Suddenly it’s cool to be an introvert. Susan Cain’s 2013 TED talk about the power of introversion has racked up more than 14 million views, her book on the same theme is a New York Times bestseller, and now memes and even T-shirts about detesting other people are popping up everywhere. Who knew that declaring an aversion to human company could be such a popular statement?
I’ve talked a lot on this blog about being an introvert, and why I jealously guard my private time. I’ve explained how small talk leaves me tongue-tied and how parties feel confronting for me (that post here). I’ve theorised that my introversion is linked to my deep sensitivity – which, of course, is part and parcel of being a healer and intuitive. But a few weeks ago I read a New York Times article asserting that some people are now using introversion – which seems to have become a badge of honour – as an excuse to be anti-social. That’s not a social condition, it’s laziness.
I have a theory that, for some, claiming to be an introvert – is simply the desire for a bit of time out. We’re being slammed with a barrage of information 24/7 , and have less time to ourselves than ever before, so saying we don’t like socialising might be one way of trying to validate our intrinsic need for more quiet time. That has nothing to do with shyness and everything to do with feeling like we have to justify relaxation time (as if it were an indulgence). So it’s not a case of: ‘I don’t want to go to that engagement party because being around other people is draining and provoking for me’, it’s more: ‘I don’t want to go because I’ve had no time to myself this week and Saturday night is my only chance to get it’. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But for me, I’ve realised I need to be careful to make sure that preferring my own company doesn’t become the norm. Because in limiting my interactions with people, I limit my ability to grow, learn and give.
Actively avoiding gatherings where there will be a large crowd, or where I will be expected to network, has become a habit for me. I know such events will make me uncomfortable, so I try to dodge them. Of course it’s smart to protect my physical energy and to be discerning about how I spent what little downtime I have. But here’s the problem, summarised so brilliantly in the NY Times article: if we are constantly retreating into our shells, we aren’t connecting with each other. That’s a problem because, as Hugh Mackay asserts in his book Beyond Belief – How We Find Meaning, With Or Without Religion, human beings are hardwired for connection. We crave human contact and a sense of belonging, which help bring meaning to our existence. It’s also a problem because, from a spiritual perspective, we are here to help each other (which also brings meaning to our existence, BTW). In refusing to sit in company with other people, we are swatting away the gentle beckoning finger of the Universe inviting us to offer support to another. We also cut ourselves off from support from others (because even when everything in your life is going swimmingly, you still need to feel supported). Being a hermit holds a certain appeal, but the alone zone is a space to rest, not to reside.
When the New York Times journo asked Susan Cain (of the aforementioned TED talk and book) if, by choosing to read a book in the car while their kids are at a school function, self-indulgent introverts were actually just being rude – she laughingly agreed, saying sometimes “you have to consider the other person’s point of view instead of getting wrapped up in your own discomfort”.
Standing around in a bar talking about the weather (or in New Zealand, where I grew up, rugby – which, bafflingly, seems to hold endless fascination for almost everyone) isn’t exactly beneficial to anyone in a larger sense. But those awkward small conversations can be the gateway to slightly larger interactions where people do have an opportunity to express themselves. You may not necessarily be able to offer practical assistance to someone complaining about the sleep deprivation their seven-month-old son is inadvertently causing, but in listening to their struggle you are offering emotional support. I believe that the greatest desire of every person is to be seen, heard and understood. We facilitate this by bearing witness to each other’s experiences and struggles, without judgement or unsought advice. This is the simplest way we can show up for each other. As the saying goes, the greatest problem with our communications is that we listen to reply instead of listening to understand.
Even the act of simply smiling at someone is immensely powerful on an energetic level. Mother Teresa said: “Every time you smile at someone it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.” All the love-heart eye-emojis in the world sent from your living room won’t make someone feel as good as a RL smile does. (OK, I’ve just re-read that it sounds reeeeally cheesy... but you know what I mean, right?) The point is, we shine our brightest when we are around other people. Not when we are on the couch alone, sucking up our tea through a Tim-Tam straw (soz!). I want to continue to allow myself me time but I’m going to be tougher on myself when my urge to evade social occasions comes up.Much like Netflix, introversion in large doses is not necessarily good for me. Or anyone else, for that matter.