One of the parts of my talks and training sessions for teachers and parents is about introversion, how it manifests itself and how it is negatively affected by a normal modern schoolday. This is usually the bit that generates the most comment and discussion afterwards. So, reproduced with permission, here is part of an email that came the other day:
“It was a real pleasure to come along to the recent Youthlink AGM and hear you speak. What I took away from your talk was something that resonated on a personal level this time. Your description of the introvert, their behaviours and their absolute need to spend time alone, quietly processing, was a profound revelation to me. All of my life I’ve been surrounded by confident, outgoing and social people who have found this reflective aspect to my character to be quite odd, not understanding my slowness of processing or my need to have the regular peaceful down time to do this. I have often questioned it myself, but in one single moment, you absolutely made sense of that for me and I have suddenly come to accepting and appreciating my own quietness. I really must thank you for that.”
I think I have that understanding of introversion because I am strongly introverted myself. Those of you who know me or who have seen my confidence in front of an audience may be surprised about that.
The confidence in front of an audience is something that has grown over the years – and many hundreds of hours of practice! – but is actually nothing to do with introversion or extroversion anyway. Introverts can be confident public-speakers, actors, performers and can also appear confident in social situations.
So, what does it mean to be introverted?
It means that all social situations are energy-sapping. We may enjoy them sometimes, or even often, but before long we are paying a price.
What does this price entail? In my case, I’m running rapids in my mind, my thoughts rushing and wriggling. I hear my words echo back and have to analyse them. Were they the right words? Did they have the right tone? How did the person react? What is the person thinking? Am I smiling? Looking anxious? Can I, please, get out of here for a while and then come back? Or not come back, ideally?
It is tiring. It can be fun and exciting, but tiring. At the end of any social interaction, I am exhausted. And I can only regain energy by being on my own.
But understand that “social interaction” includes everything from a relaxing chat with an old friend to walking into a room of strangers. Both those are equally tiring, though one is more enjoyable. (And I can manage the other very well indeed – it doesn’t scare me.)
Having a friend or friends for coffee or food is something I often do – I love to cook and I love to entertain – but I have learnt two things. First, I will be exhausted after a while and I won’t tell you. Second, I need to prepare everything in advance because I cannot talk and use my hands at the same time. I used to think this was just a “thing”, an inadequacy (and it certainly is that) but I now theorise that, for me, talking takes a lot of brain bandwidth and there’s not enough left to put a cup of coffee together.
Three things make schools exhausting places for introverted people
- It’s all about collaboration, these days. Collaboration is important. But introverts are very often not doing their best work while collaborating. And teachers need to realise this and find ways to work around it and ensure that all students are able to do their best work, learn to collaborate, learn to work alone and tell the difference between when one is needed or the other is needed.
A while ago I started Spanish lessons in a group. I was fine with every part of this, including saying things out loud, until the teacher asked us to do the next exercise with our neighbour. Immediately, I wasn’t in learning mode but in social mode. I couldn’t care less what I learnt: it was all about the social situation. All about what the other person might be feeling. Gosh, I hated that. It felt so wasteful of my desire to learn.
Hear this: I have never once had a creative or interesting idea while working with other people. Only afterwards, on the train or walking from the meeting. My brain works outside the conversations my mouth is busy in. With people, I am managing, not creating.
- Being alone is seen as a sign of weakness in school. Those who tend to be introverted crave – physically need – time to process thoughts, unwind, not have demands made on their talking muscles. And yet sitting on one’s own looks like not having friends. So, sitting on one’s own becomes stressful even though sitting on one’s own is the perfect situation. Introverts, for this reason, often go to the library because sitting on one’s own with a book says, “I am on my own because I am reading – don’t talk to me, please.” And that’s acceptable.
But often, when someone is on their own, quietly thinking, or pretending to look at a phone, a kind adult or friend comes up and says, “Are you OK?” Which is a lovely, caring thing to say and yet…and yet…the message is, “Because sitting on your own and thinking is not OK.”
So, let me tell you this: sitting on your own and thinking is very much OK. We need a lot more people sitting on their own and thinking and a lot fewer people talking for the sake of it.
- Schools are noisy places with little or no time for switch-off, for quiet, no chance to escape the demands to perform, talk, respond. And that is exhausting. I think it’s exhausting for everyone but it’s even more so for introverts. “Breaks” are not breaks if you can’t breathe.
And as for answering questions and performing in class, that’s for another day. I’m tired now!
We need introversion and extroversion in this world. We need times to be one and times to be the other. We need to value and understand both. We need time and place and permission to be what we need to be. We need to stop talking about introversion as shyness because it’s not. We need to stop assuming that extroverts are really super-confident, because they may not be. We need to start listening to our internal needs, our craving for noise or quiet, for people or peace, for collaboration or solo work.
We need to start listening more. And that is something we introverts shine at. That and quiet creative thinking. Because two heads are not better than one if one of them is mine.