Mirror Images

By Laura Jenkins
 

When one of my editors emailed me in early 2012, asking if I’d like to interview Susan Cain, I was willing (and grateful for the work) but not terribly excited. After all, we’d be talking about her then-new book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

And I’m a card-carrying extrovert.

So I envisioned a conversation where Cain would tell me that my kind is a hindrance to her kind, meaning that we, the outspoken, take up more than our fair share of the communicative bandwidth. And though our conversation did touch on that fact (yes, I said it; guilty as charged) reading her book and having the opportunity to visit with her about it was life changing for me.

How did a book about introverts give me a better understanding of myself? For starters, for the first time in my life it dawned on me that I grew up as the only extrovert in a family of introverts. I was often told to tone it down, that I was being too loud, talking too much, or embarrassing my family by sending my food back because it wasn’t what I ordered. In hindsight, I can see that to some degree I’ve felt fundamentally flawed because I could never see my own reflection in the mirror of my family. The familial introvert/extrovert imbalance wasn’t good or bad; it just was. And since I was the odd (wo)man out, I always just assumed something was wrong with me.

These are the kinds of epiphanies that have been happening in my fifties. They’re little “a-ha” moments that have helped me put one more piece of my identity puzzle into place. In my twenties, thirties and forties, I was so focused on my children, my husband, and all of the epic responsibility that comes with those relationships, I was rarely tuned in to myself. But as I approached fifty, I found myself in a clearing of sorts. My psychic airwaves don’t have as much static as they used to, and as a result I’ve been able to hear frequencies that have long been inaudible to me (if they were ever audible at all.)

And so, as often happens in my line of work, when I interviewed Susan Cain I got some unexpected wisdom from a place I never would’ve thought to look. When I read about the “sensitive” personality in her book, for example, it finally made sense to me why I am so affected by violence and loud noises and bright lights. I thought those were things I just needed to get over, that I should stop wearing my heart on my sleeve, or letting myself be bothered by intense stimuli. But I learned from Cain that “sensitivity” is an inherent trait, just like extroversion and introversion are. There’s a reason I am this way; it’s part of who I am.

Eureka.

What does it mean if a person is “sensitive?” I asked Cain.

“It means that your nervous system and your cognition are open to taking in all experience, whether it’s good or bad,” she said. “Going back to evolution: the reason that a certain portion of humans evolved to be sensitive in this way is that sensitivity is just a different strategy for survival. It’s basically a strategy of looking before you leap and paying close attention to things. You can adopt that particular strategy in all kinds of ways.”

I told Cain that it seemed to me that sensitivity is more of an introverted trait, and that I felt like somehow I didn’t have right to claim it since I’m an extrovert.

“Dr. Elaine Aron has done meticulous research [that indicates] that 30% of sensitive people are extroverts,” said Cain. “She has all kinds of theories about why that might be true.”

Aron, a prominent psychologist and researcher, has written a book entitled The Highly Sensitive Person, which offers extensive scientific evidence that sensitivity is something you’re born with.

In light of this information, a couple of things dawned on me: First, that I am among the 30% of sensitive people who are extroverts. In similar fashion, when it became clear that I was the lone extrovert in my family of origin, I realized that I spent most of my childhood judging myself for not exhibiting more introvert-ish behavior. I could never have measured up to the introvert standard because I wasn’t one. But I thought I was supposed to be.

These fundamental changes in perspective caused a huge shift in both my understanding and acceptance of myself. Today I can see that my expressive, outgoing temperament is probably responsible for much of my career success (I’ve always found it easy to banter with people I’m interviewing or photographing.) And my sensitivity has made it near impossible for me to skim the surface of the deeper questions in life. An incessant need to plumb the depths of things has fueled some of my best writing. It has also driven many of my friends and loved ones crazy.

Last but certainly not least: Cain’s book and my subsequent conversation with her shattered some common misconceptions about introverts, namely that they’re shy (some are, some aren’t); that they’re hermits (Cain, a self-professed introvert, wrote most of her New York Times Bestseller in a café in New York, surrounded by people); and that they don’t enjoy the company of other people (they do; they just get their fill sooner than us extroverts do.)

If nothing else, Quiet will give you a better understanding of the introverts you’re surrounded by. And it may also convince you, as it did me, that introverts are often misunderstood. A quick search on thesaurus.com produced multiple possible synonyms for the word introvert: brooder, egotist, loner, narcissist and wallflower, to name a few. Honestly, I was pretty shocked at the negative connotations of those descriptors. Synonyms for extroverts include gregarious, character, exhibitionist and life-of-the-party. If that small semantic comparison doesn’t convince you that our society is extrovert-centric, I don’t know what will.

As you’ve probably figured out by now, I highly recommend Cain’s book—regardless of your personality persuasion. It’s incredibly insightful, and I’m so very grateful that my editor gave me this assignment. Otherwise, I’m pretty certain I never would’ve picked up the book.

To read my original Q & A with Cain in 2012, click here.