You might have seen this sign on Facebook over the last couple of weeks: “How to Care for Introverts.” It lists twelve rules, from respecting an introvert’s need for privacy to never embarrassing them in public. As a recovering agoraphobic, I appreciate the sentiments. I know what it feels like to be an introvert. I’ve struggled with agoraphobia for years; I write about it in my book. I’d like to say I’m recovered, but a recent panic attack at our local Albertsons makes me hesitate. (Not that anyone could tell I was in a panic. But more of that later.) I’m not sure you ever completely get over agoraphobia, but you can learn how to live with it. And living with it is one way you can get better. It’s a little bit like a dog chasing his tail: he’s never going to catch it, but at least the exercise is good for him.
At a recent book signing in my hometown, during the Q & A part of the evening, my cousin approached me and slowly leaned over to whisper in my ear. It’s one of those moments you fear in life, something unexpected that makes an agoraphobic think twice about leaving the house. There I was, standing in front of a good-sized crowd and my cousin was about to tell me something obviously quite private. In my breast-feeding days, I would’ve feared my blouse was leaking. Nowadays I was sure something was opened, ripped, stained, or missing. My mind was racing at the possibilities, and none of them were good. I held my breath, and as the room grew silent, my cousin whispered softly in my ear.
“Are you better?”
The fact that I was standing in front of 50 people, and I wasn’t home in my living room, should’ve been answer enough. But as I looked out at all the faces of everyone now wondering what-the-heck my cousin had told me, I suddenly understood her dilemma. How could an agoraphobic stand so comfortably in front of a room filled with people? I’m sure I must have looked perfectly comfortable – the last person anyone would’ve guessed was a recovering agoraphobic. Or an introvert.
Introvert or Extrovert? Do We Have to Pick Sides?
You can’t always tell who’s the introvert in a room. Oh sure, with some people you can. But why is it important that we know that? Those suggestions for treating an introvert with respect and sensitivity maybe aren’t bad suggestions for treating everybody in the room that way – not just the one sitting alone in the corner, or the shy person who never says a word. You’d be surprised how many of those people you think are so cool and collected, skating through life with ease, are really filled with so much doubt, fear, and low self-esteem. Sometimes it’s the braggart, the person speaking too loudly and too much – the one that seems to fill up the room, sometimes in more ways than one. How do we know which side they play on, or how comfortable they really feel?
Some of us suffer from “selective extroversion.” There are times when we slip into an extrovert’s personality in order to deal with the world. I do it sometimes; it’s helped me get out of the house. My social self takes over – the tour guide part of me. But I had to learn to be that tour guide – it didn’t come naturally. Universal Studios almost didn’t hire me because the tour director said I was too shy. I told him I was an actress, and once I had a script and learned it, I wouldn’t look shy at all. I just needed to know my lines and play the role.
Everyone plays roles. We certainly do at Halloween. You choose what to wear, what character you want to play, and you decide when you want to play it. We may not really be that princess, or that jester that the world sees on October 31st. It’s all just acting. But sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s really the costume or just the person underneath it.
Kurt Vonnegut wrote a wonderful short story called, “Who Am I This Time?” It’s about a character (Harry Nash) who is painfully shy – an introvert who never interacts with people. Except when he’s cast in a play, and then he takes on the personality of the role he’s playing. It’s the only time he can go into the world with a sense of purpose and identity. So who was Harry really? An introvert? What if you met him at a party when he was playing Stanley Kowalski in “Streetcar Named Desire?” Or you were at a PTA meeting with him when he was playing the lead in “Julius Ceasar” or “Othello?” You can’t really tell, can you? Not just by looking.
Maybe those twelve rules should apply to everyone.
- How to care for EXTROVERTS! (plexity.wordpress.com)
- Who’s More Creative? Introverts or Extroverts? (bigthink.com)
- Wall Streeter argues that ‘society has a cultural bias towards extroverts’ (rawstory.com)