I read a lot, but it is not often that I come across a book that changes my whole way of looking at my life.
I was listening to a TED talk on the TED radio hour. Most people may know what this is, a series of talks by people who are innovators or experts in their field, in all areas of human endeavour and investigation.
This talk was by a woman called Susan Cain. She was talking about her own experience with being an introvert in a world built for extroverts, and the power and value of introverts. I found the talk fascinating and identifiable, and looked for her book immediately after the programme finished.
Her book is called, Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. She goes into her own experiences, and how it took her decades to learn about herself and how her need for solitude, her quiet, undemonstrative manner, her discomfort with noise and fuss, were not negatives, as she felt society portrayed them as, but actually strengths, if used correctly.
To actually define this introvert/extrovert dichotomy, an introvert is generally someone who looks inwards, who is “predominantly concerned with their own thoughts and feelings” to quote the OED. An extrovert, on the other hand, is “an outgoing, socially confident person….predominantly concerned with external things.”
(If you want to discover if you are an introvert or extrovert, you can take her test here)
A main point in her book is that the introversion/extroversion dichotomy is actually physiological, to a certain extent. It is about what kind of central nervous system you have. There have been more and more studies in this area recently, and they have thrown up some interesting findings.
One is that introverts are what is called high-reactives. That means that, when tested as babies, they react strongly to even mild sensory stimulation, like noise or play or someone talking to them. They tend to wave their limbs around and adopt very expressive faces in reaction to outside stimuli.
Extroverts, on the other hand, even as babies, tend to stay placid and unresponsive to stimulation. Of course the studies had to follow these babies into adulthood and retest them then to discover if they were introverts or extroverts. But the correlation was quite close, babies who grew into introverts were highly-responsive, extrovert babies needed a lot of stimulation to give a response.
The indication is that introverts’ central nervous systems are wound that little more tightly. They are very sensitive to even small amounts of outside stimulation. This is why they can feel overwhelmed easily, and need to retreat to a quiet, calm place where they can be on their own.
Extroverts, on the other hand, are energised by activity, people, noise, sensory experience. Their nervous systems are set so that they need a lot of stimulation, they are “low-reactive”.
The following I found interesting:
“Once you understand introversion and extroversion as preferences for different levels of stimulation, you can begin consciously situating yourself in environments favourable to your own personality – neither overstimulating nor understimulating….. you can organize your life….. in what I call ‘sweet spots’… Your sweet spot is the place where you are optimally stimulated.”
Introversion brings with it certain other characteristics. Introverts tend to have “an aversion to novelty”. It takes them a while to deal with newness and change. They tend to be sensitive to nuance, and will pick up on subtleties that extroverts will miss. They also tend to have a complex emotionality, which makes sense for someone who is prone to self-examination.
Anyone who has any experience with ME/CFS will possibly – as I did – notice a certain correlation here. Introversion sounds a lot like many people’s experience of this condition, heightened sensitivity to external stimulation, a tendency to feel overwhelmed easily, a frequent need for rest, quiet and solitude.
In the book the author talks to a university professor, Professor Little. He got a reputation as a fascinating and entertaining lecturer, but in fact this putting on a show in his lectures was a strain on him as he was fundamentally an introvert. He developed pneumonia, and became quite ill. One of his observations on this is quoted – “Professor Little believes that prolonged acting out of character may also increase autonomic nervous system activity, which can, in turn, compromise immune function.”
It was here that the penny dropped for me. Again, if anyone knows anything about ME/CFS this would resonate. This was the first time that I had thought about introversion or extraversion, and about what that would mean for me and my experience with this condition.
It became clear to me that I have strong introvert tendencies, and did have even before contracting ME/CFS. I have never really had any problem being alone, in fact I have always needed it. I am reflective, don’t really care about fame, wealth or attention. I am risk-averse, dislike conflict and am sensitive to stimulation.
This does not mean that I am antisocial, or dislike people. I am in fact quite a social person, and enjoy being with people I like and feel comfortable with. Being an introvert does not necessarily mean that you are a loner with no friends. It just means that you relate to people in a different way than extroverts do.
And yet, recognizing these introvert tendencies that I have, I realize that I have spent a good portion of my life fighting against them.
Pushing yourself to a certain extent I think is a good thing, the “comfort zone” is a fairly recent concept, and it is always mentioned in the concept of “getting out of your comfort zone”. It is good to stretch yourself, to try new things, to put yourself in unfamiliar territory. Yet I don’t think that I really recognized what my comfort zone was in the first place, and somehow felt bad about myself for even having a comfort zone.
Teaching is a case in point. I have been a language teacher for about 20 years now. At first I found it a struggle, as being up in front of a class felt unnatural and a strain. But it is something that I am actually good at, and do enjoy, and it got a lot easier.
When I started teaching full time, I was in my twenties and working with a lot of people my age. A lot of the other teachers would go out socially after work – we often taught till ten o’clock in the evening, teaching night classes in English – and I went out a few times, but always ended up feeling drained and unable to converse on even a basic level. This was when I was perfectly healthy. The day in front of people had sapped me, left me unfit for anything but going home and being on my own.
And it was only when I started teaching full time, back in 1994, that I started getting constant infections, colds, flus, I was always ill. This constant illness led to increased stress, more illness, and finally to post viral fatigue that didn’t go away, and from there to ME/CFS.
I am not saying that being an introvert caused my ME/CFS, but it was one element in a complex interaction of causes that contributed. Or rather, my not facing up to the reality that I am someone who needs solitude at times, someone who can only deal with a limited amount of stimulation was one of the factors. I remember many occasions feeling so bad about myself for not living up to the outgoing, charismatic person that I felt I wanted to be, that I thought I should be.
I am still teaching now, and still having relapses, some of them severe. Even though my teaching load is much reduced compared to what I used to do, it is still a strain, and still drains me more than most other things. It has only just dawned on me that I am in the wrong profession for dealing well with this condition. I have begun to look into other avenues of making ends meet, like translation and editing, and have even got a little work in this area.
In fact I find that I can do five hours work on an editing or translation project a day, when an equal amount of teaching would flatten me. I am alone, not dealing with people, have my environment under control and so it takes much less out of me.
This book by Susan Cain has changed the way I look at myself, my life, my condition and my past. At forty-four, I am still learning vital things about myself. I suppose it is never too late.