One of the most important insights I’ve ever had into myself was about five years ago when I came home from a party and found myself inexplicably exhausted. In fact, I had left early after someone I was trying to engage in conversation with told me I looked like I wasn’t interested. I was actually surprised to hear it.
I was living in Nairobi at the time, and there were always fascinating people around to meet— entrepreneurs, world travelers, athletes, and journalists. Every weekend and nearly every night of the week you could take it for granted that there was a group of people getting together, and nearly everyone was exceptionally warm and friendly. You could generally expect that the invitation was open and that the group would be intelligent and engaged.
It was also a favorite conversation topic: how easy it was to meet likeminded people and, if you put in the effort, to build lasting friendships. Even after moving back to the U.S., many of my dearest friends I know from my time abroad.
On that particular evening, I was still somewhat new in Nairobi myself. I had decided that I ought to go out often and take the opportunity to meet new people. So, although I felt a bit drained from work that week, I convinced myself I’d feel fine once I was talking to people and soaking in the scene.
In just a few short years from that night, I look back on myself and smile knowingly. If I could write a book on what I know now and share it with my slightly younger self, the advice would fill several volumes. I suspect most people feel the same.
And while I think that life delivers most lessons through experiences when we’re ready for them, there is one thing I wish I had known earlier about myself: that I’m an introvert.
That night, the comment from the person I was talking to triggered some realizations. There was a part of me that was interested, and that was why I was at the party at all. But there was another part of me that was terribly exhausted and irritated. It dawned on me that the mild headache I had developed while I was out wasn’t generic. I realized that I had become quite skilled at ignoring what my body and mind were attempting to communicate to me (although it had become plainly obvious to my companion).
From then on, I made it a point to respect my own boundaries for socialization. I read a few articles about introversion and I learned that introverts generally prefer socializing in smaller groups or one-on-one. It was certainly the case for me. So, whenever I received an invitation for a larger get-together, if I didn’t have the energy, I would explain to my friends that I’d love to spend time with them but large groups could leave me feeling completely drained. I was grateful for the realization at the time, and as a result I was able to choose social settings that I found relaxing and invigorating. I even figured out what worked for me at big parties.
Now, I’ve found myself diving even deeper.
What exactly is introversion? And in what other ways does it show up aside from the way we socialize? If changing the way I go out had that much of an impact on my wellbeing, what other areas of my life and my routine could I bring awareness to? And most importantly, why had I been so unaware that I was exhausted?
On recent a trip to visit my family, a book on the bottom shelf of a bookcase happened to catch my eye: The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World. My sister, also an introvert, had used it as a reference to write a paper for school five years ago. I was quickly absorbed.
A few things became apparent to me as I read the book and reflected on myself. First, when I think of what is ‘normal’ or ‘typical’ behavior— it is most often that of the majority of the human population. Extroverts outnumber introverts 3 to 1.
Even after a long work week, some of my extroverted friends can go out to happy hour, dinner, and a party. They enjoy networking. Banter and debate are energizing. Bar hopping is a great time. Naturally, growing up, I thought I ought to learn how to enjoy all of these things too. If I was feeling a little low, it was because I wasn’t putting myself out there enough.
This was the very first myth that I busted.
In my view, the most intelligent thing we can do for our happiness and wellbeing is to pay attention to the signals that we’re constantly getting from within.
Since I was a kid, I had felt uneasy in large group settings, including in many classrooms. In my twenties, I noticed over and over that despite having studied a topic at length and having a great deal to share, I struggled to explain verbally the wealth I had inside. There were so many instances I felt overlooked and ignored because I wasn’t able to keep up with the quick pace of a conversation. When I did speak up, it could feel forced and forceful. What I wanted to do was speak softly without interruption. Instead, it seemed that in order to be heard, I had to adapt myself to a world that was speaking loudly, quickly, even aggressively.
Socializing and conversation— it all seems relatively harmless enough— after all there is a great deal to be gained by going outside one’s comfort zone. This was what I would tell myself in these situations. Yes, you might feel strained at times, but challenging yourself and taking on things that don’t come as naturally is healthy…right?
The experience that night when I left the party early carried with it an important message— one that I only started to decode in its entirety relatively recently.
We are not all the same.
It is a myth that if something is difficult or feels uncomfortable, you just need to try harder, practice. While some challenges are healthy, without realizing that as an introvert both my physiology and psychology predispose me to a temperment that is less common, I was constantly overexerting myself. Both my professional and personal life seemed to demand more than I could give. I felt exhausted and under-appreciated. As the patterns deepened, I felt worse. I started to feel that I didn’t have power to respond to people and situations in my life, that what I felt didn’t matter and that I didn’t have the option to decide what was best for me.
That was exactly the reason why that night at the party I hadn’t even noticed that I was tired— I was so used to ignoring the signals. I was used to the feeling of being drained and stretched beyond my comfort zone. It might seem obvious to some, but I never knew that it was perfectly alright to stay in as often as I like; to spend many nights in a row reading, writing, contemplating. I also didn’t know that at work, I had the right to ask for the space and the time I need. I didn’t realize that it was ok to speak softly and ask people to stay with me when I took time to explain something. I didn’t realize that it was ok to be different. Or that there were a lot of other people who felt just like me.
The Introvert Advantage, written by psychologist Marti Olsen Laney, is extremely useful, especially if you or someone close to you is an introvert. In it, Laney dispels a number of myths around introversion— including that introverts are shy or socially awkward (which both introverts and extroverts can be). Some of these myths are the reason I didn’t realize I was an introvert until my twenties.
In one of the most interesting chapters she examines the physiological differences between an introvert’s brain and an extrovert’s. Using PET scans, researchers have been able to track the flow of neurotransmitters, which are the chemicals that relay messages across the brain. Of the dozens of neurotransmitters, there are ten that do most of the work.
It’s relatively well known that the release of dopamine signals a pleasurable experience. When researchers examined the introverted brain, however, it was another neurotransmitter that was dominant in signaling pleasurable experiences: acetylcholine. When dopamine was released, the introverted brain did not need as much of it as extroverts did. For introverts smaller bursts of dopamine from external stimulation were satisfying; too much was quickly overwhelming. The extroverted brain on the other hand craved more hits of dopamine, and the release of acetylcholine was not pleasurable in the same way.
Likewise, the pathway acetylcholine took in the brain was longer and slower and passed through the regions of the brain involved in contemplation, problem-solving, and long-term memory. Dopamine on the other hand took a shorter path through regions that process sensory inputs from sight, sound, touch, and taste, as well as short-term memory. It seems apparent from the differences in brain chemistry why introverts find time spent quietly and reflectively so rewarding, while extroverts are excited by external stimulation. It also explains why banter might come more easily to extroverts— the information in their short-term memory is more accessible via their shorter dopamine circuit.
Image from The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World
Laney goes on to make more points in the chapter on other physiological differences between introverts and extroverts which result in additional key differences in temperament and behavior. It is well worth a read. It’s helped me understand that there is an entirely different ‘normal’ and it’s perfectly alright to be that way!
This process has been illuminating, to say the least. When you’ve spent your life convinced that you ought to be different than you actually are— it’s bound to result in tremendous frustration. I’ve had the fortune of realizing that qualities I thought were flaws are actually unique assets of mine. Introversion is a single example— I’m sure there are many other as of yet undiscovered facets of myself that will reveal themselves down the road.