I broke down in tears yesterday. I was listening to a TED talk by Susan Cain. She is the author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t stop Talking. Her very persona on stage was very embodiment of quietude. She spoke softly, she appeared to be shy, and slightly uncomfortable about facing so many people. Whatever she spoke about resonated deeply within me to the extent that I was shuddering with sobs, trying hard to keep my tears in check. It is safe to say that I have spent most of my growing up years and adult life being a pseudo extrovert. Well, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I have faked it all this time, because I haven’t. But I hadn’t quite understood why social gatherings tended to make me tired till I accepted that I was more of an introvert. There, I said it, and it feels good. There are many of you who might think that this post does not apply to you but when you look around, you will see that there are quite of a few introverts you know. Reading this might just make you realize that you have made the same mistake that many others have made. I constantly do a self-check while talking/listening to my child because I know how debilitating words can be and how they can shape your life and reality. Among other things, I hope this pandemic teaches us to be kinder and more empathetic to people who like staying indoors, who choose to stay indoors, and also those who are forced to do so.
The sentence that changed everything
I remember an incident in my school bus when I was possibly 7 or 8 years old. I remember sitting in the last seat of the bus, staring outside the window and thinking to myself ‘I am shy’. I had joined school after the school year had started and I was finding it difficult to make friends. I remember the feeling of being alienated. As early as that, I remember the feeling of being isolated, not belonged. I also remember that this sentence was not in someone else’s voice. It was my voice that was telling me that I was shy. On that day, in the bus, by acknowledging my shyness, I remember feeling somewhat inadequate. I had felt like this was not such a good thing to be. Of course, Susan Cain differentiates between being shy and being an introvert. A shy person is unable to reach out to others because of their fear of being judged. Being an introvert is about feeling rejuvenated in solitude, just like extroverts find their calm or their energy by talking to people, by socialising. Unbeknownst to me, my 7-year-old self had made a very crucial self-discovery. It was a deciding moment in my conscious life of becoming an individual. I would spend the greater part of my life fighting this one singular sentence.
Introversion—along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness – is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology. Introverts living under the Extrovert Ideal are like women in a man’s world, discounted because of a trait that foes to the core of who they are. Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.
— Susan Cain
Messages from the world
Growing up, I used to spend a lot of time on my own. I loved reading, listening to music, tinkering with my Sarod (I never played it seriously), writing stories, meditating, and sometimes, even moving to the music of George Michael. I was happiest in my room. My room was my sanctuary. I had everything in that room that made me happy. Over the years, I began to harbour a silly notion that there was some kind of a quiet, calm, energy source in that room. Perhaps it had something to do with the orientation of the room in the house. Perhaps it was because of the aspect of the room. Or perhaps, it was because of all the laughter that the room always reverberated with. My friends of yore always talk about my old room with fondness. They felt the calmness, too. They could relax and enjoy and not have to worry about the rest of the world. That was the power of the room, or rather, that is the power of solitude and quietude. But there were always these voices that sent me messages that tended to insinuate otherwise. Being comfortable in my own company was looked down upon. You were considered one or all of the following.
Standoffish: “What do you keep thinking about all the time?” “I like thinking about things and observing people”. [“Such a freak! What is wrong with you?”]
Awkward: “You don’t know how to talk to people. You should talk to people more.” “I don’t like small talk and smiling for the heck of it.” [“What is wrong with you?”]
Loners: “Don’t be a loner.” “But I like being alone.” [“You are so strange. What is wrong with you?”]
Nerdy: “Why do you have to be such a show off? Who wants to know the history behind everything?” [“That’s really weird. What is wrong with you?”]
Unfriendly: “You are so rude. Why couldn’t you answer the question that was asked more politely?” “But they asked me what I like doing best and I said, ‘being alone’.” [“Seriously. What’s wrong with you?”]
Shy: “What’s so difficult in talking to people. Everyone does it all the time. Why can’t you?” [“What is wrong with you?”]
These are only some of the covert messages I received. No one actually said them explicitly but they were implied and particularly the one in parentheses. These messages were woven in conversations which others thought I hadn’t heard. They were covert messages and indications which a sensitive teenager received repeatedly to the point that it was deeply internalized and entrenched in my soul that something was indeed, terribly wrong with me. I had to rehabilitate Me and when I commit to something, I make it a part of my life. And so my project of rectifying Me began. From the shy girl who would rather sit quietly in a corner at social gatherings and observe people, I actively pushed myself to step outside my comfort zone. I began talking to people, making small talk, reaching out to people and making a genuine effort to come across as affable till I internalized it and made it my own. For years and years, I did this consciously and then gradually, it became an unconscious behaviour. I became silence-intolerant. In a group, awkward silences bothered me. I would find topics, look for things that would interest people and made sure that everyone was comfortable. I worked hard to break my public image as being standoffish, rude, aloof, arrogant, haughty. Gone were the days of reading and meditation and quiet contemplation. Then somewhere around my 30th year on this earth, things started to change. I realized that socializing made me physically exhausted. After an evening with a group of friends, close or otherwise, I needed some time alone to recuperate. I needed to get my energy back. I realized that talking to people tired me out. For the longest time, I didn’t realize that my soul was crying out to me to pay closer attention.
Perhaps one did not want to be loved so much as to be understood.
— George Orwell
Looking around me, I could not find anyone whom I could make my role model. I could not find brave introverts who wore introvertedness on their sleeve or their countenance. The world, it seemed to me, were full of extroverts, who urged everyone else to be like them and shunned those who weren’t. Of course, now I know better. The most famous introvert of all times is Albert Einstein. Among women, we have Rosa Parks, whose one-word protest (“No!”) was symbolic of generations of oppression and was powerful enough to give momentum to the Civil Rights Movement. And then of course, we all know about J.K. Rowling and her train journey from Manchester to London. What some of us might not know is how her pathological shyness did not allow her to borrow a pen from a fellow passenger when her ground-breaking idea of Harry Potter came to her. She chose instead, to keep her idea alive in her head. But there was nobody who looked closely enough at me to guide me into accepting myself as I was. Instead, I was convinced that there was something wrong with me and I needed to change that. Even as an adult, I found myself choosing the dinner party when what I truly wanted to do was stay at home and curl up with a book.
It’s not such a bad thing
I was not brave enough to accept being a social pariah till I met my soulmate. It was he who showed me that being quiet and loving solitude was not such a bad thing after all. He showed me that spending time alone was and should be, a part of one’s life. He showed me that one needn’t have to ‘do’ something all the time, that it’s okay (if not imperative) to simply be. He showed me that when everyone was out on the dance floor, it was alright to happily stand in a corner observing the world around him. He reminded me that there was comfort in companionship, which could be attained by just being around someone. By being himself and nudging me to do the same, he showed me (again) the joy one can find in introversion. I had spent years metamorphosing into something that the world was more accepting of. Most of all, he has taught me that getting some ‘me time’ to unwind is not being selfish. It would take me another decade to unlearn and then re-learn the basic tenets of my true nature. It would take me another decade to reclaim my soul, to reclaim my true self.
Socialization and exhaustion
And my true self, I have come to realise is not that of an introvert or an extrovert. It is that of an ambivert, a word coined by Susan Cain. I was not aware of the existence of such a word till very recently. I am not a recluse and I am not a party animal either. I am a bit of both. On some days, I lean more towards being a recluse and on other days, I crave company of close friends. You might say that my writing a blog and putting myself out there for the world to read and judge and comment is counter-intuitive to my personality but I believe, that is where my ambivertedness comes into play. I am no longer the person, or perhaps I had only deluded myself into believing that I was the kind of person who can mingle and socialize with strangers. I oscillate between the two extremes of extroversion and introversion. Recently, I spent a weekend with my oldest friends and I returned rejuvenated after hours of mindless laughter and silly giggles. But when I was back, I still had to take a day off to sleep and re-energize because there was mental and physical exhaustion. Some of you might ask, “Why were you mentally exhausted? These are your close friends. Didn’t you have fun?” I absolutely did. I had a whale of a time but I still needed to find my space, my treasured ‘me time’ to feel connected with myself. Susan Cain says that possibly, ambiverts have the best of both worlds. I would say that it depends on whom you are asking. Ambiverts might tell you that they have worst of both worlds.
Stay At Home motherhood
As a SAHM, I spend a major part of my day at home, alone, with only my six-year-old for company. We have devised a system wherein we spend time in different kinds of play. And then I ask for a time-out and recoup my energy. We call this time ‘independent play’. While he plays/draws/builds/creates on his own, I settle down with a book and a cup of tea or on rare afternoons, a much-needed nap. It is a paradox that I need to stay away from people in order to be more sociable. There hasn’t been anyone to tell me that this is alright and that there is nothing wrong with this method. It has been especially difficult in the age of the social media when I have had internal struggles with the multitudinous messages that I have received, telling me that if I did not reach out to people, they will forget me. But thankfully, age has made me wiser and I have now come to terms with the fact that I am not one to succumb to social pressure. I am who I am and I am quite happy being me. If others can’t handle that, then it is their problem, not mine. Being a SAHM, I have found the grace to accept myself as I am by staying still, by staying home. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t like travelling or meeting friends but ‘home’ has always held a special place in my heart.
The Triumph of Introverts
And the world today, in the throes of the Coronavirus pandemic is acknowledging the value of staying home. Our society has become so driven by extroversion and having a vibrant public life has become such an important part of their identities that self-isolation is being deemed a punishment, while the introverts are quietly rejoicing. When people are posting videos of playing music or meditating or exercising in the quiet of their homes, many SAHMs across the world are wondering why this is news-worthy because finding entertainment at home is part of their everyday life. When the world is urging and pleading, and sometimes, using force, to make people stay indoors, the introverts across the globe are wondering, ‘why is it so hard?’ When the dolphins are returning near the shores of Marine Drive in Mumbai and the otters are roaming the deserted parks of Singapore, the introverts are smiling to themselves. When the whole nation opts to stay at home, emptying out the streets, the introverts are breathing more easily because the noisy world out there drowns out the thoughts in their heads. The same world which consistently ostracizes introverts and calls them freaks, is returning to the inner workings of introverts. These are testing times indeed, but for introverts, it is the silver lining that they have always been looking for. They already possess the superpower of staying still when the world is going into a frenzy.