There is no question that our society values extroversion. We demand extroversion in our body language, in our conversations, in our socially-acceptable forms of entertainment, in our classrooms and work environments. It's in the principles of small talk, discussion groups, and eye contact. We are taught to become offended if someone prefers silence to conversation, or to think it's weird if someone would rather stay inside on the weekend rather than go out dancing. A significant part of professional interviews has nothing to do with technical skills, but is all about how candidates present themselves. In work places and in schools, we group strangers together and expect them to produce good results. These are all situations that an extrovert can happily navigate, but which could overwhelm an introvert.
Simply being "in public" for a few hours is enough to tire me out. Even if I'm just working quietly in our school's computer lab, not actively interacting with other people, I'm still completely drained and numb by supper time. Being away from quiet private places for so long makes me feel fragile and tired; it's almost as if it's emotionally draining.
What's crazy about this is that introverts aren't rare; we make up nearly 50% of the population. So why the heavy focus on social ceremony and group work? If extroversion is so valued, does it put introverts at a disadvantage?
The short answer is, "You bet your ass it does." Introversion combined with social reservations like shyness or neuroticism is a near-crippling one-two. People who experience both - like myself - can be so overwhelmed by simply being in a social situation that they can't concentrate on the interaction itself. When I'm thrust into a group of people I don't know, I have to concentrate very hard on not freezing or panicking. With so much of my mind devoted to not freaking the fuck out, it's no wonder that I edge off to the sides of the group and phone in the conversation.
I've read two things over the past week about how being shy is selfish. The first was an article in some women's magazine, about how being socially reserved is inherently selfish and insulting to other people. The idea is that you're so focused on what other people think of you that you fail to take other people's feelings into consideration. You fail to be considerate of those poor well-adjusted people who are forced to make awkward small talk at you while you nervously stare at your feet and play with your zipper.
Okay, so apparently I'm still a little bitter about that article. I guess that could be bit of a wake-up call to people who feel a little shy in social situations, who just need to realize that not everyone is judging them all the time. But that sort of advice isn't too great for folks who have breakdowns over not being able to perform the necessary social rituals to get through life. Is it really fair to blame the victim here? Taking that approach to the problem just seems like another way of ostracizing people who don't meet the arbitrarily-chosen ideals. "Shame on you, for making other people feel awkward! Stop being so selfish!" We're well-aware that we make other people feel uncomfortable. Since awkwardness is a negative feeling, I can guarantee that we feel it far more intensely than our non-neurotic conversation partner! I guess my question then, is, why do I have to bear the responsibility of making other people feel comfortable? Doesn't this argument go both ways?
The second thing was this blog post by Amanda of Here's Looking at Me Kid. She writes,
Insecurities are all about me and how I am viewed. These fears quickly turn life into a narcissistic quandary. And boy if our culture isn't great at cranking out narcissists who are subliminally taught daily to look out for yourself, to love yourself above all, and to believe that you are capable of anything as long as you believe in yourself. This mentality places the security of your happiness and confidence completely in yourself, what you are capable of, and how much you are able to love yourself. Love is an awfully unstable emotion to bear the weight of my self assurance.
Here, again, is that theme that insecurity is selfish and the product of a self-focused world view. Amanda goes on to be critical of the idea that your happiness and self-confidence relies on your ability to unfailingly love yourself. That take is significantly more productive; rather than pointing out how selfish and terrible it is for a person to be shy, she points out that the personality "flaw" of not 100% loving yourself is totally okay. Basically, that it's okay and normal to not frolic through life with confidence. The solution to being shy or nervous around people is not to tell yourself that you're awesome (which, believe me, doesn't work), but to shift your focus away from hating yourself and onto enjoying the conversation.
I mean, it's still a big step, but it's better than just telling shy people that they're selfish assholes.
I think it's important to realize your limitations and not feel pressured to be something you're not - while an introvert can certainly be charming, warm and friendly, we'll never be social butterflies. And that's totally okay! We need people who are happy to be alone and who can quietly work on a task without growing bored and restless. The trade off for this is that some people need alone time to stay happy. Knowing you need those breaks means you can communicate your needs to other people, and also means you can prevent mental overloading.
It's still hard, of course. I frequently "want to want to" engage in extroverted activities like house parties, clubs, group getaways, etc. You know, the stuff that everyone is supposed to consider "fun." The problem is, when I force myself to do things like that, I usually end up feeling drained, tired, and fragile, rather than really having any fun. At some point I have to come to terms with the fact that I'm just not like I'm "supposed" to be, and that that's not a problem.