It’s fairly early and I’m snuggled on the sofa with just a side-lamp on whilst Howard catches up on some sleep upstairs and I’m writing a post that’s been swirling round my head since yesterday. I’m already fulfilling at least four of the introvert statements in the quiz in Susan Cain’s ‘Quiet‘ and that’s before I’ve really started –

  • preferring to express myself in writing
  • enjoying solitude
  • ‘diving in’ without interruptions
  • not showing or discussing work before its finished

‘Quiet’ was a book that genuinely changed my life. All of a sudden a lot of things made a lot more sense – not only that but I realised that the various oddities I have could be explained under a broad umbrella and it was amazing. Our world values extraversion and is geared up to promote and reward it but we need to take a step back and see how damaging it can be if we don’t recognise that this is not the way everyone is and see things from the introverts’ point of view.

Yesterday there were a couple of weaving Twitter conversations about ice-breakers and ‘motivational’ activities during insets. Some of it was tongue-in-cheek but much of it was a collective expression of doom at those fateful words ‘Everyone get up on your feet…’. I genuinely have a sinking feeling thinking about it. I wrote about my own feeling on this sort of thing a couple of years ago after my own ‘Motivational Incident‘ at a TeachMeet. I hadn’t read ‘Quiet’ then but having spent time analysing myself I think I’ve got more to say on it all so here it is.

There have been two occasions I can think of where I have flat-out refused to take part in a ‘fun’ inset activity. The first was a whole federation day where there were several activities to do and being asked to stand up and juggle fabric was too much for me. To the presenter’s credit she did tell everyone it was optional and we could sit it out if we wanted, but I’m pretty sure I was the only one. The second was a TA inset where we had to split into groups, come up with a type of machine and each act out a part for other groups to guess the machine. I can vaguely see why you might get people who didn’t already know each other to do something like this but even then I’d be horrified. There were two of us in our group who refused to do it and I did feel a little for the presenter as she’d possibly not come across this before but after some gentle persuading she just said it was very disappointing but we could sit it out.  That second one was post-‘motivational incident‘ but pre-‘Quiet’ and I was, I have to say, proud of myself.

Coming out as an introvert is an interesting thing. I’ve not shouted it from the rooftops (which isn’t necessarily surprising for an introvert) but I’ve had a fairly universal reaction from the people I have told, most clearly from my mum who, laden with supportive sympathy, said “Oh, no, you’re not” as if I was putting myself down. The realisation that I’m an introvert has transformed the way I think about myself and for the better; by telling people I’m actually bigging myself up. My mum’s (and others’) reaction is perfect evidence of how society values the extrovert and why, as an aside, I think we need to keep it in mind with students we teach.

Me as an introvert

For me, the realisation I’m an introvert has explained a lot of things. For example, I like to spend a lot of time by myself – in the holidays if I don’t plan outings I could stay at home for the whole time not wanting to go and talk to anyone or deal with ‘people’. I think it’s an extension of Cain’s ‘If I had to choose, I’d prefer a weekend with absolutely nothing to do to one with too many things scheduled’. I recognise that it can build up and actually can be bad for my mental health so I do force myself to do things but it really can be forcing myself.

I also realise now that there’s a reason why I find social events exhausting and actually it’s good to give myself restorative space away from things. This recognition is an important one. Knowing that when I have to do something that’s going to put me ‘out there’ that I need to schedule in an opportunity to be away from it a bit too actually makes it easier. There are about 17/20 of the statements on Cain’s list that I would say are true for me but I don’t think that’s made me resigned to the fact I like to do things a certain way, I actually think it’s made me aware of how to cope with trying new things.

Why people are confused and think I’m not one

I can understand why people are surprised when I say I’m an introvert. I’m quite good at getting involved with things, I’ve presented at conferences, I quite like a bit of fancy dress, I’m quite vocal in discussions. All things that seem fairly extrovert. The thing is though I do these things as an introvert. I get involved with things I want to get involved with, I have presented at conferences where I know the set up, I like fancy dress I have control over*, I’m vocal in discussion with people I know and once I’ve got the measure of a situation – I’ll rarely jump in for the sake of it. The technicalities are perhaps subtle but I think for me it’s about controlling a situation.

Introversion and me

Control is key.

Put me in a situation I have no control over and I will panic. If I can find some control I can cope. Leading a project or volunteering to speak means I can control what’s happening. If I don’t have any control, familiarity is important. This can be as simple as obsessively planning a route on Google streetview or when doing a presentation I’ll start in a fairly scripted manner but by the end I’ll be more comfortable and chatty (not that I think this is unusual for people). I won’t start up a networking conversation but if someone talks to me I’m likely to be able to prattle on til the cows come home. It just takes time to get going sometimes.

*Fancy dress is one I’ve had a long-standing theory about. With fancy dress you actually have more control over a situation. My theory, probably starting as a teenager, is that if you are dressed bizarrely on purpose people can’t take the piss. If you’re dressed in something fashionable that you think makes you look hot-as and someone laughs their head off it is crushing. If you’ve covered yourself in glitter or you’re dressed as Bert Raccoon it’s quite clear you’re not expecting mainstream acceptance and you get away with more. It makes it a performance and you can control how people react to you.

I realise that defence mechanisms in extrovert situations are about control and I think introverts get quite good at them. Whether that’s faced with whole-group country dancing, sticking with a small group of friends to take the piss, or taking the plunge and muddling through til it’s over and controlling the come-down.

I think there are two types of extraversion – the one that you control and the one that’s controlled by others. The first you get to pick and turn on and off. If you want to join in you can and you have a good idea of the reaction it will have and how that will impact on you. The second is both controlled and judged by others – a step into the unknown. It may be this is short-lived and the situation quickly becomes familiar but it may be that the outcome is completely in the hands of others. I know it’s healthy for me to challenge myself and not get too comfortable but I’m more aware of my limitations now, how to deal with that and the fact that, actually, it’s OK.

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