that job got much better, as I was yelled at again, by someone else, for something else much further outside of my control before I left and cried in front of one of my bosses (it was one of those I’m so angry that I’m either going to cry or punch someone moments).
Altogether though the reason I was frequently getting yelled at became clearer over my multitude of experiences:
- when I ask questions, due to my apparent confidence, instead of seeming to ask for assurance I appear to be doubting the instructions or competency of others;
- my carefully crafted air of assurance can come across to others as cocky or arrogant;
- the time I spend trying to carefully prioritize other peoples things, when viewed by someone who hasn’t watched what I’ve been doing continuously, can make me seem lazy or insubordinate to the person who’s things I haven’t been prioritizing as highly;
- when I offer other people the choice of what they want to do rather than switching who does what regularly it can make it look as though I prefer certain jobs;
- my attempts to ensure I am making friendly conversation can come across as over exuberant to someone who isn’t interested in talking;
- my attempts to make my reasoning understood may be read as making excuses;
- I often come across as more competent than I am by being exceptionally good in one area;
- my air of confidence makes it intimidating to try to address things as they come up no matter how subordinate my role is to the person noticing the problem;
- and my general demeanour makes it seem like I can handle being screamed at well
Since these incidents I have encountered people who are more careful when they correct me and in general it seems that people who are personally secure tend to deal with me in more productive ways.
The reason I say this came to an interesting head recently though, is because I had a break during which I spent time volunteering on a project. A couple of days in I received a compliment from the person directly in charge of me that absolutely dumbfounded me.
My supervisor, after a particularly sleepless few days turned to me and said something along the lines of, “I’m not quite sure how to say this, but I feel like I should let you know that I’ve really enjoyed having you over the last couple of days and you’ve been really helpful. You have this kind of… quiet confidence that has been really reassuring, you just seem to know that everything is going to work out, you are upbeat and encouraging, and you act very competently even though these are new situations for you.”
Now, that’s not word for word but that’s the gist of it. My reply was, awkward silence to begin with because who knows how to respond to that type of feedback. I settled on the poorest expression of gratitude that has ever come out of my mouth (which I honestly wish I could take back and replace with the words thank you) which was, “Haha, thanks, some people have called that cocky.”
After I had gotten a bit of sleep, I reflected on this interaction and realized something: all of these people I’ve mentioned in the last few paragraphs were looking at the same set of traits under different circumstances, with different perspectives.
One set of people looked at me, without watching me carefully, and said, “This kid does things her own way without asking for input from me, appears not to treat all tasks equally, is overly chatty but sometimes ominously quiet and is always explaining away blame, and is clearly arrogant because she prioritizes things other than my things!” While another person, working under fairly extreme conditions, in close contact with me, looked at me and said, “This kid tries to think ahead and be ready for what is coming next even though things are constantly changing, she’s independent and takes on responsibility where she feels confident, is optimistic despite challenges, tries to be encouraging and communicative, and clearly is trying to work with me using her personal resources!”
This same supervisor generously let me catch extra sleep, even though I told her to give me a hard poke when the alarm went off (when I’m low enough on sleep, I sleep hard) and gently corrected me on occasion, while still never faulting me if I did things independently or went off on my own, and offering me opportunities to do more as I showed I was capable.
To put this all together, while the dichotomy of my personality may never be completely erased and while there may always be people who feel threatened by the strange version of extroversion I have manifested, there will still be people who are capable of seeing the positives in my strange covert introversion. On a personal note I will continue my attempts to make my performance persona and who I am internally line up better, and we should all probably let the compliments and criticisms of others slide away and find ways to value ourselves independent of others regardless (while still being realistic about our faults and failures).
Lordy, that was long! If you got to this point and still have a minute to spare, comment on whether your an introvert, an extrovert, an ambivert! (And if you want to share your struggles from any of those perspectives, go for it!)