Living with intent, social engagement, learning, growing, giving

An ambivert in an extroverted world

Warning: This post is highly introspective and narcissistic so it may not be of interest. If you choose to read on you have been forewarned!

Having recently read the book Quiet, I have been pondering where I sit on the introversion/extroversion spectrum. I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m a social introvert who has carefully studied successful people and become a highly functioning ambivert based on these facts:

  • I was a loner at high school and hated attending parties, making speeches, and group activities because my cheeks would flame, my heart would race and I would be sick with nauseated panic at the thought of any of these three activities;
  • I was so anxious about participating in a school excursion to a fun park that I made myself sick with anxiety and didn’t attend the excursion (actually this was not a one-off!);
  • Throughout my studies I avoided working in teams (in fact in a referee’s report for a job my PhD supervisor gave me a poor mark for team work) and study groups, preferring to study alone; and
  • I followed my undergraduate studies with a 1 year individual honours project and enjoyed the solitary research so much that I then embarked on a PhD research project. During my PhD apart from field or lab work I spent the majority of my time (over 3 years) in my home office and wrote my 80,000 word thesis at home. I then followed that with a 3 year post-doctoral research fellowship of solo research;

I have always studied people with great interest, searching faces and eyes, watching body language and listening carefully to what is said and trying to infer what is left unsaid. Some people find this habit intimidating but I do it without meaning to, partly because I am very sensitive to people and I’m watching for trigger of volatility but also to learn what makes people successful socially. 37 years spent watching other people closely has allowed me to adapt from a painfully shy introvert to a fairly outgoing and relatively socially successful ambivert.

It took me a long time to achieve this though! In high school I was fairly unpopular due to my social awkwardness and this continued into my undergraduate degree. The first time that I really connected with other adults was during my honours project when I made some mostly superficial but fun connections with other honours students. This was repeated during my PhD and postdoc and with each year I became less awkward and had more friends.

When I became pregnant with my first child my fellowship was ending as was my husbands, so we hunted around for decent paying jobs in nearby cities (our own city has high unemployment and our grant applications had been unsuccessful that year). When we secured jobs we bought a house and moved to the new city. I was nervous about making friends and settling into the new city, afraid that I would be socially isolated like during my teenage years, but this time with a newborn baby to raise. At my new workplace I worked hard at connecting with people and being likable. Two months later my daughter was born and I worked hard at making friends in my mother’s group. I took dance classes and made friends there, started a book group, and made friends on flights, at play groups, at my children’s school and after school activities, even at play grounds. I started volunteer work for a fabulous literacy charity (Room to Read) and made friends through that and so on until I now have a full calendar and juggle personal time to fit in get togethers and no longer actively seek new friendships, nor do I fear being socially isolated.

I think that the pressure that I placed on myself to make friends in our new city resulted in a shift from introversion to ambiversion, so that I now see friends at least 2 evenings a week, I play team sport, and I participate in social activities with my colleagues. My numbing shyness and reticence towards public speaking has disappeared. With work and Room to Read I regularly make presentations in front of rooms full of strangers and instead of being nauseated I feel invigorated by it. For example I’m currently on a 16 day world-trip for work and there are few things that give me as much of a buzz as making a presentation in front of a group of receptive peers. During my presentations I work hard to establish a connection with my audience by making disarming quips and plenty of eye contact and smiles. Usually this works so well that I have a great record of generating new projects for my company from my presentations. However if the audience is ambivalent or hostile, which can occur in rooms full of middle-aged men who are stuck in their ways and not receptive to new ideas, I feel flat and drained. Up until I started lecturing undergraduates and postgraduate students I would diligently write out my speeches and then read it directly from a sheet of paper or palm cards for fear of missing a crucial point. Now I carefully prepare my slides but do not prepare any words and just let my expert knowledge of my subject matter give me the confidence to speak without props.

I still cannot make small talk but when I meet a friendly stranger I love to find a topic of mutual interest and delve deeply into it, from literature to social justice and humanitarian issues. My sensitivity to others emotions means that I respond strongly and when someone is volatile I withdraw to protect myself from an expected outburst. Within a couple of hours of arrival of house guests I am over-stimulated and longing for my own space which unfortunately makes me seem withdrawn and distant. The best house guests give me plenty of space and do not try to engage me in conversation but allow me to reach out to them. This quote from Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak resonated with me – Two friends were trapped at the Zhivago’s house during street fighting and after they left Dr Yury Zhivago reflects:

…they had felt obliged to repay the kindness of their hosts by entertaining them with ceaseless conversation, and Yury was so exhausted by this three days’ chatter that he was happy to see them go.

To recharge from all of that stimulus I enjoy solitary travel (both daily commuting and international work trips), I tend to write on my blog after a social evening or team sport and this helps me to unwind, I read a lot of books, I avoid the media except to research blog posts, I seek out silence, go for long hikes with my husband, go to the gym, ride my bike or jog alone, and I postpone eating my lunch until my colleagues have finished theirs so that I can eat alone and perhaps read a few pages of my book. In the mornings before work, I prefer to shower and get dressed without my children in the room so that I can gather my thoughts and calm my mind before the onslaught of the day (this is a luxury that I only access when travelling alone!). In reality I get very little time to myself but I carve out whatever quiet time I can to recharge and recover from stimulus, for example this week in the Middle East for work was so demanding and over stimulating that I actually passed up an opportunity to socialise with a colleague that I only see a few times a year, instead I had a quiet solitary dinner at a rooftop poolside restaurant followed by a calming sheesha pipe.

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2 comments on “An ambivert in an extroverted world

  1. Pingback: Book Review – The Girls – 3 1/2 stars | strivetoengage

  2. Pingback: Two weeks in the Americas | strivetoengage

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This entry was posted on May 30, 2014 by in Me and tagged , , , , , .
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