Introverts on the Sidelines

By

West Virginia is a little state with a big chip on its shoulder. I know, I’m a proud Mountaineer. We are likely to strike out in anger for many possibly slights, one being those delightful occasions when people express ignorance of our very existence. No, we are not part of Virginia. There was this little war between the states. You might have heard of it. Does the Civil War ring a bell? No, I don’t live near Richmond. That’s another state. In fact, we just celebrated 150 years of being our very own state.

We get mad and hurt and complain, “Why can’t they get it right? How can people be so stupid as to not know about us?” But there’s another possible take on these infuriating occurrences.

“Why don’t we make ourselves known better, so people don’t mistake and overlook us?”

It’s easy to grumble about not being known. It’s harder to make an effort, to do some action that lets people know you are there and have something to contribute.

But complaining about not being known, growing bitter and resentful, sensitive and withdrawn, is much easier. This is something introverts frequently do.

We complain, often without making any effort to be known.

“They don’t get me,”

“Nobody understands me.”

I know, because I’m not just the writer of this post criticizing/challenging introverts, I am one.

Well, maybe nobody knows us because we are not knowable. We are not friendly. We are not open.

I spent most of my early life terrified and quiet, reluctant to speak up, afraid to be friendly. I called this “being shy.” It took everything in me to say hello to a room full of strangers. I felt like I was being sent to the guillotine. I could bore you with tales of terror and despair, but I want to get straight to what helped me.

Playing defense all the time, trying to avoid people, is a losing strategy. It’s what the sports world calls “playing NOT to lose.” (This, as opposed to “playing TO win.”) Not until I switched to offense did I see any real improvement. I had to intentionally be friendly. I had to do something very courageous, for me. It was embarrassing, because I could tell it wasn’t courageous for lots of people. It was easy to them. That made me envy them. But I’m finding that friendliness is a great pathway to understanding that those extroverts, those mighty people of the earth, also have weaknesses and fears, and that’s something you can’t find out by spending all day with your cats watching Star Trek and updating Facebook in clever ways that make you look like an interesting person, but really you’re just on the internet all day and also watching Star Trek.

I get the introvert’s challenges. I get that there are incredible strengths in there. But, speaking as one, introverts can be some of the most self-righteous people you will ever meet. We frequently have the additional disadvantage of being “artists,” and “brilliant,” and “smart” and “quirky,” and often expect everyone to bow in deference to our self-consumed, navel-gazing craziness.

Introverts often love to point out faults of extroverts, those people doing their friendly and open and positive things with other people and often in, gasp!, public (how crass and unsophisticated). Introverts love to snarkily sit on the sidelines and laugh at all the people in the game. We love to self-importantly preserve our undefeated record by never entering the ring.

There’s an awful lot about introverts to love, but there’s also a lot that’s less lovely. I’m all for loving introverts as they are. I am one. I’m happy to see the recent flux of positive messages, books, and blog posts about understanding and appreciating introverts. I’ve written some of them and I’m for it.

However, if all this positive affirmation for “being who I am”—that delightful and dangerous path—helps us feel superior as we disengage from community, friendship, spouse, family, and church, then we are believing a lie.

Introverts need community—real community with real, flesh and blood people. We need to be loved, accepted, challenged, and to find our place in the world. Star Trek and Facebook and cats may make us feel like we have something real, but they cannot replace flesh and blood people. Star Trek won’t let you down. It’s safe. Safe and not real. Facebook can provide us a thousand opportunities to feel better than other people and to shine up our pristine image—even an image of being broken, humble, complicated, interesting people. But spouses can’t be blocked, sisters are hard to unfriend. We can’t decline a funeral event with a click. Cats . . . well, let’s be honest and just admit that cats are evil.

Here’s the point, introverts. Maybe you’re angry because I said Star Trek wasn’t real or that Facebook is a minefield of pride and envy, or you’re steaming from having to face the awful truth that cats are of the devil. But hold on. Remember, I’m one of you . . . er, us. The world needs us. We don’t just need flesh and blood community, but flesh and blood community needs us. Seemingly-confident extroverts need us. Type A’s that type a’s on their keyboards with so much power and confidence need us. Muscular, tanned, salt-and-pepper haired businessmen in suits need the dog-hair-sweater-wearing bespectacled old maid who wears a Star Trek communicator because her cats have told her it looks rad. We all need each other. It takes all kinds, as the person quoting cliches once said.

I know it will take courage that you believe you are incapable of to take those baby steps toward being present. Remember that God is strong when you are weak. Remember that you are loved, accepted, welcomed by God in Christ. Remember that your brothers and sisters need you, so be brave.

Be present somewhere, introverts. You are needy, and needed. Just like everyone else.


20 Comments

  1. Holly Deutsch

    Thanks for the reminder to take time and gather up courage to leave my friends in books and intentionally seek friendships with sisters and brothers.

    ps I will never understand why people think cats are evil.

  2. Judy

    There is such courage in this piece of writing – addressing the reality that increasingly, it seems, there is a temptation to use introvertedness as a shield to keep others out.

    I have a teenage daughter who is on the somewhat extreme end of introvert and have found some of the recent writings helpful. For both of us, a better understanding of what it means to be an introvert has been freeing in determining how to balance people time and quiet stillness, but when it becomes the reason for disconnecting from others that knowledge is being misused in the greater purposes of God. In community, both extraverts and other introverts need the thoughtful wisdom of introverts to slow down and gain perspective on life and faith, and the introvert is able to delight in the more vibrant expressions of an extravert’s faith and general enthusiasm for life, releasing them from the burden to take themselves too seriously.

    A great piece – thank you.

  3. Brenda Branson

    Yep, all true … except the part about all cats being evil. Just some of them are.

  4. Bailey Gillespie

    I so resonate with this piece, as it’s exactly the challenge so many of us introverts faced at the recent RR retreat. As you alluded to, though, I found an exhilarating ‘aliveness’ start to burn inside me once I started to branch out and actually TRY conjuring up conversation. It got [a little] easier each time.

  5. Beth

    I’m really trying to grow in this area. It started when I attended Hutchmoot by myself last year – and surprisingly, I didn’t die. 🙂 Thanks for the encouragement.

  6. SirWilbur

    Dang, I didn’t know there were so many of you.

    My little introverted brother (the author) has been inspiring me for years. We make a good team, complete with the same hatred of felines and love of the Mountain State.

  7. EnnisP

    I came here because of the cat remark :), even shared it on Facebook, but found some great ideas that inspired even more!

  8. Michael

    Thanks for this, Sam: “It’s easy to grumble about not being known. It’s harder to make an effort, to do some action that lets people know you are there and have something to contribute.” Really spoke to me.

  9. Helena

    “Introverts love to snarkily sit on the sidelines and laugh at all the people in the game. We love to self-importantly preserve our undefeated record by never entering the ring.”

    Oh, my. I had a blogger heartily abuse me and my writing for months on Goodreads and on her blog. She was, in her own words, “an evil genius” who was working on a novel that she would never publish because she could never get it perfect enough. I thought, “It’s much easier to criticize someone else’s work than to expose your own work to the glaring light of others’ criticism.”

    But the truth is that I’ve done the very same thing. I’ve judged those who are out there writing and speaking and moving, while I edit and critique and sit.

    These are great words, Sam. Thanks for the honesty and the challenge.

  10. Jim Crotty

    Guilty as charged. Yep, bullseye. But is also one of the reasons I returned to teaching. Puts me “out there.” But I don’t watch Star Trek and don’t have a cat(s). A goofy doberman/rot mix maybe, but no cats.

  11. Sarah Cook

    Thank you for the reminder to “be present.” I’ve been struggling with that concept a lot recently, and the conviction your article stirs in me is welcome. Your piece doesn’t diminish or gloss over those very real feelings of awkwardness and embarrassment, which is a feat only a true introvert could accomplish!

  12. Tom Murphy

    As one of them there extroverts, thank you for shining a light within the introverted corridors so that a foreigner may understand. We are not so different at the core.

    Thought you might appreciate the below Sam. You were echoing the monastic Thomas Merton when you said, “The world needs us. We don’t just need flesh and blood community, but flesh and blood community needs us”.

    When I see a room full of people, I feel a little Mertonish…

    Thomas Merton’s Private Journal, March 19, 1958:

    “Yesterday, in Louisville, at the corner of 4th and Walnut, suddenly realized that I loved all the people and that none of them were, or, could be totally alien to me. As if waking from a dream — the dream of separateness, of the “special” vocation to be different. My vocation does not really make me different from the rest of men or put me is a special category except artificially, juridically. I am still a member of the human race — and what more glorious destiny is there for man, since the Word was made flesh and became, too, a member of the Human Race!

    Thank God! Thank God! I am only another member of the human race, like all the rest of them. I have the immense joy of being a man! As if the sorrows of our condition could really matter, once we begin to realize who and what we are — as if we could ever begin to realize it on earth.”

  13. Africa_S

    It is funny that you think cats are the devil, Sam. As a relatively extroverted person, who is good friends with a deeply introverted person, we are like night and day – or as she says, I am a dog person, and she is a cat person. Having worked myself out of a lot of my introverted ways, it doesn’t take a whole lot to get me involved, but she is the person who drags her hand along the walls of the room, observing, until she is approached by one person (it has to only be one or she feels suffocated), and then she will feel more comfortable engaging.

  14. William Peters

    The true line between introversion and extraversion lies in where that individual draws their energy from. Do they draw their energy through interactions with other people, or from within themselves. I am severely introverted and there are societally subjective and definite pro/cons associated with that. I am all for constructive criticism of introverts, but it needs to be introvert specific. Being an introvert has no bearing on being judgmental and wishing others would conform to your perception of reality. That is a human trait and common character flaw in both introverts and extraverts. This universal flaw arises because it is easy and safe for us to ridicule/reject that which we do not understand and/or fear. Also, I would like to make a side note. I have seen just as many extraverts falling into the pit of Facebook. I agree that introverts need flesh and blood community, but not necessarily at the same levels of intensity/scope that the extraverts do. Extraverts are engaging with others, because they draw energy from them and that does not mean that they are being open or building real relationships. Speaking and interactions for the sake of interactions does not ensure meaning. Introverts are more likely to have fewer, but more deep relationships while extraverts cast a wide net. Introverts often process thoughts in their heads, while extraverts process through words and interactions. This is often while introverts are often labeled “smart”, because they process thoughts inside their head and then speak the best that they can come up with. With extraverts, the brilliant ideas are often mixed with everything else. Neither is better or worse, but different and both extraverts and introverts have their challenges. The important thing is what we do with these challenges. In the end we need to have courage through Christ Jesus who strengthens us to be more than we are. We have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable and having the courage to push ourselves. For the introvert that may mean some form of public speaking, or some other means of going against your tendencies. For the extrovert that may mean being alone with your thoughts and processing the world internally. To be better servants for Christ we need to understand ourselves, both our strengths and weaknesses. Utilizing that knowledge we can learn to interact with different personality types for his greater good. A great resource is the meyers-briggs test that can help you learn a bit about your natural tendencies and also the pitfalls associated with them. It will also help you learn how to relate to and interact with all types of personalities. One thing to keep in mind with this test is that your personality is a continuum between extremes and no two personalities are the same. God made us all weird and crazy in our own ways.

    Disclaimer: I am an introvert, aerospace engineer, non-trekie, non-fanboy, cat hater, anti-facebook, father of four, and married to an extravert-Facebooker.

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