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.

 

 

 

 

On Transformation and Second Chances

By Laura JenkinsDSC_8429lowres

My memory is pretty sketchy, but I do know this: I had childhood friends that collected things. I don’t really remember what they collected; I just recall being more than a little envious that I didn’t have a “thing” when my friends were amassing hordes of, say, angels, or dolphins or Coca-Cola memorabilia. You don’t just pull a “thing” out of thin air (or at least that didn’t seem right to me.) It has to mean something, and I suppose that the truth is, for a large portion of my life I wasn’t awake to such things.

And then I went through a profound loss. Several, in fact.

butterfly4The most earth shattering was the end of my 25-year marriage. I spent years and years trying to salvage things, but eventually I had to admit defeat. Throw in the towel. It felt like the biggest failure of my life, and even though deep down I knew that it wasn’t all up to me, I was bent over with grief and shame. There was fallout from that situation that’s way too long to go in to here, but I can say that it involved profound financial ruin and chronic fear and self doubt. Around the same time, my mother got ovarian cancer. My father got prostate cancer. I started completely over at age 44, financially speaking, which involved re-enrolling in college and switching careers. I carried so much defeat over the fact that I was middle-aged and everything I’d worked for had seemingly gone up in smoke. I was way behind the curve in terms of where I was certain I should be. I felt helpless to lessen the pain of my children, who were reeling as a result of the obliteration of our family. I fractured my ankle twice in four months, and had to wear a freaking boot for more weeks than I can remember (I refused to sit in the “handicapped” section when my oldest daughter graduated from college, because the vantage point wasn’t good for photos. As a result, I scooted up the stadium stairs on my butt while everyone watched and probably wondered what the hell I was doing.) I left the neighborhood I had lived in for 25 years, my beloved neighbors, my longtime home, and ended up moving four times in four years. I was experiencing empty nest. My children were graduating from high school and college. One of my daughters got married. I began to feel very uncomfortable with the church I was attending, which caused me to wrestle with spiritual issues of epic proportions.

And I was pissed.

Was there even ONE area of my life that could remain familiar and constant?

Apparently not.

I had psychic whiplash from all of the changes in my life. It was death after death after death… or so it seemed. Life, as I knew it, had died.

butterfly1On my 45th birthday two of my children and a dear friend came over, and we made margaritas and fajitas. I have no recollection of how the conversation turned to tattoos, but the next thing I knew I was at the tattoo parlor. And somehow, I finally knew beyond any doubt what my “thing” was: butterflies. What better symbol of hope for someone who has suffered profound loss? Butterflies tell a story of death and rebirth. Butterflies say, “What I thought was the end was really the beginning.” I couldn’t see even one frame of what my new life was going to look like, but I decided to believe that it would be good, so much so, that I got a butterfly indelibly inked on my ribcage (and one of my girls got the same tattoo in the same place, which will forever be special to me.)

So the rest of the story is for another blog post, but the Cliff Notes version is that I did experience profound renewal, and so far it’s been more wonderful than I’d ever imagined. That doesn’t negate the losses by any means, and for the record I’m still climbing out of that rubble in many ways. Like a butterfly, I’ve emerged from it all––stronger, more colorful, and (here’s the kicker) sometimes I feel like I can fly.

butterfly2

But.

When I was in the cocoon, when I was in the dark and felt smothered by the grief that was wound tightly around me, it was a massive temptation to prematurely cut my way out of the silky envelope that was transforming me. I wanted certainty. I wanted to get on with my life. I wanted to just pick some butterfly colors, paint myself, and — by god if I had to hobble away, I was prepared to do so. I was like the disillusioned teen standing by the side of the road with a sign that says, “Anywhere but here.” I am loath to cite an overused reverse pop-psych quote, but I think it really does apply here: “Don’t just do something. Sit there.” Of course when you’re sitting there, you’re beside yourself with the fear that you’ll never be okay again. But you will. Contrary to all the voices in my head, the only thing I had to do was surrender and wait. And though the dust has cleared enough for me to have a little bit of faith in that process, I still wrestle with surrendering and waiting every single day of my life.

butterfly3Last month, I got the opportunity to take one of our granddaughters to the Cockrell Butterfly Center in Houston. These creatures continue to inspire me in so many ways. If you’re someone who happens to be looking for hope, read up on butterflies. The parallels between your journey and theirs might just blow your mind.

Post Script: Today I was reminded of how very little I thought I contributed to my children’s comfort and healing when our family blew up. And then I thought of the song my oldest daughter, Amy, wrote for me on my 50th birthday — a mere six years later. I was so shocked at how they perceived it vs. how I thought it went down. So I thought I’d share it here. It’s not a great recording… I made her put it down in Garage Band before she left town on my birthday. But if you listen closely you’ll be able to make out the words (headphones help.)