The last post I wrote was about being invisible.
It was about how introverts or quiet people are ‘seen’ ( or more truthfully, not seen) but also about how that affects how we then perceive ourselves.
This post is about the flip side: how we present ourselves in the world.
But first, I had some interesting responses to my ‘four word challenge’ (Describe an introvert in four adjectives!) I hope you did too if you had a go. I’d love to hear how you got on!
Here’s some of the responses I got:
‘shy, reserved, inward-looking, good listeners, quiet, over-analysers, thoughtful, knowing, withholding, accepting, threatening, retiring, lacking in confidence, don’t like parties!’
I’d guess if we did a word count, that ‘shy’ and ‘quiet’ would be the most frequently occurring descriptors. I wonder if you found that too?
There are some good, positive attributes here – thoughtful, accepting, good listeners….but what about ‘threatening’? What’s that about?
One of the best teachers I had at school was clearly one of life’s quiet people. She was quiet and reserved, though never shy, dedicated to her subject, immensely knowledgeable, but didn’t do reassuring banter or chit-chat with us.
She was the one who frightened us the most!
We didn’t want to displease her, mostly because we didn’t know how that would turn out.
Most of our other teachers brought in the big guns every time you crossed them…it was all bluster, shouting, board rubbers flying and detentions…but once that was over, so was their ammunition!
But you never knew what this lady might have in reserve, and that could be scary. A bit like swimming into the deep end of the pool and suddenly realising that the water is darker here and that you can’t see the bottom.
In reality, she was gentle but firm, amiable yet disciplined and always expected high standards. But what we didn’t know about her (because she was reserved), we made up, we guessed….we filled in the blanks.
We constructed a dragon that didn’t exist.
How did that happen?
One of my favourite films is the 1993 version of ‘The Secret Garden’. it’s a wonderful film on so many levels, but some of the dialogue is pure gold. There’s a scene where Mary Lennox (the spoilt, brattish heroine) tells Colin, the (equally brattish) boy she finds hidden away in Misselthwaite Manor, an Indian tale that she remembers her Ayah telling her as a small child in India. it’s a story about the young Hindu god Krishna.
Mary tells Colin that when Krishna was a small child, he looked like a normal infant from the outside, but when you looked inside his mouth, you could see that inside him lay the whole world, an immense universe.
Excluding the god analogy, it can be a bit like that with introverts!
As introverts, we can live very happily with a full, three-dimensional understanding of ourselves, particularly the inner landscape, but others may only get to glimpse a quarter of the real person. The well-known analogy of the iceberg is a good one. A quarter is on display, three quarters hidden from sight. it’s also of course (like the iceberg), the bigger part of us (the inner world) that’s unseen. Judging from the usual quiet exterior, few would conceive of the busy inner world and its workings, with all its myriad connections and rabbit warrens of neural pathways, imaginings and conjectures. This is where the introvert most likes to live. There’s only so much energy, time and attention to go round, and for the introvert, the inner landscape wins a lot of the time.
And in a way, that’s the problem. Because where we aren’t ‘seen’, there lies the space for others to jump in and construct or imagine a story around the unseen part.
….Making a dragon out of a unicorn.
So, if not putting up our stall in the market place invites misinterpretation, why do we keep so much ‘hidden’?
Surely it would be better to let others know what we’re thinking or feeling readily. It would reduce the risk of being misunderstood, stereotyped, or just plain not seen for who we really are.
There are probably as many reasons for the iceberg/snail analogy as there are introverts, but (please note), they are usually related to personality preferences, not to pathology. The concept of consciously ‘hiding’ within ourselves is often also an extrovert construct. Introverts may be naturally reserved, but we are not necessarily shy, withdrawn, hiding or self-conscious.
Why don’t we share more of ourselves, more of our stories then?
* Life and what we make of it, is often a work in progress (extroverts share process, introverts share results. The processing is initially done internally and privately, not via group-think). if the baking ain’t finished, why take the cake out of the oven? (a ‘half-baked idea’ was probably originally coined by an introvert!)
* We don’t feel the need to share everything about ourselves, unless it’s really relevant. We don’t do sharing for sharing’s sake. It feels superfluous. Worse, it feels like stripping naked in the shopping centre!
* Maybe we’ve had previous negative reactions when revealing our inner stories – indifference, criticism, mockery. Fear and shame can then keep the doors closed further. (This isn’t solely an introvert experience of course, though there are some links between introversion and high sensitivity).
* Sharing of every part of our life to anyone who drops by is not something we do. Our internal landscape is very private to us….to get the key, you have to earn the trust. It doesn’t come lightly.
Sadly, sharing (or over-sharing) is now seen as a social (or social media) necessity, and those who don’t participate are seen as having trust issues, or are psychologically inhibited. This is a recent social construct. It wasn’t always so and (hopefully) it may not be so again in the future. Carefulness as a valued trait needs rediscovering.
Time, I think, for a story..
I call this one: ‘The day I was mistaken for Hitler’. You’ll see why.
Not long ago, I attended a day’s training with a small group of people I hadn’t met before. Despite my apprehensions, I enjoyed the day and although I didn’t feel I had participated much, I had learnt a lot.
Towards the end of the day, we were asked to do an exercise to identify some of our core values, things that we wanted in our lives. We were asked to prioritise 30 cards and select and share our top three. Amongst the cards were ‘wealth’, ‘family’, ‘holidays’, ‘security’, ‘fun’ and many others. It was really difficult to put them all in order, and then select a top three, but I had a go.
One by one, people began reading out their top three cards – family, health, friends …. all good, personable qualities.
Then it came to me. I innocently trotted out my top three….
Communication. Persuasion. Control.
I noticed the room had fallen strangely silent, so looked up to be met by looks that were both astonished and amused. Eventually, the trainer voiced what everyone must have been thinking..
“Ok, so when did Hitler enrol on this programme?”
You see, it’s easy to be misunderstood. We need a context, a backstory to see the full picture. We need to see more of the iceberg.
The truth is, I have no wish to control anyone! However, like many introverts, I work most happily in environments where I have as much autonomy and freedom as possible. I wither when over-controlled.
I have a passion for communication (and sharing a message, which is the persuasion bit I guess, though I’m no salesman!) This is contrary to the usual introvert stereotype, but introverts can make passionate communicators, speakers and writers.
The really interesting part of this story though is that the core values I chose are strong values.
Essentially ‘extrovert’ values.
The real mismatch for those in the room was that those values didn’t fit with the introvert image that they had projected onto me from the little knowledge of me that they had.
So, is there a solution?
I really believe that we have to get comfortable surprising people.
We need, wherever we encounter it, to challenge the introvert stereotype. whilst being true to our quiet natures.
We need to risk ‘being seen and being known for who we truly are’.
It’s to do with knowing, honouring and embracing our stories and letting the world hear them. Go on over to the Quiet Revolution site and read Susan Cain’s inspirational article on ‘Telling our Stories’.
I’m sure you’re thinking, but how can we begin to reveal more of ourselves without running counter to our true selves?
Well, I think it’s essential to stretch ourselves out of our comfort zones occasionally, so long as we’re not pretending to be who we’re not. We have to be adaptive at times, whatever personality type we are. And surely it’s worth it, if it means we are being ourselves in the world, and not just behind closed doors?
Here’s some things we might try:
- Drop little crumbs of information about yourself that will allow the strength, the ‘light’ to shine through, without feeling that you’re oversharing or tooting your own horn, or being untrue to yourself. if no one knows you love public speaking, how are they going to think about inviting you to speak? If they don’t know that you love to sing or perform at the weekend, they won’t think about you when the auditions roll round. It’s not bragging – it’s just giving people the opportunity to see the more complete picture.
- Surprise people! Show the world what you’re passionate about, show them your brave, proactive side. it’s there, you just need to let them see it in action.
- Gently challenge the introvert stereotype, whenever and wherever you hear it. Particularly the one that suggests that introversion=shyness. This one is damaging. This one excludes and limits people.
As we do this, we challenge, we lessen the power of the stereotype.
We begin, even in a small way, to open the door to others seeing us differently (more three dimensionally) …
And with that, we invite and encourage wider opportunities that resonate with our hidden introvert strengths…
And that enables us to have a contributory voice in the world and play our part in it.
So, open the door a little, let your light shine!
See you next time,