Part of adulthood for me has meant redefining words to include the nuance they are due. This helps me develop positive attributes that align with my natural tendencies, rather than ones that defy or run entirely counter to them. In other words, I’m trying to work with my own nature.
Introversion vs. Extroversion
Until recently, I saw introversion as shyness, lack of confidence, asocial tendencies – and saw my own personal journey as one from introversion to extroversion as I became healthier, more confident, and better equipped at handling social situations. Then I read this book:
Cain defines this spectrum not as a matter of social skill, but instead asks, what do you use to recharge: time with others, or time alone?
Reading the book, I discovered almost 20% of folks are like me, falling very far on the introversion side of this spectrum – not in behavior (I bet my coworkers would be startled that I’m a self-proclaimed introvert) but in reactions to stimuli.
This can take many forms, but in my case: I’m easily overstimulated by social interactions, especially where I worry that I’ve misstepped, and sound/visual stimuli. Some days I have returned home from work, so overwhelmed, that I’ve become non-verbal: I’ve needed a dark, quiet space to recharge before speaking again.
It turns out there is a name for people like me: “high-reactives.”
Strength vs. Weakness
Another misunderstood dichotomy.
Strength has a popular, brutish image: raw power, coldly casting emotions aside, fighting courageously in almost shocking disregard for safety and comfort. I never have, and never will, embody this form of strength (or callousness.)
Strength is also showing up, repeatedly, and performing despite (or because of) our overwhelming emotions. It is consistently behaving according to our values even when no eyes are upon us.
I’ve learned that with friends and family, expressing emotions honestly is an indicator of being genuine. Crying when a friend shares their trauma has not distracted from their story, but instead showed real empathy and was taken in kind.
I’m still wrestling with how to best handle this at work, where I want to maintain a more professional posture even with my heart open. I recognize that part of why I am good at my job is because I care – a lot – about the implications of my work. I’m always asking, how will this affect the client? End user? Community? Whom am I serving in these efforts? I do feel these emotions intensely and that motivates me to push myself and maintain a high standard of care.
Even if I can’t express myself so openly in the office, I take the time to acknowledge what I feel in all its fullness. I let the fiery emotions burn as brightly and intensely as they yearn to, to light the way to clear reflective thought on the other side.
“[Arianna Huffington] does not believe it is realistic or even desireable to tell women not to care when we are attacked. Her advice is that we should let ourselves react emotionally and feel whatever anger or sadness being criticized evokes for us. And then we should quickly move on.”Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg
It’s still an open question: how can we show strength while also being honest about or sensitivity and intense emotions? How can we be strong while also honoring our true selves? And let’s not pretend that all emotions are equal: displays of anger and displays of sadness are not interchangeable.
We do have control over our behavior, but our ability to fight our own nature is strained. In this case, better to harness the attribute of sensitivity and embrace the benefits. Create support structures that nurture weaknesses, and identify strengths honestly. This attribute’s blessing and curse are inseparable.
“Scientists have known for a while that high-reactive temperments come with risk factors. These kids are especially vulnerable to challenges like marital tension, a parent’s death, or abuse. They’re more likely than their peers to react to these events with depression, anxiety, and shyness. Indeed, about a quarter of Kagan’s high-reactive kids suffer from some degree of the condition known as “social anxiety disorder,” a chronic and disabling form of shyness.
What scientists haven’t realized until recently is that these risk factors have an upside. In other words, the sensitivities and the strengths are a package deal. High-reactive kids who enjoy good parenting, child care, and a stable home environment tend to have fewer emotional problems and more social skills than their lower-reactive peers, studies show. Often they’re exceedingly empathic, caring, and cooperative. They work well with others. They are kind, conscientious, and easily disturbed by cruelty, injustice, and irresponsibility. They’re successful at the things that matter to them.”Quiet, Susan Cain
Strength is weakness is strength.
My desire to live a full and rich life has meant coming to terms with my own vulnerability. For myself, it is better to “carve restorative niches”, in Susan Cain’s words: areas of refuge embedded in my routine for recharging, so I can cope with the regular pains and stumbles of the everyday. I know that many days at work, I will leave feeling depleted and overwhelmed. I know that by extending myself to support friends and family, that I will experience intense empathetic pain.
“We are only asked to love, to offer hope to the many hopeless. We don’t get to choose all the endings, but we are asked to play the rescuers. We won’t solve all mysteries and our hearts will certainly break in such a vulnerable life, but it is the best way. We were made to be lovers bold in broken places, pouring ourselves out again and again until we’re called home.”To Write Love on Her Arms
Pouring myself out, again and again. I know that being the best version of myself requires I reguarly refill my cup, engaging in self-care in order to stay healthy and whole. I’m pursuing a kind of happiness that exists in the fullness of life, even if not in many of its individual moments.
My strength is in the quiet persistence of the values I hold deepest in my heart.
“My real vocation is to be love in the room, whatever room I happen to be in.”Hello Monday podcast, March 11 2019, Elizabeth Gilbert