January 8, 2018

Introversion: The exhaustion of coping with people


Last year, I took part in a citizen’s jury. Part of the process involved frequently being put into groups, doing small tasks, then coming back to the bigger group.

When given a task, I am goal-orientated. I look at the clock, look at the group, and suggest a means in which we could meet the goal. Somehow, I often end up being the group leader.

These type of interactions are easy for me. We have a end point and we simply have to work out how to get there.

But casual conversations are difficult for me. Casual conversations have no goal, except for achieving ‘politeness’ or preventing the socially-frowned-upon silence. Without some place for the conversation to go, I feel anxious.

At the very same citizen’s jury, I took my meal into another room so I could sit and eat by myself. I avoided eye contact, took out my phone, and tried to give an impression that I hoped was hostile enough to deter casual conversation.

When I call myself an introvert, people are often surprised. There seems to be a misunderstanding that introversion is akin to shyness. I am not shy. Shyness is about being nervous or timid in the company of people – I’m not worried about the people, just the conversations.

I talk for a living. I stand in front of groups of twenty strangers and train them in first aid. This does not bother me, because a goal is in mind. There is a social order to our interaction: Me, the trainer, the has the knowledge and hence holds the floor. They, the participant, to listen and obey. There are social conventions around training that make it easy for me to stand in front and publicly speak.

But what I find difficult is when they talk to me. If they ask me questions, that’s great – a question is something you ask to get a response. I can provide a response. I know how to go about that interaction. But when they tell me about their children or their weekend, I realise I am supposed to do… A thing… And knowing what that thing is, especially in the moment of conversation, is difficult.

So, again, I take my lunch meal and eat it by myself in the hopes that I can avoid the interactions all together, hence providing an opportunity to recharge.

Recently, I had a busy period at work. I worked six days in a row. Two of those days I was interstate, staying at a hotel with coworkers, interacting with them all day in and out of work. When I came back to my state, I then had training courses in places where there is no lunch retreat. That meant that, during lunch, people spoke to me.

I survived, but I was completely drained by the end of it.

I once heard extraversion defined as “gaining energy from the company of people” and introversion as “losing energy from the company of people”. It has really stuck with me because it resonates. For me, interacting with people is exhausting.

On a positive note, conversation skills are learnt. That means that I can learn how to interact with people casually. If I compare my ability to deal with conversations now as opposed to five or ten years ago, I am wildly improved. In fact, I think most people walk away from a conversation thinking nothing of it, while I walk away analysing the whole exchange in the hopes of identifying ways I can improve.

So please provide a supportive learning environment as I grow.


You may also like the Ted Talk: The Power of Introverts