Friday, September 16, 2011

Are You an Innie or an Outie?

I've often felt that I'm incapable of small talk. I can't think on my feet, and when asked a question, my mind immediately empties. And, after a few hours with anyone, including a good friend, I'm ready to go home and read a book.

Up until a few weeks ago, I thought that there must be something wrong with me. Then I read The Introvert Advantage by Marti Olsen Laney.

If you guessed that I'm introvert, you'd be right.

According to Lane, there are two types of temperament: extroversion, the most common type, and introversion.

Brain activity accounts for the differences between the two, as each use different pathways that influence where we focus our energies: inward or outward.

Extroverts are energized by the outside world. They prefer to have lots of friends and experiences and know a little bit about everything. They often speak quickly, and can become lonely or drained when they're secluded from people or the outside world. They find it difficult to relax and like a lively environment.

For introverts, the outside world can be exhausting. They need time alone to recharge and rebuild their energy reserves.

"They are not necessarily quiet or withdrawn, but their focus is inside their heads. They need a quiet, reflective place where they can think things through and recharge themselves," says Lane.

Introverts have a few close friends, rather than a network of acquaintances, and prefer to specialize their knowledge. They feel that they cannot speak on a subject unless they know all there is to know about it. For introverts, writing comes more easily than speaking because, Lane says, writing uses different pathways in the brain.

We can't change which temperament we're born with, but we can become more extroverted if the circumstances are right, especially if we have a mastery of the subject.

It happened to me when I was an English student at SUNY Fredonia. My assignment was to lead the class in a discussion for 45 minutes, and I'd dreaded it the entire semester. And then the moment came, and I had butterflies in my stomach as I switched seats with the professor, with me at the head of the class and she at my desk among the students.

As I spoke, my nerves calmed, and I soon found that I could speak readily, without consulting my notes. By the time my 45 minutes were up, I was reluctant to leave my chair. I could have gone on, if they had let me!

Part of my success was due to two factors: I knew the material and I was sitting down. Sitting, Lane says, is preferable to introverts because "standing requires more energy and increases their sense of exposure."

In fact, sitting is one of the author's strategies for coping at a party: perched on a chair removed from the crowd, she lets people come to her and feels more comfortable socializing.

What I loved about this book is that it makes you feel as if it's okay to take a break from the outside world, to be an introvert.

Because socializing depletes our energy, it's illogical to hold ourselves up to extroverted standards. We don't get the same energy boost from constant activity that our extroverted friends do.

And if we feel out of place, that's natural too – only 25% of the population is introverted, so we're three times as likely to be surrounded by extroverts than other introverts. But we're in good company. Famous introverts include Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, Michael Jordon, Grace Kelly, and Gwyneth Paltrow.

If you're not sure which side of the spectrum you fall on, the book includes a short questionnaire to help you decide.

For introverts, it offers strategies for dating and improving relationships, parenting, socializing, and working (including the art of self-promotion, which is often challenging for introverts).

For extroverts, it provides an understanding of your introverted spouse, children, and co-workers and ways to better relate.

The Introvert Advantage is available at the Central Library in downtown Buffalo.

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