HAPPY NEW YEAR!!
I may have lost all my readers. I mourn them both but as it’s a new year, lets not dwell on what’s past.
It occurred to me today that I have a blog! And sometimes when it’s your blog you just have to write what you want, to hell with all those readers… ah I miss you..
Midway between the wardrobe decluttering and shelf restocking on the last day of my official holidays I wandered over to an old writing haunt and stumbled across a familiar topic – or ten – getting chewed over. Same old stuff, same old answers, same old words. Buzz phrases can be handy, as can field-specific lingo (ya know, terminology..), they short cut but they often do so by assuming a base truth. Sometimes you just got to break things down into basic language to make sure you’re saying what you think you’re saying. It can provide surprising illumination. So in the spirit of the New Year I’m going to look anew at the truth of some old words. Starting with…
All writers are introverts.
Which may in part be why I resist. It’s become another tribe and I don’t subscribe to the Tribes of Homogeny that have floated up on the internet.
For those as yet unfamiliar on the topic, introversion and extraversion are the terms we use when measuring how outgoing a person is. Except they actually don’t. I mean -literally, by accepted decree of Myers-Briggs and The Internet. You’ll run across copious posts on WHY INTROVERSION IS MISUNDERSTOOD; sub-headed by claims such as we’re not socially retarded, its not another word for shy, some of us love parties.
By and large introversion/extraversion has come to define where we get our energy from.
Since I’m human I get my energy from food and sleep. I’ve never felt ‘energised’ by being alone. I can’t even begin to imagine what that would feel like. What kind of energy are they referring to?
Do I feel like going for a six mile run after being alone for an hour? Sure, its just my trainers were partying all night with the other shoes and just need some me-time..
Or maybe they mean spiritually energized? My local church/synagogue/mosque and general consumption of Brooklyn-Nine-Nine would like to say no..
Whenever I ask this question, I tend to get buzz phrases in response. I need me-time. I need to re-charge my batteries. I feel overstimulated. What I don’t get is specific examples, concrete evidence of this in play, day to day. It also ignores the vast numbers of very extroverted mums complaining about never getting me-time on mumsnet, the swathes of magazine articles, tv shows and adverts aimed at people finding time alone to nurture or indulge themselves..
Let’s look at some of the other stuff that tends to crop up in relation to introversion.
Introverts have a rich inner life.
Introverts hate small talk. Preferring deep meaningful conversations.
Introverts don’t have a lot of friends, but form a few very close friendships that they value highly.
Introverts are quiet and introspective. They often prefer to communicate in writing and take time to ruminate deeply before articulating their thoughts.
And those were the most neutral definitions I could come across and even then, who amongst us isn’t sitting thinking, I wanna be an introvert! As a less neutral article put it..
A world without Introverts would be a world with few scientists, musicians, artists, poets, filmmakers, doctors, mathematicians, writers, and philosophers
It leaves extroverts as the loud tourists bull-horning their way through life..
Extroverts have little or no grasp of introversion,” Rauch suggests. “They assume that company, especially their own, is always welcome. They cannot imagine why someone would need to be alone; indeed, they often take umbrage at the suggestion. As often as I have tried to explain the matter to extroverts, I have never sensed that any of them really understood.”
Now, I test as an introvert, every time, yet some people think I’m an extrovert. I can’t even refute them completely, because certain aspects of introversion never seemed to resonate with me. Yes I spend a lot of time alone, yes I enjoy it, but I don’t feel like I’m recharging in anyway, and often I seem to have far more energy in social situations than supposed extroverts, I can be louder, more enthusiastic, more inclusive. It always felt very context specific.
It never fails to confuse me when I encounter writers on internet sites, who spend all day posting in the forums, who share long rants about their problems in life, detail their most intimate issues and have twenty million ‘friends’ and groups they belong to. But you know, they’re totally introverts. They may well be, but they’re very different introverts to me. I go to these sites very specifically to talk about writing, my posts very quickly dwindled in numbers and perhaps most importantly I never shared my work.
This difficulty with defining introversion and extroversion accurately seems very problematic given how much weight it has been afforded by popular culture. People are looking to the MBTI to guide them through employment, career choices, mid-life crises, and as writers constructing our characters. Using everything we currently promote I couldn’t in honesty pick out one from the other, yet I can’t deny there is something there, I just don’t feel we’ve got at the core of what or how to use it to our advantage.
I’ve recently come across two ideas that I think help.
The first is buried in this article here. It’s worth a read and raises some interesting questions but the point that really resonated with me was that of reward.
People who score low in Extraversion are not necessarily turned inward; rather, they are less engaged, motivated, and energized by the possibilities for reward that surround them.
My sister is an extrovert. Yet she’s quiet, I’m loud. I shout and squeal and make funny faces. She.. doesn’t. I do silly voices and at family dinners if my brother is there (also an extrovert), we make operas out of Pass the Butter. If my brother isn’t there, we don’t. My sister doesn’t sing. In much the manner that Her Royal Victoria was not amused.
BUT.. she is motivated by social reward. In particular status reward. She is dyslexic and has faced countless people telling her what she couldn’t do throughout her academic career, and she’s proved every one of them wrong. She’s been ambitious since we were kids and her Barbie was always the career woman. She spent hours and hours studying hard – on her own – and still prioritizes this – because it makes her feel validated. It gives her both purpose and worth. She doesn’t need to be the centre of attention, has no desires to be on a stage adored by millions. My brother does and he didn’t work hard at school. He’s a clown, an entertainer, a crowd pleaser and that primarily drives him.
What about me, the writer? Shock – I was a terrible student. I was a terrible student because I never had any interest in proving I was smart. I found classes could be interesting but I wasn’t going to spend hours regurgitating them for homework, what was the point?
I can clearly be a clown, so why don’t I want to be on a stage performing? Because the part I enjoy is the connection (with my lovely brother) and the creativity. On a stage I lose the connection, sometimes the creativity, and I gain a lot of anxiety. My brother doesn’t judge my singing, my clothes, my makeup, humour…
Effort vs reward.
What motivates and what discourages you seem much more relevant questions for anyone seeking to understand human behaviour to be asking. Consider those who might in the outside world be introverted, steering away from social interactions, yet find a niche in writing circles that makes them open up. There is a high probability that their introversion was motivated more by effort and lack of reward, and in the right place, in an environment they feel comfortable in, where they can control the type of interaction, the feedback becomes easier and more positive and they bloom. It’s a subtle but quite fundamental shift when you look at it like that. They’ll probably still not want to dance on tables – which I highly recommend – but they are engaged socially and motivated by that engagement.
Lets look at my own oft noted under-sharing, most specifically my overwhelming inability to put my writing out there..
Most writers seek an audience, and even in myself I’ve felt – feel – something pulling me in that direction but I’m still a million miles behind everyone else. I’ve written a not inconsiderable volume of words, 5 or so books, a dozen shorts. A couple of plays, handful of screenplays.. And most have never been read by anyone.
There is a huge effort involved in becoming published. Even in the world of self publishing (although we can perhaps say that the demands on a self publisher are very different from the those on you when you take a more traditional route) Yet some when you read their story don’t seem to relate it as such. Did they have to put in that much less effort? Was the path simple and easy for them? Or was the reward so great that it simply wiped out the memories of strain and perseverance?
Sometimes the answer can lie more with the effort. This is usually emphasized as a separate issue to introversion; shyness or social anxiety regarded as a learned rather than instinctive behaviour and falling on the neuroticism scale in the Big Five personality factors. However I think when you do address the issue as one of reward, the other side of the coin can’t be written off. My natural tendencies to over think, my shyness, makes the effort greater than it is for many, which often asks for a greater reward. It also ignores the cumulative effect of experience, the nurture side of the effect, where the more we gain reward from our efforts the less demanding the effort will become and more tangible the reward will seem. I do get benefits from social interaction but it’s quicker and easier to get rewards from other sources, internal sources. I don’t think you can deny that such a dynamic has likely made me much more introverted than I might have been. It is in essence laziness…
Next time you wonder why one writer made it, and so many others (including you) haven’t, you might want to think about that. Hard work isn’t just putting words on paper, editing into the small hours, its doing the things you least want to do, making the sacrifices in pursuit of a reward that’s too far away to feel, you have to want it. I want to write, do I want to be a writer?
To help me answer that I turn to the second theory that’s starting to generate waves in this area – sensitivity to stimuli. Again this overlaps with the notion of energy, just as low reward and high effort can lead us to find socialising draining so can this, in fact we see it cropping up in the oft repeated buzz word, overstimulated.
The article in Scientific America seemed to take it for granted that this is now a thing, stating,
To be sure, many people may think of themselves as introverted because they are highly sensitive. But research shows that sensory processing sensitivity is independent of introversion. The various manifestations of being a highly sensitive person– inhibition of behavior, sensitivity to environmental stimuli, depth of information processing, and physiological reactivity– are linked to neuroticism and intellect/imagination, not introversion.
Sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) was coined in the 90’s by the psychologist Elaine Aron, along with Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) and much of the discussion around the topic seems dominated by her approach. Honestly if it sounds like Special Snowflake Syndrome, I understand but there is some science and sense buried in there. Stick with me. SPS is in essence how much we are not only aware of the world, of sensory input from the cacophony of voices around us to noticing the strange, itchy sensation of a hole in your sock, but how we react emotionally to these. Those with the trait are often considered thus more emotional, more sensitive and more empathetic, inevitably leading to too much emphasis being placed on the whole notion of being bruised by life.
Social interaction is seen as being rife with stimuli, emotionally draining and as such perhaps the internet would be considered the ideal place to be social without all that overwhelming sensory input. If you’re curious about the trait you can check out Aron’s website, but here is some of the questions that she asks.. emphasis mine.
Are you easily overwhelmed by such things as bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics, or sirens nearby?
Do you get rattled when you have a lot to do in a short amount of time?
Do you make a point of avoiding violent movies and TV shows?
Do you need to withdraw during busy days, into bed or a darkened room or some other place where you can have privacy and relief from the situation?
Do you make it a high priority to arrange your life to avoid upsetting or overwhelming situations?
Do you notice or enjoy delicate or fine scents, tastes, sounds, or works of art?
Do you have a rich and complex inner life?
When you were a child, did your parents or teachers see you as sensitive or shy?
Notice the highlighted words – overwhelmed, rattled – what some in writing circles would call strong verbs, and what I call loaded to fuck with emotional bias. Perhaps Ms Aron would say I benefited from my lovely family, but I have a desire to replace those words, to ask, are you strongly affected by such things as bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics or sirens nearby? Even in the positive questions I’m tempted to re-word, do you have an active and engrossing inner life? As it seems that to suggest focus rather than quality, which surely is much more subjective.
Am I SPS? As with introversion I find myself identifying strongly with some aspects and frustrated by others. I wish I was as wonderful as some of these things suggest, but I’d not only be lying to myself but potentially doing real harm. Sometimes you have to do the hard things, even if the reward seems so far away, so abstract you can’t quite believe in it.
My writing has been a refuge and a purpose, an odd combination that’s left me floundering at the last, vital, hurdle, for years now. I am energised by social interaction, it rouses me, for good and ill, it stimulates deep emotions, strong desires, forces me to be present. I am motivated by the sensory input I perceive. I love to watch, listen, lose myself in music, art, and yes my creativity. I’m addicted to the feelings that can arise from beautiful words and images flowering in my head, the ideas that pop, pop, pop as I write. It’s that rush from ideas, from problem solving that I seek in a writing site, that keeps me returning to this blog, even though I’m pretty sure no one is reading. I aint telling them to.
What about my sister and brother, how might they score in Sensitivity? My sister has no inner life. She never could entertain herself. She has no interest in fashion but cares about her image. My mum and I actually chose her wedding dress. Books and film interest her only marginally. She’s barely been single longer than a day, and every one of her boyfriends was under the thumb and loved it. She is frequently extremely drained because her work as a doctor is emotionally and cerebrally demanding, but the time she spends alone is usually spent doing work. Nothing to do isn’t really appealing to her, structured days are.
My brother is, like me, fairly creative. He loved drawing as a kid and was pretty good, he’s got style – and its his – when not entertaining everyone he can spend a lot of time alone, loves film, theatre, and music, teaches himself magic tricks (always a great way to entertain the troops) and reads up on mentalist theories. He’s only had a couple of serious relationships and he spent the entire time resenting their demands yet feeling obligated to please. He sleeps for Scotland but I think he considers that time well spent.
So, in summary, between us you have low reward, high sensitivity, high reward, low sensitivity and high reward, high sensitivity. Yes, I realise I’ve just complicated something you were perfectly comfortable with, especially when you consider that’s still something of an over-simplification. This is why I have no readers. Well that and I’m not motivated to get more. It may be a subtle shift, a side shuffle to the left, but once you start to look at it through a reward/sensitivity lens you start to see both how the notion of energy became so central but how it isn’t actually what is going to help you make healthier decisions. Or for that matter, write really great characters. Because what this shift allows for is the infinity diversity that lies in the spectrum. How the nerdy writer might actually be motivated by positive feedback as much as the class clown. How you can in fact be both. Or both and yet never rise to a stage or published status, because deep down you just like making up jokes and silly stories content with the feedback of your nearest and dearest rolling their eyes and telling you to grow up.
And if like me you’re looking for a little guidance in career or life, it might help you evaluate what it is you really want and decide if, by the time you climb that mountain, the prize at the top will be worth it.