ILLUMINATIONS: On Being an Introvert
How I learned to cope with a busy, noisy world
I AM certainly not unique in having experienced last year’s COVID lockdown differently from the rest of the world. This was mainly because I have been working from home for nearly all my professional life. Aside from a few stints requiring me to show up at an office five days a week during regular office hours – a couple of years in the late 1980s as a newspaper staffer and then again for about six years in the oughts, when I edited a regional magazine in the Berkshires – I have for the most part been self-employed as a freelance writer and concert producer working from the comfort of my home office.
When the working world collapsed due to the raging pandemic of 2020-2021, and all but “essential workers” (I put scare quotes around the term because it is an intensely problematic euphemism) were told to stay home, very little changed in how I conducted my professional life (other than losing a significant amount of work that had been tied to live performances). I had long before gravitated organically to working from home as a freelancer due to some fundamental elements of my personality that meant I worked best singly and on my own, answerable only to myself (and to those few with whom I entered into partner-client relationships), and in an environment where I could maintain and grow the strength and inspiration needed to get my work done, which just happened to be precisely the opposite of an office.
I am by nature an introvert, as it turns out, perhaps to an extreme. My equilibrium is best managed by severely limiting my social interactions. While some—probably the vast majority, given America’s default culture that encourages networking and socializing (I like to call it “socialism”) and immersing oneself in the tide of corporate pursuit and ambition—thrive in the world of go-getterism, where energy comes from plunging into the social pool, my tank gets quickly depleted by face-to-face human interaction. Where others gain life force through get-togethers and chance encounters and parties and all varieties of human pinballing, I refuel in what is referred to as “downtime”—a value-laden term if there ever was one. Socialization drains me of my life essence, requiring hours of quiet alone time (during which, make no mistake, my interior wheels are spinning at full speed) to restore my energy and to defragment my internal hard drive, in order to reassemble the shattered elements of my personality, shattered in the sense both of brokenness as well as in the English meaning of the term, as Mick Jagger sang about it in the eponymous Rolling Stones song.
I am not complaining about this at all. I do regret that it took me over half a century to learn this about myself. For decades, I wasted way too much energy and time combatting this fundamental and unchangeable aspect of myself. I unknowingly engaged in unhealthy and inefficient measures to override inborn tendencies in order to cope with the demands—and make no mistake about it, they are demands—of a kind of social life for which I was and am utterly and totally ill-equipped.
It was only through chance about eight years ago that I stumbled upon books like Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking and Sophia Dembling’s The Introvert’s Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World that I began to recognize this dynamic in myself. To quote some promotional language for the latter book:
You’re not shy; rather, you appreciate the joys of quiet. You’re not antisocial; instead, you enjoy recharging through time alone. You’re not unfriendly, but you do find more meaning in one-on-one connections than large gatherings.
With this enhanced understanding and acceptance of myself as an introvert—one whose inherent social limitations leaves me at times perilously close to agoraphobia—I was finally able to eliminate unhealthy coping mechanisms and to reorient my expectations for how to interact with the world. I have not “solved” my introversion, because there is nothing to solve. Introversion is not a problem; it is an essential way of being. The only difficulty arises when society’s needless and wrongheaded expectations directly challenge the defensive strategies I implement in the organization of my day-to-day life, mechanisms that allow me to maintain my equilibrium and the ability to function at my highest level.
In hindsight, it is no surprise I wound up being a writer, a vocation that pretty much insists on long stretches of quiet alone time. I know that not all writers are introverts. There are some who live for the hour when they can turn off their computer and head out to the nearest bar or café and let loose. There are others who apparently set themselves up in those very locations and write amidst the buzz and the noise and the interruptions. But most of us require the kind of focused attention that can only be gotten in a place and time without distraction—the proverbial room of one’s own, which includes one’s own headspace, not just hours and square footage.
The best me is the one who communicates—who socializes, if you must—via the written word. I’m just sitting here typing these words to you. Thanks for reading them. And feel free to write back. I welcome the engagement, mediated through the respectful rules of civilized correspondence.