As I keep trying to push my life further, I keep coming up against the same brick wall: my introversion. It’s a wall I didn’t want to accept existed but embracing it has too many benefits to ignore.
I mentioned in my mess of a 101st article that I didn’t like labels. One of those labels I didn’t like to apply to myself is introvert. I mean, I like being indoors and I like the colour green but I don’t want to call myself an introvert.
But in my lifelong quest to find out why I act the way I do, it has come up over and over again. “Oh, you’re an introvert.”
(If you’re not too sure what this whole introvert / extrovert thing is, here’s an excellent description from an actual therapist.)
That label never sat well with me, for one thing because introversion/extroversion is a scale. You can be 0-100% extroverted, with most people somewhere in the middle. Calling someone on the scale at 20% the same thing as someone at 40% (both introverts) makes very little sense to me.
Years ago, 22-year-old me thought he was a hardcore introvert. Maybe somewhere down around the 10% mark.
Years later, 32-year-old me thought, foolishly, that I had “cured” that low percentage. That my self-improvement journey led me to being somewhere in the middle. That I had become a nice balance of introverted and extroverted. Say somewhere around 50% on the scale. And for someone who has an unhealthy desire to feel normal (a topic for another day perhaps) that seemed like a great place to land!
But thinking that way is about as smart as lighting your own hair on fire.
What I had actually been doing is confusing shyness with introversion. They aren’t the same thing. At 22, I was both introverted and shy (and a bunch of other things) which is not a great combo. At 32, I was the same amount of introverted but with much much less shyness. A much better combo!
I made this graphic to illustrate it.
[caption id="attachment_1765" align="alignleft" width="720"] I realized after making this that it probably should have been a grid/matrix of extroversion & shyness, but I'm also working on my perfectionism so I fought the urge to re-do it.[/caption]
Today at 35, my shyness is like a flickering fluorescent light that lights up the room most of the time. That is to say, I’m mostly not hampered by shyness but I do experience little moments of darkness here and there.
Over the years I’ve developed systems and phrases and stories and plenty of other tools to navigate social interactions quite well. Perhaps too well. If ever the introvert/extrovert topic comes up, anyone who has only known me in my 30s would say, “You must be an extrovert, right?”
And until very recently I used to answer with, “Well no, not exactly. I’m somewhere in between maybe.”
But nope, sorry last-year-Angus, you was wrong wrong wrong. You are still one true introvert. Deal with it. Thankfully, you’re a friendly, kind introvert who will happily talk to people as long as the situation is one you understand. In any regard, you will need to be alone for some time afterwards. You will lose steam after a few hours around people. You won’t know how you feel about something when it’s presented to you -- you will have to think about it.
All classic introvert stuff.
The Bad Effects
So I’m an introvert. So what? Is the label actually important? Not really, no. But denying your own needs is a very important problem for anyone to fix. Denying that I needed alone time has had a disastrous effect: over-extending myself and blaming my loss of energy/interest/motivation on external factors.
I would reach my limits and then have thoughts like, “These aren’t my people” or, “This isn’t my kind of gathering” or, “Why did I come to this event?” It wasn’t always in a negative way or anything. It was more out of frustration that I hadn't found my place in the world.
That’s kinda wrong though. Introvert...ers can be happy anywhere they want as long as they bite off the right amount and know to spend the right amount of time alone. Introversion does not negate the need for human connection -- every monkey needs other monkeys around. But it’s easy to push people away if you don’t embrace the way your mind works.
It's not very healthy to reach my limit and think, “Hmmm, I hate being here right now, why I am here, I don’t know, I’m so lost and confused. I love people, but I guess not these people? I’ll get some donuts on the way home. Donuts are my friends.”
What I want to be thinking when I reach my limit is this: “Time to go home and recharge so I can spend more time with you lovely folks later!”
I'm working on it!
I Think I’m A Phone Now
It’s easy to think of yourself as a phone that needs to be recharged. It’s harder to know when you’re getting close to 0%. So that’s really where I’m focusing my effort. Recognizing the signs and standing up and saying, “Nope! Can’t do that, time to be alone!”
In this regard, I don’t think my current life works for me. Embracing who and what I am and how I work will go a long way in designing a life that works for me. Here’s a partial list of some of the things I’m doing right now:
- Full-time-ish work doing tech management consulting (meetings o’ plenty!)
- Advising startups
- Maintaining Illuum (user support) & building a new side project (user research)
- Volunteer mentoring to people wanting to get into tech as a career
- This blog
Then there is the list of stuff I want to do but haven't started, not to mention my hobbies, friends, and a relationship with a (lovely and amazing) person who is much higher on the extrovert scale than me.
The point is that I keep trying to live this “full” life. The kind of life I see other people living, or at least that I think other people live, and I hate to give stuff up. But I don’t think that list is right for someone like me. Yes, I may enjoy everything on it individually quite a lot but that doesn’t mean I should do it if the end result is my battery being completely drained every single day.
There needs to be a little buffer.
I told my aforementioned lovely and amazing partner lately that I felt broke energy-wise. In the same way you feel broke by spending too much money, I feel broke with my attention and energy. It’s like I’m trying to have a metaphorical nice place to live and a new car that I can’t afford and it’s always stressing me out because I’m just scraping by.
Weird metaphor, but I’d like to have a nice balance of things in my life with energy to spare! I’m just not as energy-rich as I’d like to be. Maybe I need to sell the (again, metaphorical) car and take the bus for a while so I can save up.
I don’t know right now what kind of life works for me. And like with finding a place to live, or a life partner, the best ones aren’t perfect. So which compromises am I willing to live with and which are too much of a compromise?
I really have no friggin’ clue right now.
Happily, I’m surrounded by excellent people helping me figure that shit out and who, somewhat amazingly to me, haven’t run screaming from the often-difficult-to-deal-with-person I can be when I’m pushed past my limits.
But I least I’m finally embracing my place on the scale. I don’t know exactly where that is, nor does it really matter. All we really need to know is this: I’m Angus and I’ll probably be leaving the party a little earlier than everyone else because I'm an introvert, but I still think you're all awesome.