Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Some Thoughts on Kindness, Energy Levels and Introversion

I haven't written a blog post like this for a while, an attempt to tie all my current thoughts together into some sort of whole (for which I will not claim coherence). I suspect that I might find out what it is I want to say through the writing of it, which is, often, how this writing thing works. So. Kindness. This is a concept, an action, that has become almost the most important thing for me, the thing I try and practice above all else. Kindness towards others, whether I know them or not, and - hardest of all - towards myself. When I say "kindness" it has deeper ramifications than just smiling, saying something nice, it is, for me, about dealing with other people ethically, mindfully. Hard to actually say more precisely what I mean by that, maybe because it's always evolving, which I think is how I want it to be.

But basically we know what kindness, thoughtfulness, mindfulness and compassion mean, in large terms. And when I say "practice", that is accurate because in my experience it takes practice, it takes vigilance, it is not my default, it takes work. We do seem to be programmed to be defensive, to look for a tribe to join and to privilege, rather than seeing everyone around us  - and further afield - as human beings in the same boat, with the same struggles. And, trying to be kind here to myself, I'm not going to come up with a list of excuses for why this is. It's easy to let go, lose sight.

The thing is, actively trying to change one's behaviour, to rewire the neural pathways so it might become more of a default action, takes energy. It is easy to keep driving in a straight line, on a well-paved road. Changing gear, turning the wheel, requires fuel. When I'm tired, stressed, not feeling well, it's far far harder to stick to my intentions. This is where the "Energy levels and Introversion" referred to in the title come in.

I discovered 2 years ago after reading Susan Cain's momentous book, 'Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking' that I am introverted. I had thought, for years and years, I was some kind of weirdo, a hermit, anti-social, because of my need to be alone for substantial amounts of time. I was made to feel this way when I first decided, at the age of around 27, that I couldn't live with flatmates, needed to live alone. The flatmate I was living with at the time couldn't understand this at all, I think she actually preferred to never be alone (which I can now understand a little better - and shows the need for more talk about introversion and extroversion!) and she took it so personally she never spoke to me again.

What I didn't understand then was that being alone is not just a lifestyle choice if you're an introvert, it's a physiological necessity. I thought I would pass this on in case you think you're an antisocial weird hermit too. Well, you might not be.

If you Google "introvert" this is the first definition that comes up: "a shy, reticent person." Well, if you met me - those of you who have - you wouldn't use those words. I can perform on stage, I can talk in front of large groups of people, I can teach workshops, go to parties (well, hmm) - I can, in other words, appear to be what we call "extrovert" - but the difference is that all these things, all these interactions, drain my energy. Whereas a more extroverted person gains energy from these same interactions. And it's a scale - if you're half way along it, you're an ambivert!

To quote from Susan Cain's website Quiet Revolution

introversion and extroversion lie at the heart of human nature. One scientist refers to them as “the north and south of temperament.”  When you make life choices that are congruent with your temperament—and allow others to do the same—you unleash vast stores of energy.  Conversely, when you spend too much time battling your own nature, the opposite happens: you deplete yourself.

And this isn't the same type of energy that can be replenished by getting a good night's sleep. I have some theories about the type of energy it is, I think it's to do with adrenaline, but I can't find any studies about this. I re-read Susan Cain's book the other day, and what stuck in my mind this time were the scientific studies about highly reactive babies versus non-reactive babies. The researcher had a theory that babies who reacted to every noise, every light, stimulus, would grow up to be introverts. And this turns out to be pretty much the case. I definitely feel that when I'm out and about, I don't do a great job of filtering - that sometimes I feel the world is shouting at me. I have trouble following conversations if there are more than 3 of us, I get easily distracted.

Reacting to many many stimuli takes energy. And perhaps we then need to be alone to replenish, but not just alone, "turned inward", which is what "introvert" actually means, so that we are not reacting at all, or doing the opposite of reacting, which is using whatever means we need to unreact.

This seems, for me and for others I've talked to, to involve a great deal of thinking. I think all the time. I think my way into trouble quite often, reading far too much into something, worrying about my own behaviour etc..., but then what's rather nice is I think my way through and out of it too.

Apart from the being alone and the thinking, I like to sit in corners when I am in cafes or events, to be able to observe without necessarily being seen. I'm awful at small talk (what a relief to know that there might be an "explanation" for that!). But when I have a deep conversation with someone, one-on-one, I can feel my energy reservoirs filling up!

Now, before I discovered this, 2 years ago, I think I was always depleted to some extent or other. I would get ill quite often. 15 years ago I was diagnosed with a thyroid condition, but I never believe this was the problem and stopped taking the medication. Now I think it was because I was ignoring the warning signs and getting severely depleted. And when "introvert burnout" happens, it's not like getting tired. It's like when that battery-operated Duracell rabbit's batteries start to run out - my limbs stop being able to move properly, my head is a fog, and I know quite soon I won't be able to speak full sentences. Sometimes I have the feeling of wanting to crawl out of my own skin. I'm a car with no petrol.

What a bloody relief to find out why and how to fill myself up! And now I know what it feels like to have my full energy, it's a kind of bliss! Of course, I still overdo it (hence the cough which has lasted about 8 weeks). I keep thinking, I can go out to one more poetry reading, I can teach one more student. But nope, I can't. And I suffer. And have to cancel 4 events or students.

Interestingly, I read an article that was circulating last week on the Huffington Post entitled 18 Things Highly Creative People Do Differently. And many of them sound like introvert-type behaviours: daydreaming, observing everything, taking time for solitude, people-watching... I wonder if so many of my writer friends and I are introverts because we write, or we write to fill in all those hours we are alone... or - it's not that simple!

Anyway, being an introvert is not a diagnosis, not a personality disorder, not a problem at all. It's like being fair-skinned means I can't go out in the sun for long without suncream. That's just how it is. I can't go out too often without having to be alone (sometimes with the curtains shut during the day) so I can turn inwards. Up to 50% of the population of the US may be introverts, so it's probably something like that here too.

The point of all this is that when I am at full energy levels, everything - EVERYTHING - is easier. My thoughts don't spin real-life events into stories that have little basis in reality (I'm not talking about fiction-writing here, but about the monkey mind that persuades us of cause-and-effect where there may be none, generally to our detriment). I've got the energy to go against my instincts and stop for a split second before acting, before making a decision, to see if I am being true to the way I want to be in the world. That takes energy. I fail, a lot. I spend time thinking over - as the Stoics recommended - how I've dealt with people and what I can learn about being better. (I am a fan of the Stoics, and of Buddhism, although their approaches do diverge.) But I also try not to beat myself up for doing things "wrong". Because that's not kindness to me.

So, I guess what I am trying to say is this: paradoxically, in order to change my behaviour and be more like the way I want to be in the world, I have to first recognise and nurture the way I already am, the way I work best, in order to have the energy to change.

I'd love to hear your thoughts - on any of the above! 


15 comments:

Marie Gethins said...

Tania this resonates! I find that writers/poets tend to be more introverted as a rule. I'm on a low residency MSt course in CW. However in true Oxford style, students are essentially cloistered during the Residencies for four days. While we have our own rooms, we are together from 8am through to 10pm and beyond for seminars, workshops, readings and all meals. Last Res during lunch on Day 3, one of my colleagues said, 'Oh God, I'm not sure I can take any more interaction!' Almost all of us nodded. Each time I leave a Res its an odd combination of relief and exhaustion. Physically I've done nothing but sit around for four days, yet I am drained.

Brian's mate said...

Fascinating blog, Tania - thank you - and for teaching me the word 'ambivert'!

Although I'm not by nature an introvert (and I definitely can't stand being indoors with curtains closed when there's even a glimmer of daylight outside), I suppose I do display introvert behaviour even when out in the wider world. Like, for instance, in an art gallery … For me, this is a kind of 'solitude with other people' - which also brings into play that whole other discussion, around the difference between solitude and loneliness - and never fails to replenish those energy levels you talk about. I too sit in corners of cafes, people watching. Even without a notebook, it all soaks in, doesn't it? So, even though we may question our introversion, what we're actually doing is nurturing something inside, which in turn will eventually emerge through out writing.

Not sure if any of that makes sense? But you've definitely got me pondering on it all, and also whether we remain as whatever-verts throughout our lives. My mother once said to me "when you were younger, you wouldn't say Boo to a goose - now the goose would run a mile". I don't question her wisdom. I just stay away from geese.

Julia said...

Thanks for posting this Tania - it is most reassuring to know that I am not lazy, weird or anti social - all labels that I have given myself over the years. I too manage readings, events and teaching but then have days where I literally don't want to leave the house. I have sometimes left events as have found them too much or not been mentally ready for them - I often leave gatherings before midnight as I find it exhausting talking in big groups. Give me one or tow people at a time in a quitetish place and I can keep going until 2am. I shall now view those days as recharging time and not beat myself up about the fact that I am not as busy as everyone else on my days off!

Tania Hershman said...

Marie, thanks so much for taking the time to comment - your residency does sound exhausting, a LONG day! But nice, I think, if you're among some fellow introverts who understand, I've found that on almost all residential writing courses I've done...!

Tania Hershman said...

Hello Brian's mate, so nice to meet you, thanks for stopping by! Very good point about solitude versus loneliness, a distinction I often think that our society seems to have forgotten. And I like the word 'nurture', too. Tho' I will be keeping my geese to myself around you... :)

Tania Hershman said...

Hi Julia, if I can help reassure you then my work here is done. It's no fun thinking you're weird, is it? And less beating ourselves up is always a good thing!

Hayley N. Jones said...

I'm reading Quiet at the moment! I already knew I'm an introvert, but it's great to read about the advantages of introversion rather than feeling substandard because I'm not very sociable. Coming to terms with this is helping my anxiety, counterintuitively, because I now realise that many of the things I thought were symptoms of my personal freakishness are normal for an introvert. It also explains why I found giving presentations at university far easier than speaking up in seminars! I don't speak well extemporaneously — I prefer to plan what I want to say or, preferably, communicate via writing. I'm learning to work with my strengths and preferences, instead of against them.

Tania Hershman said...

Hayley, I am with you on all of that! I got heart palpitations last week asking a question during a Q&A after a play - then a few days later I was totally fine up on stage in front of 100 people! Very good point about working with rather than against... we can keep on discussing it to keep all of us strong and fight those substandard feelings.

Words A Day said...

I was really glad to read this post, I can do all the author stuff, and like the people I meet, but feel absolutely drained afterwards for a good while. I thought I was just being ungrateful, the vibe is that we should be glad to be out there doing what we do, and I am, but know I'm more of an introvert - my brain aches with resentment if I dont have empty time and loads of it.

Tania Hershman said...

That's such a great point, WaD, about feeling ungrateful - there is the thought that if we're lucky enough to have readers (which is rather miraculous to me!) we should be available to them, especially after an event. I find the readings great but the small talk & chat afterwards especially hard, I have been known to hide in the loo for a while! But if we're not kind to ourselves, how can we do the thing that even gets us these wonderful invitations?

Tania Hershman said...

That's such a great point, WaD, about feeling ungrateful - there is the thought that if we're lucky enough to have readers (which is rather miraculous to me!) we should be available to them, especially after an event. I find the readings great but the small talk & chat afterwards especially hard, I have been known to hide in the loo for a while! But if we're not kind to ourselves, how can we do the thing that even gets us these wonderful invitations?

Drifter said...

An introvert who wants to be heard.

I feel your pain.

Tania Hershman said...

Thanks for stopping by, Drifter! But no pain here, only joy!

Deb Rickard said...

Thanks for a really interesting post, Tania. I've been saving it to read properly because life has been a hectic lately and I've needed some "downtime" to restore my energy levels! In fact, I've now bookmarked it because I know I'll want to come back to it. You say so much that I agree with and have had many similar thoughts myself - to pick just one, the adrenalin thing; I'm sure it's got something to do with not being able to utilize the adrenalin the body makes at times of stress; a kind of frustrated energy, I suppose, but haven't explored it more than that. Anyway, a great deal of sense here and very reassuring to hear!

Deb Rickard said...

Thanks for a really interesting post, Tania. I've been saving it to read properly because life has been a hectic lately and I've needed some "downtime" to restore my energy levels! In fact, I've now bookmarked it because I know I'll want to come back to it. You say so much that I agree with and have had many similar thoughts myself - to pick just one, the adrenalin thing; I'm sure it's got something to do with not being able to utilize the adrenalin the body makes at times of stress; a kind of frustrated energy, I suppose, but haven't explored it more than that. Anyway, a great deal of sense here and very reassuring to hear!