I’ve always had a hard time “going out.” Don’t get me wrong, my love of travel has taken me all over the world, from Ushuaia to Beijing to Budapest, Reykjavik to Oslo, and I certainly enjoy a rousing party every now and then. But most of the time, I prefer to be alone or with my small family, in nature or at home, writing, reading, or reviewing submissions to the small press that is my literary labor of love.
As a kid, I spent hours alone in my room, contently writing and reading, and my mom would always ask, “Why don’t you go out and play?” But I didn’t want to go out and play. What a lot of well-intentioned people have trouble understanding is that introverts are happier being alone. But this doesn’t mean that we don’t value friendships and relationships; it only means that we thrive with a smaller social circle, and that we take our social interactions in smaller doses.
In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain delves into the science of introversion. Introverts are simply wired differently, on a neural level. Too much surface-level interaction (think playground chatter, cocktail parties) leaves us feeling depleted. We need time alone, and we need quiet ― not because we’re “anti-social,” but because we find long bouts of social interaction deeply exhausting. We do like people, but after spending time with them, we need more time to recharge.
“I wish someone had told me when I was a kid that it’s okay to want to be alone.”
Introversion isn’t about shyness, either. It doesn’t necessarily translate into social fear or awkwardness. I feel supremely comfortable on stage, entertaining an audience, and I consider this to be an important part of my job as a writer and storyteller. At parties where I don’t know anyone, I may not walk up and say, “Hi! My name is Michelle! I’m a writer!” But I’m likely to walk up, smile, listen and ask you questions about the things I find interesting about you. A lot of people like to talk about themselves, and introverts like to listen. Who doesn’t want to be heard?
I wish someone had told me when I was a kid that it’s okay to want to be alone. I wish the studies on happiness as it relates to extroversion and introversion took into account the great contentment we introverts feel when we are engaged in a meaningful intellectual task. Writing makes me happy. My books then take me out into the world and engender true connection with strangers. Because readers tend to feel a kind of intimacy with a book they respond strongly to—and by extension with its author—we are often able to immediately cut through the surface and talk about things that matter. Readers will often contact me through email or approach me at events to talk about their own losses, their histories, significant details of their lives. This connection is meaningful to me and brings me joy. I am able fully engage in these moments because I have plenty of time alone to write my books.
Like many introverts, I find it really easy to be in front of a crowd. Put me on a stage, and I get energized. In a group, though, all that energy drains away. If it looks like I’ve zoned out, it’s because I’m on sensory overload, and I need a minute to refocus.
For introverts, balance is key. We may like you, but a large “girls’ night out” isn’t our first choice. We’re more likely to enjoy going out to coffee with you or a very small group of friends every now and then, hearing what you have to say, understanding what’s really going on in your life. If I see a group of moms gathered on the playground at school pickup, I tend to stay away. Not because I’m shy, and not because I don’t like them — but because small talk depletes me. But if I see one of those women standing alone, it’s a different story. It is in smaller groups that the walls come down and we are better able to get past chatter and learn something real about another person ― that the exuberant mother-of-four dreams of starting a business, that the lady you’ve only ever seen in yoga pants was, until recently, an intensive care nurse.
“Introverts need time to think through things, to connect with our own thoughts and dreams.”
People are so much more interesting when you know where they come from, what they hope for, why they do the things they do. This information is hard to come by when everything is noisy and high-octane. The quiet moments allow for connection, and connection is important to introverts.
But in addition to connecting on an intimate level with others, introverts need time to think through things, to connect with our own thoughts and dreams. Yes, we are dreamers. As a kid, I had friends. I got along with my teachers. I made jokes (and was even voted funniest girl in my graduating class of a large public high school, although I have a feeling the yearbook teacher might have skewed the results in my favor). But an entire school day of constant interaction was never easy, so I used class lectures as a time to get away, inside my own head. While I loved English, I got through the boredom and anxiety of math and science by using the class time to secretly write. Writing and daydreaming gave me an out — it was my quiet space in a world of chaos. It was my escape. I know now that I did this because a day of school is exhausting for an introvert.
I see this exhaustion in my son every day after school, and because I know what that’s like, I try to not over schedule him. He has a lot of friends, and his friends are extremely important to him. But I understand that, after a long day at school, he is happiest if he spends some time at home, alone or with just one or two friends. At the end of a rowdy party or play date or team sports event, he needs the time and space to wind down.
If you happen to be an extrovert parent with an introverted child, don’t be alarmed by your child’s occasional need for solitude. It’s just his or her natural, healthy response to sensory and social overload. Remember, it’s not a personality flaw or a sign of unhappiness. It’s simply the way your child responds to the world on a neural level.
If you are an introvert, don’t let anyone make you feel bad for not wanting to “get out more.” And if you are an extrovert who is always trying to draw the introvert out of his shell: just know, the introvert may be happy just the way he is. Don’t assume that the introverts in your life don’t like you or find you interesting. If they don’t go to your party, it’s not because they’re shy, and it’s not because they’re snobby. Introverts are just like you, only quieter. We need our time alone, and sometimes, we need time alone with you — just the two of us, to really connect.
Michelle Richmond is the author of four novels, including the New York Times bestseller The Year of Fog, and two award-winning story collections. Her new novel will be published in 2017, with foreign editions forthcoming in 23 languages and film rights optioned to Twentieth Century Fox. Sign up to receive a monthly digest of Michelle’s most popular blog posts, reading recommendations, and notes on the writing life.