It’s a pity that Susan Cain didn’t publish her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking about a decade ago; it might have saved me a lot of time and money in therapy. According to Cain (and I’ll back her up) the Western world is smitten by the Extrovert Ideal, the image of the gregarious, sunny, charismatic individual who works hard and plays hard and loves time in the spotlight of jolly, rambunctious company. By contrast, the introvert is the nerd, the wimp, the anorak, the shy person who barely speaks above a whisper and is despised for lack of social life. Cain’s book sets out to address this unjust hegemony, and to show via case studies and psychology experiments, how the introvert has different qualities whose absence we are beginning to miss quite acutely in our loudmouth culture.
Introversion is not about misanthropy, but about the different ways we soak up energy. Extroverts absorb the energy of a gathering; they need people around them to feel alive and vigorous. Introverts need time alone to generate energy, and when in company they expend it fast. This is because introverts process much more finely and extensively; the sort of mental multitasking required in group activities drains their natural powers, but they often emerge from such encounters having noticed more, felt more and deduced more than the extroverts. Indeed, a percentage of introverts are also ‘highly sensitive’ (I certainly am), which means they have even thinner boundaries than your average introvert, and cannot help but feel what other people feel, often to the detriment of their own sympathetic nervous systems. Introverts experience far more guilt when things go wrong and often cannot abide conflict, feeling that they have been unacceptably aggressed in the wake of others’ anger. They are more persistent and engaged in their studies and often very creative. They are far less motivated by the ‘buzz’ of reward. Because they listen well and nurture others they can make better leaders than the gung-ho, quick-witted action hero types. You just really, really mustn’t invite them to dinner parties, where they wilt and fade, and long to be somewhere else, alone.
I am an almost-off-the-scale highly sensitive, anxious introvert, and most of my life has been spent, as it were, on the edge of the playground, wondering why I cannot do the things ‘normal’ people do. Some examples:
The cinema is, for me, a form of torture with that ferocious surround sound and all those jump cuts designed to feel like a slap in the face. I emerge into daylight feeling like I’ve been beaten up.
My husband comes from a large and voluble family. Whenever there was a big gathering in his parents’ house, I would have to steel myself outside the dining room before walking into what felt like an avalanche of sound. There would come a point in every meal where several people were happily yelling at one another at once (his grandmother used to put up her hand when she wanted to say something) and I would realise that even my teeth hurt from the tension.
In the book, Cain describes an experiment intended to test guilt in small children; they are given a toy designed to break when they play with it, and an overseeing adult will monitor their reaction and say ‘Oh dear!’ When I read this, I was OUTRAGED. Someone call social services! I still bear the scars of those sorts of childhood mistakes.
When my son was little, I hated it when he was ill, because I would feel ill in sympathy, and this was additionally exhausting to staying up all night caring for him.
If you give me anyone, in face to face conversation for half an hour, I will be able to give you an x-ray of what that person is feeling, what their deepest wishes and fears are and (this seems to be a particular talent of mine) what they really do not wish to acknowledge about themselves. I don’t even want to know, but it’s not a choice.
The most fascinating chapter of Cain’s book for me was the one that described my life. It was about how far you can stretch yourself outside of your comfort zone, and her main example was a university professor, known for being an excellent speaker. He said he could pretend to be extroverted in the service of a greater ideal – his love of teaching. But when he was invited to come to lunch with the staff at a college who invited him to guest lecture, he preferred to hide in the bathroom. Even so, the professor paid a price for his excessive exertion by falling ill with pneumonia, and he now lives very quietly. Our personalities have some elasticity, and we can make deals with ourselves to act artificially on behalf of core personal projects. But we can only stretch so far, or else we become all limp and hopeless, like perished elastic. This, I know all too well; I’ve paid out all my possible extroversion up front, and now the quiet years commence.
I found Quiet to be a very engaging, easy read, packed full of information that was well organised and endlessly interesting. But I suppose I also had two main criticisms to make. The first was that, because Cain is concerned with improving the PR for introverts, she spends no time on the extent to which we are disadvantaged in our society, or how ill-equipped our culture is to provide us with what we need. I guess the critique is there by implication, and I can understand that she would wish to avoid the victim mentality, but it is so easy to victimise introverts. I don’t believe anything will change unless there is some realisation of just how wrong introverts can be made to feel. But just as in any disadvantaged binary opposition – men and women, the native and the foreigner also spring to mind – her book assumes that the goals and the ideals of extroversion are also those of the introvert. This is a book all about being ‘successful’, about the way introverts can head up companies, and become famous music journalists and top earning lawyers. And yet one of the greatest qualities in introverts, I feel, is their celebration of something so much quieter, calmer, and less needy. Very few of the great ‘successes’ in our society are people who have reached their position through passion alone. Most high achievers are damaged people, who are over-compensating or driven by forces they cannot control. They may well achieve, but they are rarely ordinarily happy. The current fascination with celebrity and success is part and parcel of the narcissistic culture we live in, a culture that privileges extroversion to the point of psychosis. Might not the real value of introverts be their ability to be happy with so very little, and the way it shows up the common grasping desire for too much?