I remember clearly being called ‘shy’ as a child. Sometimes ‘quiet.’ I despised the latter more. At least with ‘shy’ it felt like a virus I had caught. Being called ‘quiet’ suggested I had nothing to say. But I had lots to say, just not out loud.
Either way, I knew that they weren’t terms of endearment.
Slowly but surely, I learned ways to cover up my shyness, and pipe up. I surrounded myself with gregarious characters, in the hope it might rub off on me. At times, it did - especially with the help of alcohol.
It wasn’t until I found myself in the real world of work; commutes, meetings and beer o’clock on Fridays that my personality and preferences for quiet and solitude became a real issue. My life force would flatline by 2 pm. I was cranky, uninspired and prone to bursts of tears on public transport.
I wasn’t sure what the problem was. I knew it had something to do with me, because other people seemed just fine with a busy commute on public transport, spending all day in an open-plan office with the radio blaring and small talk by the water cooler and ending the day at a pub in Soho, spilling out onto the streets.
I figured I was broken.
A few years into pushing through, feeling like I was walking on broken feet, I finally left my job at the digital agency to try my luck freelancing. You can work from home, they said. You can work your own hours, they said. Pants are optional, they said.
I was sold!
For a time, the freelance life suited me.
I took advantage of my newfound freedom, relished in the comfort of my own space and experimented with obscure working hours and my personal hygiene.
After a few months of fun, I realised two things. One, that showering daily was probably a good idea after all and two, that clients don’t just stumble across your website automatically and give you money.
That’s when I started to learn about marketing, sales, networking, public relations… and realised I may have made a very big mistake in leaving the agency job, which in hindsight looked positively heavenly.
The advice I’d read online and in books about networking made my skin crawl. These people clearly were nothing like me. I wasn’t interested in learning how to ‘mirror’ someone, or smile in a way that shows at least 26 teeth. No thank you.
The online stuff wasn’t much better: I watched formulaic webinars teaching me how to teach people how to teach people marketing. If that’s how they got their Ferrari, I’ll continue to take the bus.
Surely, I thought, there must be a way to get my work seen by my dream clients, without selling my soul to the Dark Lord of Sleaze?
Moaning to a friend about my dilemma, I finally got my diagnosis.
He said, "You’re an introvert. Of course you find it hard."
I scoffed, "You’re wrong! I’m not shy!"
My friend went onto tell me about the original definition of introvert, the one Swiss psychoanalyst extraordinaire, Carl G. Jung coined.
An introvert is simply someone who gets their energy from spending time alone. They enjoy their own company and deep, one to one conversations. They process information slower than extroverts and in greater depth. This explained my trouble at networking events, my aversion for small talk and why most people made their way to the canapés when I started talking about the nature of consciousness.
In addition, introverts are NOT necessarily shy or quiet, though can come across that way, especially in large groups. They’re often easily over-stimulated, which would explain my trouble in the open-plan office and the busy London lifestyle.
This knowledge came as a giant relief to me. An epiphany, really.
It meant I wasn’t broken. It meant that there were others like me. It meant I could start to manage my energy more effectively and actually use my introversion to my advantage.
From here, my business picked up. I started to approach marketing and pitching clients in a way that suited my personality type and preferences.
When it came to networking, I took my time. I played by my rules. I would go to events that had speakers - something to focus on and give me something to make conversation about that wasn’t too big or too small. I wouldn’t pressure myself to pitch my services right then and there; I’d use my introvert superpower of listening, and follow up the next day with a well crafted email. It worked remarkably well.
Email became my biggest ally. I learned how much I loved to write - introverts usually express themselves better through writing, because it gives us time to think and process our thoughts. I made it a habit, most days, to send just one email to a potential client or collaborator or mentor. Over time, I’ve built up a solid network, in a way that suits my skills and preferences.
Most challenging was to learn to balance my time alone and my time spent with people. Too far in the hermit direction, and I become anxious and life loses it’s colour. Too much time socialising, and I become cranky and critical. It’s a delicate balance that needs daily recalibration. For introverts, it’s worth becoming a real Goldilocks when it comes to energy management.
What surprised me most of all in the years following my introvert epiphany is learning about the value I get in community. Specifically, communities of people (usually creatives and introverts, like myself) who have similar problems as well as similar values as me. I thought I was immune from needing others in this way, until I accidentally found a Facebook group I liked. I started my own, which grew into the League of Creative Introverts. Since then, I’ve witnessed the difference accountability, support, shared skills and shared laughs make in both my life and the lives of my fellow creative introverts.
The final lesson my introvert epiphany gave me is the importance of not using our personality traits as an excuse. Hiding behind the label of introvert to excuse ourselves and remain only in our comfort zones, is a big mistake. Like being given fire from the gods, only to use it to burn our house down; learning about your personality type only to shut yourself away is a major opportunity and potentially a life, wasted.
Getting our work out into the world, serving the people we want to help, and fulfilling whatever purpose we’re here for means acknowledging our needs, playing to our strengths and mitigating our weaknesses. It means finding creative ways to overcome our perceived boundaries, and gently, stretching our comfort zone, whether that means posting our latest piece of art on Instagram or plucking up the courage to go to a local meet up of fellow creatives, even if it’s for 45 minutes.
My introvert epiphany is one of many. I’d love to hear (or read) others. If you know you’re an introvert, how did you find out? What have you learned since then? How have you put your introvert superpowers to use?