Updated: Jan 1
Embracing your Introverted Self in an Extroverted World
I consider myself an extreme introvert. That would shock most people because coworkers and friends would probably consider me pretty chatty and engaging. “You, an introvert?!” they exclaim in disbelief. But those who know me well – my partner, my kids – know that I desperately need downtime, time to be quiet, time to rest my brain, time to escape the constant motion of the rest of my life. If I go for any length of time without it, I get stressed and frenzied.
I am thrilled to welcome Dr. Karen Bluth as our guest contributor this week.
Self-compassion is such a forgotten art by many people and perhaps most especially needed by introverts. Dr. Bluth masterfully helps us reconnect to ourselves with kindness and understanding through her own stories and guidance. Learn and enjoy!
Years ago I was married to a Protestant minister. After church on Sundays, there were frequently several people waiting to greet me, the Pastor’s Wife. I would make small talk with person after person – good people, mind you – until I felt like I would explode if I didn’t get out of there. All that small talk made me want to scream. It was as if all the conversations were piling up in my brain one on top of another – crowding each other out with no space in between – until there was no more room and there was going to be an explosion in my head. I needed breathing space.
Don’t for a moment expect extroverts to understand. Extroverts give you a funny look when you try to explain how mentally exhausting it is for you to make conversation. Partners who are extroverts may learn to not interrupt when you’re staring at the walls, reading, meditating, or listening to the rain on the porch. But they have no clue why you’d rather do that than have a nice conversation with them. It’s not that you don’t adore them, it’s just that desperately, in the deepest part of your soul, you need quiet. To simply be with nothing but your own thoughts. Or no thoughts.
We live in a world in which so much of our lives depends on engaging with others, or at least that’s what is expected. People may wonder what’s wrong with you if you choose to retreat to your bedroom rather than greet a neighbor who is passing by (which I did a few minutes ago, by the way). My sister, also an introvert, once told me that she loves entertaining – because she loves the part before the party – when she can plan the meal, shop, and choose place settings. But when the actual party happens, you know what she does? She sneaks off and takes a nap. In the middle of the party. She confided in me, “No one misses me!” A true introvert.
This is who we are, yet as introverts, we often feel like we have to make excuses or apologize for our introverted behavior. “Oh, I’m so sorry, I have a terrible headache” we bemoan when really we just need quiet time. Or worse – we stay engaged when we really, really, really don’t want to and then become mentally exhausted and resentful.
What to do? How can introverts take care of their own needs when living in a world where it’s not socially acceptable to escape into a book when company is around because you’ve simply had enough?
Learning self-compassion can be the key. Simply put, that means to embrace yourself just as you are. No need to try to “fit in” to an extrovert world. When you’re being self-compassionate, rather than forcing yourself to engage in conversation when you don’t feel up to it, give yourself a break. Self-compassion is learning to come back to asking yourself the question “What is it that I need right now?” and then giving it to yourself. Do you need rest? Do you need to go for a walk? Do you need to put on headphones and simply listen to music? In our society we prioritize our obligations to others – we’re used to putting others’ needs before our own, and when we do this repeatedly without refilling our own energy tanks, we burn out. Especially if you’re an introvert.
Before you shout out “Oh, but that’s selfish! Self-centered! You self-pitying brute! Stop indulging yourself!” consider what you’re like when you are playing by others’ rules, giving more than you can give, sticking it out at a party when all you want to do is go home. You’re burned out, irritable, frustrated, and angry. How helpful can you be to others when you feel that way? Not very. Now consider how you are with others when you’re rested, feeling centered, spacious, and alert. I bet you’re a much better friend, partner, parent, son, or daughter. And most importantly, you feel more like your best self.
How to Cultivate Self-Compassion
So how do you cultivate self-compassion? For starters, embrace your beloved introverted self. Don’t worry about trying to fit in with those extroverts out there – they’re a different breed. I think of the line from Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” which states “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves …” So remember to allow that soft introvert animal that you are, room to breathe and thrive.
Next, develop an awareness of what you need. One way to do this is by noticing what you’re feeling as stress is arising. Notice bodily sensations. Is your chest getting tight? Are you starting to feel jumpy? Like you want to run away? Being aware of thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations as they are happening is mindfulness, one of the three core components of self-compassion. Remember that you are human, and like all humans on this planet, you are deserving of care and validation. Although we are different in many ways, respect your own needs and know that when you do so, you will be less stressed and be better able to be there for others.
Keep in mind that you’re not alone in what you’re feeling. Recognizing that you share these emotional experiences with others is common humanity, the second core component of self-compassion. And finally, ask yourself what it is that you need in that moment. Do you need rest? Time alone? Once you are aware, you can take the last step and give yourself what you need. Do you need to leave that party? Leave. You’re feeling in need of some alone time? Honor your boundaries and cancel that date with friends. Feeling overwhelmed and need to zone out? Go for it. It’s not self-indulgent, it’s simply healthy behavior. Being kind to yourself in this way is self-kindness, the third and last component of self-compassion.
Luckily for us, mindfulness and self-compassion practices are a godsend for introverts. You’re given full permission to be by yourself, and be quiet. Here are a few of my favorite self-compassion practices.
Music meditation – This one is super simple. Pick a relaxing piece of instrumental music, and really pay attention to each note. At some point, you’ll find your mind wandering. When this happens, simply return your attention to the sound of the music. Keep doing this throughout the piece of music.
Comforting gesture – You can put your hand on your heart, or rub your two hands together, or cross your arms and give yourself a hug, or cradle your face in your hands, or any number of other physical gestures that feel comforting to you. We readily do this for others – we think nothing of giving a friend a hug, or a pat on the back to comfort them, but we don’t generally do this for ourselves. But we can, and thereby get the same benefits for ourselves that we offer to others.
Sense and Savor Walk – This is a great practice to do outside in nature. Walk along until something draws you in - a leaf on a tree, sunlight making patterns on the sidewalk, the feeling of the wind on your skin. Allow yourself to take in the full experience with all your senses – really savor the feeling of the roughness of the bark or the warmth of the sun. When you’re ready, move on until the next thing pulls you in.
Being self-compassionate allows you to be your best self – better able to be the person you want to be. And the best part is that once you start being kind to yourself, you’ll realize it feels good. Like having a good friend with you always to support you, cheer you on, and encourage you to let that soft animal of your body love what it loves.