I Was A Faux Extrovert

Like many readers of this blog, I spent much of my adult life as a faux extrovert. What do I mean by that?

I went out more than I wanted. Every weekend, because that’s what people do. Whenever someone asked, because, um, they asked.

I made more small talk than felt right. Chatted ad nauseam about things I could not care less about. Ignored my own longing to discuss what was really happening in our lives and debriefed endless nothings instead.

I talked on the phone more than was comfortable. It would be rude to ignore the call, thoughtless not to call back. I got to loathe the sound of a ringing telephone.

Introvert End Day
No more chitty chat for this kitty cat

Now let me be clear. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with going out a lot, or any particular topic of conversation, or chatting on the phone.

What I am saying is that there was something wrong with my being so out of touch with my own needs. So clueless about what felt right to me, what energised and drained and made me happy. So unwilling to factor my desires into the mix. So controlled by other people’s preferences.

And because I constantly ignored myself to fit in and play the faux extrovert, I felt exhausted and overwhelmed and irritable and misanthropic.

There was something wrong with my being so out of touch with my own needs. So clueless about what felt right to me. So controlled by other people’s preferences.

A Series Of Unfortunate Minor Electrocutions

I also got sick a lot, in what I now guess was my body’s way of saying I CANNOT DO THIS ANYMORE. Being sick was an acceptable excuse for escaping the incessant people-ness of work. For turning down invitations or staying home at the weekend. For cancelling plans when I felt all peopled-out and incapable of putting on the mask and doing the being-with-people dance.

It would make a better story to say I had one lightning-bolt transformational moment when everything changed, but it was more a series of small electric shocks. I was Homer Simpson-like in my ability to get zapped and say D’oh and just stick my finger idiotically back into the powerpoint. The shocks singed my hair and burnt my skin until finally one day I found myself wondering Where the hell did my eyebrows go?

Being sick was an acceptable excuse when I felt incapable of putting on the mask and doing the being-with-people dance.

Tired Introvert
Paws the world I want to get off

Now don’t laugh, but I’m going to outline the depth of my density in not getting the introvert thing.

Introvert Denial 1: Cubicle Fatigue

At school and university I hung out with just a few close friends. I enjoyed reading and watching DVDs for relaxation. I spent a lot of time alone just doing my own nerdy thing. When I moved out of home it was to a tiny one bedroom apartment by myself.

But I didn’t realise I was an introvert.

My first job was in a small company with my own office where I got my work done in peace. I loved it. But it was the start of the 90s and the only females in pop culture who were neither sidekicks, nags, nor victims were corporate high flyers. So I decided to take my enormous shoulder pads and big hair and try my luck in the corporate jungle.

But alas, I didn’t realise I was an ill-suited introvert.

After personality testing for a role at a fancy-schmancy investment bank I was told I was too introverted for their open-plan, super-confident, hyper-social culture. That’s absurd! I exclaimed – but silently, in my own mind. Aloud I gently convinced them I was the confident extrovert I desperately wished to be, and got the job, and was promptly absolutely miserable. Before too long I left the big salary and perks and took a huge pay-cut to return to a small company.

But I didn’t realise it was because I was an introvert.

Introvert Cubicle
Wish I’d had a Joe cubicle (image credit below)

Still longing to be a chick who did shit and still lacking any model of what that looked like other than Working Girl, I ventured back to corporate life. An open-plan, high-flying, extrovert-a-go-go culture, also known as introvert hell. I had a great boss and CEO, plus work I enjoyed and was good at, which made it hard to face the fact that the incessant people-ness was a terrible fit for my personality.

Corporate nastiness was the straw that made me request redundancy for me and my camel. During outplacement the psych said my personality was profoundly at odds with the corporate culture and a nervous breakdown would have been the usual and correct response.

But still I didn’t realise how much my career had been affected by this introvert thing.

Dilbert Introvert
Leg numbness – the scourge of corporate introverts everywhere (image credit below)

The Introvert Lens

Extricated from corporate life, I did a psych degree and discovered I was at the distant-horizon end of introversion. That was a major revelation. Still — you’re starting to question whether I should be allowed to have a blog, aren’t you? — I didn’t understand how much it explained. It seemed like a label, not a fundamental lens through which I could make sense of my life.

But something began to penetrate the sheer rock of my brain, because I did my thesis on personality and happiness – a topic then disdained (happiness wasn’t yet considered a legitimate field of study). And when it was time to choose my psych career, the little part of me that had been putting things together over the years woke up and smelled the coffee and screamed – DO NOT BECOME A CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGIST OR YOU WILL SURELY DIE OF TOO MUCH PEOPLE.

So instead I logged onto the internet and tapped away on my keyboard and started writing, which is where I’ve been ever since.

Introversion seemed like a label, not a fundamental lens through which I could make sense of my life.

Introvert Denial 2: Nasal Emissions

Although I’d found work that suited my introverted disposition, I still struggled socially. Because, you know, I only had decades of experiences and a psych degree and a thesis on the topic to guide me. Sheesh.

Anyway, the final piece of the puzzle – a puzzle most five-year olds would have solved, spilled juice over, and fallen asleep on by now – came just a few years ago when I had surgery on my nose so I could sleep better. (My nose basically had to be broken and reconstructed to correct narrow passages, enlarged turbinates, and a deviated septum.) For three months I had to rest.

Those three months were eye-opening. (Though often I had to keep my eyes closed because of the cast and the splints.) But internally I was seeing things for the first time. (Externally I also saw things for the first time but they were mostly gross things because that’s what comes out of your nose when you have rhinal surgery.)

Anyway. I was literally not allowed to go out. This is the introvert equivalent of calorie-free chocolate. It was like angels singing. Probably something from the 80s – I’m thinking Howard Jones or Human League. Possibly Duran Duran. It was sweet and heavenly and full of joyful keyboards.

Finally I had an excuse to say no to social engagements. A medically justified reason for staying in.

And you know what that did? It showed me how it felt to do less. It gave me a taste of what it was like lower down the socializing scale. It helped me get in touch with my people sweet-spot, which I’d never felt entitled to explore before.

It let me find my introvert equilibrium.

I was literally not allowed to go out. This is the introvert equivalent of calorie-free chocolate.

Party Introvert
Introverts are book-finding party animals

Finding My Introvert Equilibrium

Now if you’re still sorting out how to be an introvert in an extroverted world, then I’m not suggesting you get nose surgery. Or change careers. Hopefully you’re less dense than I’ve been and even if not, you have my story to save you a lot of time and cubicle-fatigue and honestly some pretty gross nasal effusions.

Here are a few of the lessons I learned. Eventually. Um, like eventually eventually.

  1. I only go out socially on Saturday nights and sometimes Tuesday nights. Any more than this and I go into introvert overload.
  2. I plan a weekend-in every few weeks and put it in my diary as a date. There’s usually binge-watching of Netflix or Nordic Noir and major snacking involved. It feels like a mini-vacation and my husband and I really look forward to it.
  3. I schedule gym classes in my diary as commitments, and these preclude work meetings or social dates (except of course emergencies). This helps me feel balanced.
  4. I have one-on-one friend dates with my closest friends – usually dinner, or wine and cheese, over which we can really talk, laugh, and share. This satisfies my need for meaning and depth and lets me be a good, present friend to my most cherished buddies. Oh – and I always wear something nice to make it feel special.
  5. My husband and I have couple friends that we see together and individual friends and groups that we see separately. This gives us both time at home alone (which one of us may spend singing loudly to 80s hits) as well as time to be our individual selves with friends.
  6. I generally avoid parties and organized events unless it’s really important to someone I care about, and then I have coping strategies (more about these in a coming article).
Didn't Want To Come Introvert
I wish I could but I don’t want to

Finding Your People Sweet-Spot

I don’t know what’s right for you. But if you’re still processing how to be a happy, well-balanced introvert, then you may need to experiment to find your people sweet-spot.

You don’t have to be the gregarious and social being that’s often seen as the picture of a happy, well-adjusted person. Being a faux extrovert like this can leave you cranky and anxious. If this is where you are now, then give yourself permission to do less, go out less, socialize less. And see how that feels.

On the other hand, you probably should avoid going full-on Walden and retreating to a cabin in the woods from where you pen your solitary scratchings. Most of us, even introverts, need social interaction and enjoy giving and receiving friendship. You may need to give yourself a small push to leave your hermitage and spend quality, meaningful time with the people who matter in your life, but you will likely be happier for it.

You don’t have to be the gregarious and social being that’s often seen as the picture of a happy, well-adjusted person. On the other hand, you probably should avoid going full-on Walden.

So it’s a matter of tuning in to how you feel, turning the people dial a little up or down, and seeing how that new level feels. Of experimenting until you find your people sweet-spot.

If you’re like me, you’ll find it easier to manage this balance if you have a routine like the one I’ve outlined above. And if you’re like me you’ll also have great taste in music so you’ve got that going on as well.

If you have some other way that works for you, please share – it may help somebody else who’s struggling to find their introvert equilibrium.

But do let yourself explore to find your own people sweet-spot. You’ll feel less cranky and more happy and also enjoy beautifully intact eyebrows.

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