Monday, April 16, 2012


Perhaps you have heard of couch surfing? It sounds like a great idea ~~ after all, you can travel all around the world and stay in generous-hearted, trusting people’s homes for free! Also, you can open your home to interesting and dynamic folks when and if you wish to.

One problem: You are virtually expected to socialize with your hosts/guests!

To a true introvert, this is horrifying.

Intoverts, as I use the term, are people who have a preference for solitude as a way to recharge/reinvigorate themselves. Extroverts draw energy from people and interaction with others. This makes it easy to tell which you are... It was Carl Jung who introduced the concept, then taken up by the MBTI, or "Myers Briggs Type Indicator," a test many of us have taken numerous times for work or school.

It’s not that we don’t like to socialize. I can talk for hours to people who are authentic, thoughtful, and analytical. But ten minutes’ worth of chit chat or banter sends me into hiding. I really don't like parties at all. New Year's Eve is my least favorite holiday!

I am going to tell you a story I have never told anyone.

In high school, I began to transition from a painfully shy child ( People said to me back then, “What's the matter? Cat got your tongue?”) to an introvert who had the skills to appear outgoing at times. But in the early autumn of ninth grade, I knew almost no one (it was a regional HS), and was filled with terror and insecurity. High School in America is the playground of extroverts. My sister convinced me to go to a home football game with her so she could meet up with a boy she would not have been allowed to see. Within minutes, they took off, and I was alone. I didn’t see anyone I knew. I went into the Ladies’Room inside the gym and sat in a stall until the game was over.

Until I read the book Quiet,  by Susan Cain, and learned that almost all introverts, even very successful executives and celebrities, have had lavatory stall experiences like mine, I felt a certain amount of shame and embarrassment about being so, well… ashamed and embarrassed!

Today I would love to convince introverts like me that you needn’t feel bad about your inborn proclivities, nor do you have to allow them to rule/ruin your life. I would also love to convince extroverts to endeavor to understand and respect and even value the introverts in our world. Finally, I hope to highlight some ways that what we commonly call personality is interwoven with spirituality and religion. That’s where we will start.

Evangelical Christianity is an extroverted faith. Mega church pastors and Christian gurus like Rick Warren and Joel Osteen and Dave Ramsey are super-extroverts and their seminars are nightmares for the true introvert.

But they are the fastest-growing churches and enterprises because they capture the overwhelmingly prevailing American spirit: extroversion = success.

Buddhism and Hinduism and eastern faith-based disciplines like meditation, Hatha Yoga and Tai Chi are comfortable places for introverts. It turns out that Asian countries are overwhelmingly populated by introverts, who feel uncomfortable and who are judged harshly as standoffish or too serious in our Western schools, universities, and businesses.

According to Quiet, these qualities are genetic as well as situational and cultural. There is a scientific basis for our attractions and aversions! That is an enormous discovery especially for introverts, because we can gradually come to accept ourselves and stop feeling bad about who we truly are. I think many people would say that introverts are “shy” because they have poor self-images. But what if it were the other way around? What if, starting with people who asked me “Cat got your tongue?” through High School peers who called me a snob, on to church members who think I am not “available” enough, it were others who made me feel that something is wrong because I do not share their proclivities?

Had I understood this earlier, I might have saved myself a great deal of guilt and anxiety.

Guilt is generally understood as a religious construct. I remember when we had a UU bumper sticker that proclaimed, “We don’t do guilt.” It became less popular when first clergy, and gradually the laity, began to realize that complete freedom from any sense of responsibility or remorse is an impediment to social justice and service. (“The building block of conscience” Cain, 140) Perhaps we are confusing a healthy sense of guilt, be it individual or collective, with original sin/eternal damnation/ and the self-torment they are meant to invoke. We all hurt or neglect others and participate in systems that do so. Feeling the guilt of our privilege and lack of awareness is essential to becoming more compassionate, more human, whole.

Introverts are what has been called “high-reactive” types. They actually do feel things more intensely: guilt, beauty, the pain of others, as well as sights, sounds, smells and sensations. They are literally more thin-skinned ("I"s sweat more v. “cool” types). Eleanor Roosevelt, who championed social programs for women, Appalachian miners, African Americans, and the dispossessed, had been a shy young woman terrified of public speaking. It was her passion born of sensitivity that enabled her to go out and fight for these causes. “I think people who are shy remain shy always, but they learn how to overcome it,” she said.

It was not until this sabbatical that I truly accepted that I would always be “shy” (now I am reclaiming that word which has such a negative connotation)  and realized that many of the challenges I faced came from my own and others’ unwillingness to adapt and accept that. I know that ministry was the “right” career choice for me because I could pursue the intellectual, spiritual and environmental goals about which I feel passionate. Still, it has been a challenge (the dominant personality type for clergy is ENFJ) because of the expectations of outgoingness and charisma that can create enormous stress for an introvert.

Introverts can adapt! For me, life has been a gradual unfolding, and the choices I made, mostly unconsciously, but, I would argue, intuitively, led to a functional introversion. Probably starting with theater and speech in High School, through waitress work for almost ten years, through La Leche league where I was forced into leadership in a cause I was intensely passionate about, on to using yoga and meditation to deal with anxiety and fear, I have learned and been taught to compensate for the parts of introversion that might have made me far less happy.

I struggle still. Until I read Quiet, I let other people tell me that the reason I wrote a lot of fiction, but almost never sought publication was that I was afraid of rejection or too lazy to get my stuff out there. I sensed that wasn’t right, but still felt a sense of failure. I knew my fiction was as good as many colleagues who were getting published. Until I read just how much the publishing industry is geared to extroverts, I was confused about my aversion. Maybe I will start to peek out of the literary lavatory stall, someday.

Does God love introverts? Cain asks early in the book. She retells the story of Moses, who famously tried to beg off his assigned task of liberating the Jews: “Send someone else. Who am I, that I should go tell Pharaoh? I have never been eloquent. I am slow of speech and tongue.” (Scholars believe he had a speech impediment, a lisp or a stutter.)

Yet introverts have so much to offer: creativity, insight, patience (many MADE $$ during the 2008 crash), and compassion. Like Steve Wozniak of Apple, Al Gore with Global Warming, Thedor Geisel (Dr. Seuss), Craig Newmark of Craigslist, Warren Buffet and even Marie Curie, Charles Darwin and Chopin, the most successful and happy introverts are those Cain calls socially poised introverts. That is, people who have learned and practiced ways to overcome the crippling parts of their introversion while accepting and nurturing the creative and fulfilling parts.

Her suggestions for introverts are simple: Think back to what you loved to do as a child; pay attention to the work you gravitate toward; and pay attention to what you envy when choosing your core projects and ambitions. Create restorative “niches” and honor them.

Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (FLOW)"Repression is not the way to virtue. When people restrain themselves out of fear, their lives are by necessity diminished. Only through freely chosen discipline can life be enjoyed and still kept within the bounds of reason."

For those who live with and work with introverts, it may be more challenging. My brother used to have a doormat that said, GO AWAY. The answer is not simply to leave us alone or dismiss us. It is definitely NOT, given our thin skin, to judge us or try to force us to change!! Extroverts can enrich their lives (and ours) by practicing awareness and acceptance. Let go of words like “antisocial,” which are completely off the mark. Give introverts time and encouragement and space when they need it. Parents and teachers of introverts in this hyper-programmed world for kids are especially cautioned.

Cain quotes Don McAdams, who studies human lives and psychology at NWU, and has isolated what he calls the Redemptive life story, “We all write our life stories as if we were novelists. Those who live the most fully realized lives—giving back to their families, society, and themselves—tend to find meaning in their obstacles. Where we stumble is where our treasure lies.”

Introverts can live their lives hoping (in vain) or bemoaning that this extroverted culture will never recognize them; or they can write a redemptive life story, with some help from others who are aware and sensitive to them.

Redemption is the essence of the life of faith… to be saved from our own worst demons and to renew our commitment to our own selves and to the world is what it means to be born again. It happens, and is possible, every day.