An Introvert’s Dilemma
For the past 10 years or so I have been in denial about my introversion.
Growing up my school reports would say ‘Andy is doing well but he doesn’t contribute in class’, ‘Andy is studious but doesn’t raise his hand’, ‘he needs to speak up more…’. Grade wise I was doing decently but participation wise I was at the bottom of the class. Whenever the teacher would ask for people to raise their hand to give an answer, I would hesitate to contribute, what if I’m incorrect I will look silly.. someone else will give the right answer.. let me think about this more to see if I understand fully.. This would be my thought process and time and time again I would hesitate to contribute. Every time felt like a battle in my head, I would have a good solution but the voice inside me would pose all these questions which would paralyse me into not taking any action. The relief came when the teacher would specifically called me out to contribute, then I had no choice but to answer.
Another style of teaching which I struggled with was group work. Group activities were OK as long as the group wasn’t too big. Once it got to 4 or more I would struggle to give my input. Again not for a lack of wanting to, but I didn’t know how to handle the dynamics of a group. My preference would be to work solo or with another classmate who was also introverted. I had no idea how to handle the loud kids.
Outside of school I had a good mix of extra curricular activities, sports was my thing, I was in my element playing football and swimming. At other times I preferred to stay at home and be alone. Most of the time playing video games. My mum was concerned about this so she would push me to go out and socialise. I wasn’t very good at socialising as I was shy and lacked confidence. Sport was my only avenue into socialising well, it also helped I was pretty good at it. In my teens I didn’t like going out, I much preferred the solitude, it gave me peace and calmness. Yet society was teaching me I should be out and about, I live in a world where I should be expressing myself, so to ‘succeed in life’ (whatever that means), I need to put myself out there. You’re not going to have a successful life staying at home.
This conflict dealt me great unhappiness, I couldn’t be who I wanted to be. No one appreciated the quiet, shy person. They were looked down upon, my self esteem was shot. They want me to be someone I’m not, I’m living in a world which is not for me… or is it?
The big shock to the system came when in my second year I started to apply for summer internships. At the time before the financial crisis all my classmates applied to banks, I did the same because I didn’t know what else to do. I was in London and a lot of people went into finance. During the interview process they have what is called an assessment centre, where you go through different interviews and stages in one day. There’s a case study, presentation, an interview and then a group activity. I was fine with the case study and interview since this is done alone and I could convey my persona and solutions. The group activity however put me right outside my comfort zone. It was the worst possible way to ‘interview’ me. 6 or so candidates are sat around a table, as a group you have 30 minutes to come up with a solution to a problem. In each corner of the room there are interviewers who are assessing every action you take, every word you say, assessing whether you can work in a team, whether you can handle the stress.
As someone who didn’t do very well in group projects, I was sat with 5 other ambitious, testosterone loaded, well suited gentlemen. It was like The Apprentice (how often do you see an introvert in that show?!?), everyone was talking over each other, I just sat there, I couldn’t get a word in, the battle in my mind was going into overdrive. I need to say something!! I’m going to fail if I don’t! What if I say something that is wrong? The interviewers will score me down? Well if I don’t say anything I will fail anyway! About 20 or so minutes in, I hadn’t said a thing until one of the loudmouths pointed at me and said with a smirk, ‘you haven’t said anything, have you got anything to say?’. This hurt me, it wasn’t the first time this had happened, it had happened to me hundreds of times in group settings. It hurt me to realise that even outside of school, the ‘real world’ of business is exactly the same. You have to be loud, you have to express yourself, I had to be someone I was not...
As you can imagine I didn’t get the internship, the feedback was although I was great in the interview and presentation, I didn’t contribute in the team activity and working at a bank you will be expected to work a lot on team projects and under pressure. At that point I decided that I had to change who I am.
To be what society wanted me to be I had to put myself out there. I started to go out a lot, learning to become comfortable in groups and with strangers. I would go to meet-up activities to meet new people and practice small talk. I hate small talk, even to this day, as an introvert I much prefer having meaningful, deep conversations. (Small talk for me is talking about nothing, these days when engaged in small talk I sometimes don’t say anything and let silence be, it’s a beautiful moment until the other person feels uncomfortable and starts talking about nothing again). I learned to talk about the weather, what I did at the weekend, how I was (to this day I don’t know why people ask ‘how are you?’, unless you are genuinely asking that question, why ask it?). I learned the art of finding a commonality with a stranger so we can establish a connection and rapport.
I started to read a lot about personal development and social dynamics. This allowed me to work on my subconscious habits and behaviours. To work on my confidence, I would smile to myself in the mirror and say I am awesome, I started to do positive affirmations and do activities outside my comfort zone. I got into performing magic which was incredibly daunting, but gave me another reason to practice engaging groups and demonstrating my confidence and showmanship. I remember the very first time I announced I was a magician to a few friends and showed them a card trick. I was so nervous I was stuttering, my hands were shaking, I was going rosy in the cheeks. Through these types of experiences I started to forge a more extroverted identity.
After a few years I had graduated from university, I had started my career at a large multinational company and had an abundant social life with many friends. I was starting to live the life that was drilled into me from a young age. I was becoming the person society taught me to be.
It all came crashing down on me one day when I realised I was an introvert in denial.
I had read the brilliant book called, ‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking’ by Susan Cain. Reading that book was like reading a description about who I am, about the part of me I ignored. I felt a deep guilt inside me that I hadn’t fully acknowledged my inner need for silence and alone time. I felt saddened that I had advised introverts to not be introverts. That I believed we had to be extroverts to be successful.
It made me appreciate that I am an introvert, and more importantly it's OK to be an introvert, we have great qualities that are admirable and that can contribute to society.
Every introvert should read that book, every parent of introverts and managers of introverts should read that book.
Nowadays, I have come full circle with my introversion. I love my alone time, I’ve shaped my career so now I work more solo. I have fewer friends than before, importantly these are high quality close friendships. I’m rediscovering living a successful life as an introvert. I enjoy meditating, reading and writing.
There is no right or wrong with being extrovert or introvert or both. What is wrong is society not catering for both. Look at how office spaces are designed, open desk plans are perfect for the extrovert who wants to chit chat with their neighbours, not so great for the introvert who wants to not be disturbed and focus on work. It’s OK if your friend doesn’t come to your party because they feel anxious around large groups and strangers, meet up with them one on one and have the great conversation that they desire.
Introverts, embrace your qualities, some aspects of life are not designed for us which is going to suck sometimes. The world is moving fast and slowly introverts are gaining more respect. Today’s digital age lends us ample opportunity to forge successful careers without the need to abide by the traditional career path. We should be who we are and not who others say we should be. Spending time alone is a strength not a weakness for us. It gives us peace, power and perspective. I am on the cusp of realising the full potential of my introversion, join me in that journey by forging your own.
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Love and light x