introversion

The Terror of Freedom and the Illusion of Permanence

I did something emo recently. I posted a vague, ever so irritatingly melancholy status on Facebook without referencing what the hell it was about. I don’t know if anyone read it, but I felt I owed it to anyone who did to elaborate a little. And to myself, as a reminder to never be One of Those People again.

Of course it’s a Neil Gaiman quote. When I die, I really hope I can be a ghost that can not only move through walls but also through all the barriers of human anatomy, through the great divide between the physical and the intangible, and haunt the inside of that man’s brilliant head. I want to live inside his imagination, but I’d be content just to be a passenger for a day or two, and observe what comes out of his mouth. He’s just so damn quotable.

The instant I read this, I was transported back to an early conversation I’d had with a boyfriend when we’d first started dating. I’d ended up in tears through being unable to unlearn something that has completely stolen a lifelong hope. We’d been discussing ghosts and the supernatural. A bit of religion was probably thrown in there too, but that’s definitely a topic for another day, and conversation had moved to the idea of existence after death.

For my entire life, I’ve clung to the hope that this isn’t all there is. My mum went through all sorts of spiritual journeys growing up, and I remember learning about everything from chakras to the Dalai Lama, but one thing that captivated me as a child was the idea of reincarnation. I didn’t know if I necessarily believed it was actually possible, but I hoped desperately that it was. She taught me that we’re all reincarnated in groups of about fifty, I think she said, and that the people who have the biggest parts in your life are because their souls have always been incarnated with yours, just in a different form. She taught me things like  that maybe in a previous life, I’d been her mother, and the idea always fascinated me when it came to love, relationships, best friendships… Did this mean that it was possible to always find your way back to these people over and over again throughout all of eternity? That no matter what happened in life, somehow true love, whether for family, friends, or someone else, would triumph across all of time and space, even death? The idea wasn’t just reassuring. The thought of every relationship with someone you care so deeply about ending after a handful of years on Earth seems such an incredible waste. For friendships and love and bonds to burn so brightly for such a short time, only to be extinguished by life’s ephemerality. I couldn’t bear it.

But over the last year, my beliefs have come to rely more and more on empirical fact than on hope – I realised that one reason a lot of people hold on to religion not because it’s real, but because it gives them hope. A crutch, a lifeboat upon which to sail through stormy seas. But just believing in something because it made life more bearable kind of goes against what I value. I value proof, questioning, searching for evidence, and discovering the truth before simply accepting someone else’s. And the notion of human connection’s immortality beyond death cannot ever be proven. And that makes me incredibly sad. I think logically, I’ve come to accept that in all likelihood, this really is it. But there’s a tiny sliver somewhere in my heart that holds onto the hope that these infinitely unlikely bursts of brilliance will happen all over again. I guess it’s a sliver that not just inhabits my heart: part of my newest tattoo includes the words of Emily Dickinson, who believed that “love is life, and life hath immortality.” More updates on the ink later.

That took a bit longer than I thought to explain, but I guess I’ve just been feeling a little sad lately. The past has been weighing heavily on my heart, I suppose triggered by continual reminders of what used to be. People I was once incredibly close with cut me out of their lives, largely as a result of who I am. I have baggage. I worry. I get overwhelmed by emotion, and I am subsequently too much to deal with. Over the last couple of months I’ve seen photos of parties, celebrations, and weddings I always imagined to be sharing with people who instead turned their backs. I’m not blaming them. My insecurities, anxiety, emotional extremity and pent-up esteem issues made me a pretty shitty person to be around. It just sucks that I’ve put so much work into dealing with it, managing it, and being a better human being, and it’s still not good enough. People would rather move on or actively tell me, as was the case a couple of weeks ago, that they’d rather keep their distance. I feel lost and torn: I desperately wanted to get my issues in check so I could be a better person to be around, and so I could reign in my tendencies and alleviate some of the worry and heartache – but I don’t know how much is something that can be fixed, and how much is simply how I was made. I want to be true to who I am, to wear my heart on my sleeve and to see the good in how much I feel – even if it does mean bursting into tears after reading a news story about a local tiger cub dying at the zoo, or getting myself into a teary-eyed panic while waiting for a loved one’s test results – I’ve battled with my emotional tendencies my whole life and hated who I was because of it, but lately I’ve tried to embrace it – not see it as such a bad thing because it’s not usual, but see the good in it, that it’s because I care so damn much. But then if I think of things in those terms, I set myself up for failure – people left my life because of who I was. So I don’t know which way to turn.

“But the lonely are such delicate things, the wind from a wasp could blow them into the sea with stones on their feet, lost to the light and the loving they need…” – The Shins

The lives I watched continue without me on Facebook have made me feel very lonely lately, so I did delete a large chunk of people from Facebook. I was confident it would make me feel better if I didn’t see it all the damn time. And I suppose, in a way, it did – but it also served as a huge reminder that I have lots and lots of free time now. I used to be terrified of coming home and not having plans. I figured it meant that nobody wanted to do anything with me, and that I was always last on other people’s priority list. Since I started seeing a counsellor and taking medication to get the anxiety under control, I really have learned to switch how I see free time, and in most cases I’m now able to see it as a luxury with which I can enjoy a good book, make photo albums, catch up on EastEnders or crank out another few hundred words for the book. But with all these reminders lately, I’m starting to get scared again. Evenings alone are spent suchly because everyone else has other people to be with. The freedom of time alone isn’t something to cherish any more. It’s a terrifying place in which your mind can go into overdrive, reminding you of all the people who once wanted you around, of all the plans you’d had, of all the doubts you have about yourself. Time alone allows your thoughts to take control. And when those thoughts start in a place that feels a little lonely, the destination can leave you feeling completely abnormal and thoroughly abandoned.

‎”Isn’t it funny how some thoughts and cherished memories can become your worst enemies? The ones you loved to think about, the memories you wanted to hold up to the light and view from every angle–it suddenly seems a lot safer to lock them in a box, far from the light of day and throw away the key. It’s not an act of bitterness. It’s an act of self-preservation. It’s not always a bad idea to stay behind the window and look out at life instead, is it?”

As down as I’ve felt lately, the universe has made a pretty huge effort to let me know I’m not alone. Literally seconds after I received one text confirming someone’s decision to cut contact, I received two more – one from a wonderful new friend I made through Fringe Festival this summer, with whom I instantly clicked and spent several hours telling our entire life stories to each other, and one I hadn’t seen in years, who’d just found my blog and wanted to reconnect, and to let me know that if I ever needed a friend, I had one. I really do believe that one door closing generally allows another, better one to open, and honestly, that very much has been the case this summer. The people who’ve come into – and the people who’ve continued to be – in my life are people with whom I never have to worry about hiding my emotions, or how long they’re going to stick around. They know everything, and they still want to be here. And that means more than I could ever express.

I’ve been listening to this song a lot lately. Yes, it gets stuck in there for days and days, and it does sound like some sort of bizarre fusion of country, The Lion King and Cecilia (you’re breaking my heart), but for some reason I love it. And it seems kind of fitting for right now.

Some nights, I stay up cashing in my bad luck
Some nights, I call it a draw
Some nights, I wish that my lips could build a castle
Some nights, I wish they’d just fall off

But I still wake up, I still see your ghost
Oh I’m still not sure what I stand for, oh
What do I stand for? What do I stand for?
Most nights, I don’t know any more…

This is it, boys, this is war – what are we waiting for?
Why don’t we break the rules already?
I was never one to believe the hype – save that for the black and white
I try twice as hard and I’m half as liked

Well, some nights, I wish that this all would end
‘Cause I could use some friends for a change
And some nights, I’m scared you’ll forget me again
Some nights, I always win

But I still wake up, I still see your ghost
Oh, I’m still not sure what I stand for most
What do I stand for? What do I stand for?
Most nights, I don’t know…

Ten years of this, I’m not sure if anybody understands
This is not one for the folks at home; I’m sorry to leave, I had to go
Who wants to die alone all dried up in the desert sun?
But man, you wouldn’t believe the most amazing things
That can come from some terrible nights…

I’m a little down, but not a moment goes by where I’m not incredibly grateful for the people I have. I guess by writing it out, I just needed to remind myself of that again. I’ll be back to positivity again soon.

Revenge of the Introverts

Last month, I went on a great big blogger meetup, in a city far, far away. On top of some amazing experiences with some awesome people, this allowed for one big thing: lots of alone time waiting in airports. I’m usually the sort of person to get bored rather easily – usually demonstrated in any attempt at physical exercise – so my first stop was to the newsagent’s, to stock up on magazines. Secretly, I kind of enjoyed being dressed up in ruffles, rosettes and accessories for once (first impressions, people!) and purchasing a pile of science, technology and psychology magazines, and I spent the remainder of my solitude reading them cover to cover. That’s the great thing about these sorts of magazines – the popular ones are half filled with ads for products you don’t care about, gossip about celebrities you don’t care about, and recycled articles on the same old beauty techniques, weight loss, and sex tips used in every issue of archives past, tweaked for wording and wrapped in a different package to give the impression of fresh material.  Okay for flicking through for ten minutes in a waiting room, perhaps, but not for four hours sans company or entertainment.

These magazines are great for really reading fully, cover to cover, full of interesting facts and insights. I learned about holograms, peak moments in life, technological advances, and even forgiveness after death, but the most interesting thing to catch my attention was an article entitled Revenge of the Introverts. It was the cover story: a picture of a brunette girl, hiding behind her hair, with my eternal inner monologue pasted over her face. How to Thrive in an Extraverted World. Doesn’t this just encapsulate everything I’ve tried to do this year?? This seemed to be a story written for me to read, so of course I had to pick it up.

It was a long article, but it was absolutely fascinating. Written by a therapist, it opened with a confession: the author loved the study of psychology, but hated dealing with people all day long.  “I was perpetually overstimulated, busy decoding everything I took in. Plus, I wondered why I couldn’t tolerate the large caseloads my colleagues took on willingly.”  This is so true for me – I love education, as well as the idea of helping to educate others – but being continually around or in front of people is exhausting and anxiety-inducing, rather than stimulating. At the end of the day I love nothing more than shutting my office door and putting my favourite radio station on – retreating into my own little world.  I’m normal! my brain rejoiced, as it continued to digest the story.

There are plenty of introverts around. It’s just that perceptual biases lead us all to overestimate the number of extraverts among us (they are noisier and hog the spotlight). Often confused with shyness, introversion does not imply social reticence or discomfort. Rather than being averse to social engagement, introverts become overwhelmed by too much of it, which explains why the introvert is ready to leave a party after an hour and the extravert gains steam as the night goes on.

This doesn’t mean us introverts are shy. This means that unlike extraverts, we get our energy from alone time, and too much exposure to people is actually draining. Introverts are collectors of thought. Extraverts are collectors of socialisation. What surprised me, was that according to a national US study, introverts make up 50% of the population. So why does it seem we’re vastly outnumbered by extraverts? The answer could be cultural. “Like individuals,” the article stated, “cultures have different styles. America is a noisy culture, unlike, say, Finland, which values silence. Individualism, dominant in the U.S., promotes the direct, fast-paced style of communication associated with extraversion. Collectivistic societies, such as those in East Asia, value privacy and restraint, qualities more characteristic of introverts.”  But if every other person is an introvert, why doesn’t our cultural tone seem to reflect that?

It’s not just that we overestimate the numbers of extraverts in our midst because they’re more salient. The bias of individuals is reinforced in the media, which emphasize the visual, the talkative, and the sound bite— immediacy over reflection.  “In verbal cultures, remaining silent presents a problem,” reports a study of communication styles in the U.S. and Finland. Perceptions of competence tend to be based on verbal behaviour. An introvert who is silent in a group may actually be quite engaged—taking in what is said, thinking about it, waiting for a turn to speak—but will be seen in the U.S. as a poor communicator.

Is this why I’ve struggled to much with public speaking? Is this why it remains one of the highest ranked fears across the nation – because we’re conditioned to believe that extraversion equals competence and, subsequently, success? Is this why, for years, I believed I wasn’t really worthy of deep relationships and meaningful friendships, because I wasn’t a big speaker, not really good at improvisation or making jokes, or even thinking on the spot to answer simple questions like “how are you?”

Conversation between an introvert and an extravert can involve a series of misunderstandings. As the introvert struggles to follow multiple conversational threads and sort out his own thoughts, he remains quiet and appears to be just listening. The extravert reads that as engagement, a cue to keep talking. The introvert struggles with the continuing flow of input and soon starts to shut out the extravert, while nodding or smiling, or even trying to stop the exchange. Rather than simply answering the  question, an internal dialogue begins, in which the introvert “hears” themself talking internally as the other person speaks.

Even if the introvert responds, “I’m good,” they’re probably still internally reflecting on how they really are. They may evaluate their thoughts and judgment about the day, and even the question itself, wondering why we revert to “good” just because that’s the question, or if the other person even really wants to know. The cognitive load becomes increasingly difficult to manage, as the internal talk competes with the external conversation.  Moreover, while trying to keep the conversation going, introverts may miss social cues, which can  make them appear socially inept. The conversation is also anxiety-provoking, because the introvert feels they have too little time to share a complete thought. They hunger to pull away and give time to the thoughts their brain has generated.

How fascinating is this? A scientifically researched argument for all my years of self-questioning actually being normal enough to constitute half the population. One thing I love about the blogging world is that, contrary perhaps to day-to-day existence, there seem to be a copious amount of introverts. According to the Myers-Briggs personality test (of which I’m a massive fan), my type is supposed to be the rarest of them all. Yet in discussions with other bloggers, I’ve found a good number of people whose type is just like my own. Perhaps, as collectors of thought and lovers of solitude, it provides a safe sense of community where we’re free to take all the time we need to construct our ideas and responses, from the safety of our own isolation. In the blogosphere, we can be successful social communicators and contributors, unaffected by the interruptions, fast pace and expectations of external society.  And perhaps this realisation is just what we need in order to give ourselves a bit of a break once in a while, and embrace who we are in our own skin. It seems we’re not such aliens in our own world after all.