I was watching reruns of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills the other day when Dorit rolled her eyes during one of her interviews and said that Erika wasn’t an introvert. If I’ve completely lost you with my Real Housewives reference, just know that Erika is a performer, who kills it on stage, but is otherwise reserved and holds back with people. Dorit’s comment bothered me quite a bit because it perpetuates the idea that introverts are just shy and cold people when it’s much more complex than that.
It involves our brains being wired differently than extroverts and processing everything around us, and that results in a physical effect on us so we choose our interactions carefully.
Over the last year and a half, my journey to discover what it really means to be an introvert began and I’d like to share what I’ve learned so far because for me, it was as if a light clicked on and suddenly everything, going as far back as grade school, made sense.
For the longest time, I thought something was wrong with me. Going out with friends exhausted me, even my really really good friends. Even if I wasn’t hungover, I would still have to spend the day after doing nothing and lying about the house.
At work, during brainstorm sessions, I never had ideas immediately, always after the session, but usually it was too late to contribute anything. If I was called on unexpectedly during a meeting at work or even during class when I was in school, I would falter and had a very hard time stuttering an answer out. I can recall instances of this happening as far back as 2nd grade.
As I grew up, my writing was eloquent and I mastered how to express my thoughts through pen and paper, but the expectation to articulate my thoughts immediately never ended well for me and usually ended in me feeling embarrassed. Nothing is quite worse than be called on during class when you didn’t have your hand raised and not be able to provide an answer.
There were a few exceptions in high school though, a handful of my teachers picked up on the fact that if I made eye contact with them during class, I had something to say. But if I was avoiding eye contact, I really didn’t want to be called on.
I went through 28 years of life accepting that I was socially inept and that I couldn’t meet new people. That I was just shy and awkward and cold, and I knew, especially in high school, that I was different but I didn’t know what it all meant. I didn’t have the tools I have now, and that many still don’t have.
Society doesn’t reward the introverts, it rewards the extroverts, the ones who can just put themselves out there without much thought. So imagine years and years of not feeling normal, like something was fundamentally wrong with you only to discover there’s a lot of people just like you, we just always see the extroverts.
The A-ha! Moment at Age 28
I was at Grace Hopper Conference in 2016 when I went to Susan Cain’s session on what it really means to be an introvert. She’s the author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts In a World That Can’t Stop Talking.
I left the session feeling like I had had the greatest epiphany of my life. My twenty-eight years on the planet suddenly made sense, and honestly, I wanted to sob with joy at finally understanding why I was different and realizing that something wasn’t in fact wrong with me.
Introverts aren’t just shy. Being an introvert doesn’t even necessarily mean you’re shy, and there’s actual science to prove that introverts and extroverts are different.
The brain of an introvert is wired completely differently from an extrovert so the way we process interactions or any activity takes much more effort. A lot of it has to do with our dopamine levels and how we view risk and reward. We generally don’t like surprises and we like to plan (which I can attest to, I must plan.) We also process everything happening around us. Even if I am having a conversation with someone 1:1, and we’re in a busy setting, my brain is still trying to take in all the noise, what’s happening, everything. And it’s exhausting.
You can read about the science of it, more in depth, in a few articles:
Or my favorite simplified version that perfectly illustrates what it’s like in an introvert’s head:
There are hundreds of articles online about being an introvert. I want to focus on what I’ve learned and how I’ve helped those around me understand what I need from them to be effective at work and what it means for me at home.
The most important realization I had was that, yes, I have always had an issue speaking up in meetings or in class. My ideas always come later after I’ve had time to think about the problem. Introverts are contemplative and introspective, and we value having a meaningful discussion so small talk can also be difficult. We don’t view small talk as rewarding so we come off as shy and anti-social, when in fact, for many of us, we’re not. It’s just how we process and react to the social situation we’re in.
Introversion At Work
I am very lucky to work somewhere where new ideas are welcome and managers realize not everyone works the same. My manager is extremely understanding and I’ve been able to communicate what I need in order to be successful. These are a few of the things you can ask from your team or manager to help you be a better team member if you think you are an introvert.
Give time to prep
This applies to any meeting, whether it’s with 10 people or 2 people, but I want to know what we’ll be talking about and if I have anything that I specifically will be asked to talk about. If I’m asked to give an update on the spot in the meeting and I wasn’t prepared for it, sure I blurt out a few sentences but without the time to think over what is most beneficial for the team to know, I could be giving a meaningless update and will probably self-analyze every sentence I said after the meeting, multiple times.
Let me know ahead of time with a meeting agenda or a day or two’s notice. Everyone’s time is valuable and I want to make sure I’m providing the most value I can.
The other thing I struggle with is brainstorming, which is a bit terrible for someone who makes their living being a creative. I don’t do well in the traditional brainstorm sessions at work where I have no notice or any idea of what the problem is we will be trying to solve. At my previous job, PR teams were notorious for adding creatives last minute to a brainstorm session with no background. You can’t just stick a creative in a brainstorm session without background anyway, but sticking an introverted creative into a brainstorm session…you’re going to waste your time and the creative’s.
Allowing for follow up ideas outside of the brainstorm session is recommended too. Most likely, the extroverts are going to be throwing out anything that comes to mind. Introverts are introspective and really want to provide the best solution to a problem and that will probably come after the brainstorm session when they’ve had time to process everything about the problem.
Introverts take and process everything around them, so naturally, being thrown into a brainstorm session can be overwhelming. Ask for time after the session to email your ideas, which leads me to my next tip.
It’s Okay To Ask to Follow Up
Some people like to stop me in the hallway or swing by my desk for a quick chat. Usually if I’m asked for some ideas or thoughts, I ask if I can follow up and get back to them with an email. No one has ever said ‘no’ when I ask this. I’m trying to slowly educate my team on why I do this and why I can be a better teammate because of it.
Being an introvert…everywhere else in your life
I tend to be absolutely exhausted after hanging out with my friends. And it always bothered me because I love my friends and I love their loud personalities. Later I realized that there is just SO MUCH going on when I’m with my crew, that I am trying to process every single bit of what’s going on, like introverts do, and I don’t think I can emphasis enough how much is going on when I’m with them. And that’s why I love them, but I’ve figured out what I need to do to care of myself and be a better friend and that means taking care of myself.
Self-care and time to youself
If I spend most of the day with my group of friends, I am absolutely wiped out the next day. I’ve learned to plan to keep activities the following day to a minimum. Introverts recharge and reset with time to themselves…once again, that overprocessing of everything going on drains introverts, where extroverts are more energized by being around people. Not taking time for myself following busy social days will take a toll on me as the days pass.
Communicate with your significant other or even your friends why you need time to yourself. When I was at Eclipse festival with my husband, I was so overwhelmed by the amount of things happening all around me, literally 24 hours a day, I withdrew into myself for the first 2 days…but I didn’t communicate why or what was happening with me so my husband thought I was having a bad time.
I was actually having a great time but was on sensory overload in every way possible and was trying to process all of it. And speaking of music festivals…
Music festivals in my introverted life
Music & art festivals are such a big part of my life even though it seems like they would be something I’d want to stay away from. Now, this only goes for some festivals, not all of them are like this but there’s an introverted quality to the art installations being produced and shared. There is thought behind it all, it’s not just there for entertainment. There’s a closeness and introspection that happens late at night back at camp. It’s one of the few large social gatherings I love to be at because it’s emotionally a deeper experience than a company holiday party.
I usually require a few days of recovery after a festival. During the festival itself, I am pretty low key in the morning to early afternoon because I am trying to prep myself the next night of madness. I’ve also had multiple moments where I hit my wall and am just done for the night, and I recognize those moments now. Usually around 3 AM, I’ve been dancing and running around for hours and it just hits me. Suddenly, I’m overwhelmed, I don’t want to be dancing, and I decide to go back to camp.
And that is completely okay! It’s taken me a long time to get to the point of realizing it’s okay. I want to be a positive energy to be around and if I’ve hit my wall, I’m not that person.
Communicating about what I need from other people in order to be a successful employee but also educating those close to me on why I need time after social activities has helped reduce my anxiety about social situations, especially at work.
If I don’t have an answer right away: it’s okay. If I need a heads up on something I need to present about, that’s perfectly fine. No one wants you to fail, so let those around you know what you need to be even better in your job.
If I seem quiet or anti-social at gatherings: I’m not, I just prefer a deeper level of conversation in a small group or one on one as opposed to superficial small talk in a large group where multiple things are happening at once.
I can mentally prepare myself for social gatherings with people I don’t know very well now. I usually end up having a wonderful time too, but I know I need to take time that evening or the next day to myself. Introverts recharge by being alone. Let us be alone when we need to.
So to Dorit Kemsley, who seems like an extrovert at the deepest of her core, it’s awful to speak for someone else and decide what kind of person they are. Erika Girardi, despite her alter ego as Erika Jayne, has many qualities of an introvert and most likely is. When you try to break down something that is inherently apart of someone’s character without understanding, it comes off as brash and mean girl.
But I digress, preaching to a reality TV persona never got anyone anywhere.
Find your voice and what works for you: you’re an introvert, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have anything to say.