“What an extroverted act it is in the first place to go to school. All day long, you are in a classroom full of people with constant stimulation. Even for introverted kids who really like school, it’s still a very overstimulating experience.” Susan Cain, interview 

When I read Susan Cain’s book Quiet the summer before my junior year of college, I started thinking about myself in an entirely new way.

I’d already experienced that in the US, typically we’re taught to value:
-people who socialize often and easily, who are attracted to teams and gatherings
-self-promoters (of course, not TOO self-confident!) who speak often and verbalize their thoughts while they formulate them (people can do that????!!!!!)

None of these things describe me, yet I absolutely had a right to feel angry as a kid when adults tried to make me “come out of my shell” or followed praise with “…but she is just so quiet.

Those words told me that although I was smart and caring, a huge part of my personality was fundamentally wrong. I felt like I had to change myself in so many ways. Though I believe most of my teachers had the best intentions, I learned most of these bad lessons while in school.

Quiet helped me begin to see that I don’t need to try and pass as an extrovert in order to be ‘successful’ (whatever that word may mean to you). We can be amazing leaders, students, co-workers and friends just as we are.

Recently I’ve started to see lots of pieces which point out examples of ways that early education is biased against introverted children. Too much group work and discussion-based lessons. Value being placed on speaking up right now—even when you need some time to mull things over. A noisy, forced social lunch is considered a break.

Basically, for introverted students there is little to no recovery time during the day unless they have an opportunity to really get into their ‘zone’, maybe while reading, doing an art project, or playing a sport. (Sports not for me. Too many people, too much pressure, too much happening.)

Adding choices to the school day can give introverts more control over their emotional state, letting them learn and socialize on their own terms, and generally feel less miserable. Obviously, learning cooperation is important, but we can teach these lessons while respecting different people’s needs.

I found that in a lot of ways, college can be an amazing change of pace for an introvert. Students can have much more control over the rhythm of their day, but a lot of pressure can build around the extroverted ideal of what The College Experience should be: all new things, all new friends, social events packed into every spare second, collaborative work, group studying…

If you’re anything like me, you’re cringing inside just reading that.

Reflecting on introversion and college

Windowsill in my beloved senior-year single. I was so happy to have that space.
Windowsill in my beloved senior-year single. I had some amazing roommates –but having my own room felt so, so special. I was very happy there.

I graduated from college just one year ago, but I’ve spent a lot of that time thinking about what worked for me and what didn’t.

I realize now that a big part of my college experience was working to identify areas where I should push boundaries and grow, and areas where change was not necessary. I had to start finding a balance between challenging myself and learning to accept and take care of myself as I naturally am.

College experience of a classic introvert:

I made about 3 close friends. It took me a few years to do that. I also have scattering of good acquaintances who I respected and admired, but didn’t bond with extensively.

I went to TWO parties in four years, and only because my living situation forced me to be there. I liked the folks present, but the setting basically forced my brain to shut down. I think others didn’t really understand why I stayed away, which was a bit alienating and sad, but I let myself feel okay with my choice not to keep going.

I did not permanently join any clubs or groups except for my school’s yoga club. I quietly connected with the people who came to yoga, and sent out emails to tell them when we’d meet. It felt comfortable. We were quietly de-stressing together.

I pretty much got A’s in all my classes. Maybe I cared too much about grades, but I worked damn hard, and I give myself credit for that. I had some adventuresome semesters of traveling to new places. I majored in biology but took classes in art and religious studies and creative writing. All this was pretty exhausting, so I usually chose to socialize one-on-one.

And all that was okay, no matter what other people think I should have done differently.

 I did not need to fight myself for:

– my natural way of having friendships (just a few very close, trusted people)

-my need for quiet, solitary recovery time after and between classes

Another time I’d like to write more about specific difficulties and also the positive aspects of being introverted. For now my hope is just that I can help to affirm your attempt to balance self-challenge and self-care.

You deserve to hide when you need to, so that you’re ready to come out when you want to.