It's Time to Stop Mistaking Introversion for Social Anxiety

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Free woman raising arms to golden sunset summer sky and ocean like praising. Freedom, success and hope concept. Girl relaxing and enjoying peace and serenity on beautiful nature.

"Is everything ok? You're kind of quiet tonight."

For many of us, it was an occasional inquiry from Mom at the dinner table after a tough day at school.

Yet, for some, hearing that refrain was all too common throughout childhood.

I'm no stranger to this line of questioning. I've lost count of how many times I'd be listening intently to conversation, carefully formulating a response in my head, only to have my train of thought interrupted by, "Jesse, you got anything to add?" or "Jess, you're a bit quiet over there. You feeling ok?"

Quiet. It's a common trait of introverts such as myself. In a world that seems to emphasize outgoing, extroverted personality-types, quiet is an oft-maligned attribute. As a society, we don't seem to value the student or the co-worker that doesn't immediately raise his/her hand to contribute to discussion, or prefers to work alone or with one partner instead of a large group. When introverts pursue these natural tendencies, they are often looked upon as shy, judgmental, even socially anxious. Their silence is interpreted as a sign of disinterest, stress, or general discomfort.

They are urged to "put themselves out there" or "come out of their shell." These are common misconceptions that an increasingly talkative world has about these introspective individuals. Yet, introversion does NOT coincide with social anxiety.

Nor does it correlate with shyness.

"Shyness is the fear of negative judgment, while introversion is simply the preference for less stimulation,"says Susan Cain,
author of 2012 bestseller "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking."

"Shyness is inherently uncomfortable," she says. "Introversion is not."

I understand that I'm probably the millionth blogger to write a piece on the frustrations these myths place on introverts. However, despite some progress, the stigma seems firmly entrenched in our world.

Extroverts are routinely seen as better leaders in business due to their charismatic, social nature. A 2006 USA today poll of over 1,500 senior level managers corroborated this belief. Six percent said introverts make better CEO's than extroverts, while 65 percent saw introversion as a barrier to advancing within a company.

Yet, introverts can lead just as effectively as extroverts. An introvert's contemplative nature can lead to more prudent decisions. Introverts are less impulsive than extroverts, so these decisions tend to be more calculated and thoughtful. They don't mind working alone, and ask insightful questions that can drive positive outcomes.

Yet, the dilemma persists.

We've all seen Buzzfeed lists such as "27 Problems Only Introverts Will Understand," or "21 Pictures You'll Only Understand if You're Introverted." These articles are hit-or-miss, with some points helping cast light on true introvert quandaries, while others belittle introverts as socially inept, incapable of making a phone call, starting small talk, or even getting out of bed.

Just last week, I read an article from the New York Times titled "Is Your Teen's Introversion a Problem for Your Teen -- or for You?"

I shook my head at the headline, but figured I'd be ignorant not to read what the story had to say. It discussed stories of parents who worked to come to terms with their child's introversion, and how they fostered healthy relationships despite the personality differences. The piece also made mention of how talkative, energetic children who demonstrated the "extroverted ideal" were "more readily seen as successful." Likewise, it spoke about parents who might worry that their child's introversion equated to feelings of loneliness or exclusion.

I can't stress this enough: There is a difference between being alone and being lonely; a difference between being alone and feeling alone. For many introverts, the time spent in solitude constitutes some of the most fulfilling, intellectually stimulating hours of their day.

I was glad that the piece addressed some misconceptions surrounding introverted children. I was pleasantly surprised that they spoke with Susan Cain to dispel these myths.

It was Cain's book that made me come to terms with my own introversion. I finally understood my preference to listen first and speak later. I knew why I favored curling up in front of the TV with my laptop after a long day at work instead of going out for drinks. I no longer felt weird about calling up one or two friends to hang out and play video games or go to the movies instead of a loud nightclub or a bar full of strangers.

Not that I don't enjoy more "social" events, or meeting new people. In fact, music and sports are two of my favorite things, and I love the loud, "party-type atmosphere" of rock concerts and football stadiums. On certain occasions, I enjoy going out for drinks with friends and co-workers to watch the games or just catch up on life.

However, I need to "recharge" after these events. If I attend a concert on Thursday night, my ideal Friday night would be spent having a nice, low-key dinner with a friend or family member. A rare Saturday night spent clubbing would be met with a Sunday Netflix binge on my couch.

It's not that I don't enjoy being around other people. I just gain energy and mental focus through alone time instead of large group interaction. I enjoy feeling part of a group, and cherish my close-knit social circle, but value my independence as well.

Cain put it best in "Quiet," writing:

"Introverts may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while wish they were home in their pajamas. They prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues, and family. They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions."

The light went on for me when I read those words. I can't explain my personality any better.

So, to the question of "Is everything ok?" I can assure you it is.

If my responses are a bit terse during a conversation, it doesn't mean I'm disinterested in what you're saying. If I think twice about that invitation for drinks after an eight-hour work day, it's nothing against you. If I sit in the corner of the room people-watching at a party for a couple of minutes, trust me, I'm not being anti-social. I'm preparing for new interaction, and I'll join you in a bit.

Some may say us introverts are missing out on life, skimping on the vast number of social opportunities available to us in an increasingly connected world. However, it's not about the quantity of our relationships, but the quality. It's about the value of our contributions to the conversation, not the number.

If it's any solace to my "selectively social" brethren, some of history's most famous icons , including Albert Einsten, Elenanor Roosevelt, Michael Jordan, and Bill Gates, are all introverts. We're in pretty good company, and hopefully it won't be long before a balance is struck, and a greater recognition is given to our quiet power.