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Another TED talk, another revelation.

THIS HIT HOME. It’s validation that “it’s ok to be me.” Even in a culture that tells me that I need to be outgoing, to be loud, to be brash. Because those are the types of people that are rewarded.

I am an introvert. I spent much of my life trying not to be, though. I’ve always felt that to be liked I needed to be more funny, more charming, more of a “talker.” My truth is that I’m in my head a lot, my spoken words are measured carefully, thus I tend to seem “quieter.”

I’d attributed the fact that these days I’d rather lie on the couch and read / watch a movie than go to a party, to entering a new stage of my life. I’d rather have an intimate gathering of just a few people, or an evening with my partner (more likely, it’s the latter). The thought being partying is what you do when you’re young; I’m older now. But when I think back over the years, from my teens and my twenties, that same feeling — the desire to just chill out — existed then, too.

Photo: Ed Yourdon

Except that I forced myself out. I noticed this during my travels, too. This pressure to always be socializing, to always connect with other travelers. I even wrote about it, before I really thought about what it means to be an introvert.

In the TED talk above, Susan Cain speaks about the importance of nurturing and supporting introverts, rather than trying to turn them into extroverts. She explains how many of the great inventions of our time were created by introverts, specifically because they were introverts. She talks of the current trend in schools and in workplaces to open spaces up, push desks together, to always work in teams.

I remember when I used to work in a corporate office, that transition period from solitary cubicle to an open plan. The increase in teamwork, of team-building exercises. When words like “synergy” and “collaboration” and phrases like “the sum is greater than the parts” were thrown around almost on a daily basis. Not to say that these aren’t important things; they are real and I’ve experienced the power of collaboration.

But when did it become default that that’s the only path to success? How did it become part of our culture where extroverts are celebrated and introverts are made to feel less than? In this discussion on CBC’s Tapestry program, Cain discusses the phrase “you need to come out of your shell” and why she dislikes it:

I absolutely hate that phrase because, for people who tend to be the target of that particular expression, those are people for whom the shell — in one degree or another — is an organic part of who they are. And so that expression is saying to them ‘this piece of you, that is part of you, is wrong and we have to rip it away’…it’s like taking off your arm; it’s taking off a part of who you are.

I guess what it comes down to is this: there is an idealized notion of what makes the “best” kind of person, and when I don’t conform to it, I feel badly — maybe I even try to change myself. That’s why I love these kinds of messages, because it reminds me that I’m not alone and that I’m not abnormal. I strive nowadays to express my authentic self because I’ve always tried to conform to something, always felt like I needed to adapt myself to different social situations.

This adapting instinct does have its place; it can make things more comfortable for everyone. But how much of myself do I compromise when I do it? How much of my real self am I not letting others see? And what am I telling myself when I feel that I need to be something I’m not?



About The Author

Carlo Alcos

Carlo is the Dean of Education at MatadorU and a Managing Editor at Matador. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter. He lives in Nelson, British Columbia.

  • Lenka Silhanova

    Totally agree. Seen Susan Cain’s TED talk not too long ago and I’m so happy there is someone out there speaking for us, introverts. There is nothing wrong with us! 

  • Thisdarkstar

    Really enjoyed this article and it definitely rang true for me. Thank you. 

  • Erica

    Could not agree more. It totally does feel like being ript off an arm sometimes when people ask me to “be more open, show my real self”. In my opinion, ALL people should be allowed to be themselves, whether you are extrovert or introvert.

  • Sara Clarke

    I’d love to see (or maybe write?) something on being an introverted traveler. Because you know what? Not everyone stays in a hostel and meets their 20 new bestest friends ever. And that’s OK. 

    • Carlo Alcos

      I linked to it in the article but I’ll put it here too…

  • Ejcabanban

    This is especially true for individuals in the military.  The reason I left the military was because I was too much of an introvert.

  • Kathy Leiva

    I read Susan’s book a few weeks ago and really enjoyed it. Being an introvert is not a disease, but all the self-help literature and a lifetime of nagging from family and friends are enough to lead anybody to believe it is! A close friend strongly disagrees when I describe myself as introverted, so I’ve opted for the term “selectively social” :-)

    • Carlo Alcos

      Thanks Kathy, I’d love to read that book.

  • Epsilon Frownberg

    Great article, but, you mention that you “love these kinds of messages, because it reminds me that I’m not alone and that I’m not abnormal.”  So what you are essentially saying is that it is OK to be an introvert, but it’s NOT OK to be alone or abnormal.  I disagree with that statement, I think people should embrace their weirdness and their alone time, and not “feel badly”, as you put it, about not conforming.

    • Carlo Alcos

      Thanks for the comment, but if you read it again, you might notice something. I was careful to say “I” – I’m referring to myself, I’m not making judgement on anyone who wants to feel alone or “abnormal.” I’m not trying to speak on anyone’s behalf. This is only about me. It’s really up to the reader to how they will relate to this. 

  • Coral

    As an extrovert, I’m here to tell you that we aren’t always celebrated either.  And not all of us are “successful.”  I’ve not been celebrated or rewarded for my being an extrovert. 

    I grew up in a family where my outgoing nature was vilified.  I was made to feel “less than”, then ostracized for being who I am naturally. I joined the military to get away from being told who I should be. (I know…no need to tell me I was wrong! LOL) And once again, “Keep your mouth shut.”

    The truth is this:  Each of us is burdened with others’ “shoulds” that we try to accommodate.  We then adopt the “shoulds” for ourselves.

    Once we stop allowing others or ourselves to “should” on us, and start living from a point of authenticity, the better off we will be.

    • Carlo Alcos

      Well said Coral, thanks for the comment. 

  • Zyggurat

     There was a great article about this topic on WorldHum a while back:

  • Ekua

    Working in education in California for several years, I’ve seen so many people try to bring introverts out of their “shells” and I’ve always wondered why. I’m always intrigued by the quiet kids… when I get to know them, I often find that they are creative thinkers and stronger than people around them assume that they are. But in the States, and especially in a big California city, louder and outgoing is typically looked at as the way to be.

    This bothers me partly because I was really shy as a kid and remember how people would try to push that out of me rather than figuring out what I was about. I somehow developed into a more outgoing adult. I think a lot of that is a result of traveling. But that introvert is still there and I value my quiet time.

    People change and there’s always a balance to be found. On my blogs, I’ve written for people who are looking to be more social AND people who are scared of being alone because there are merits to both sides. Ultimately, there really is no need for people to put themselves or others into such strict boundaries.

  • Hexebella

    In my past work, my boss distributed a short personality test to the whole team and both of us resulted to be introvert. We were not boring people, I am typically quiet person because I choose my conversation and the type of people I speak to. I talk and express myself if I need to.

    Based on that personality test, it was explained to us that introverts get their strength from themselves and they work best being alone while extroverts get their strength from other people that surrounds them.

  • kathy gates

    That’s a great TED piece, when I saw it awhile back I felt relieved. And now Carlo I feel even more relieved! I love travelling solo, probably because I am an somewhat  introverted, and just can’t make everlasting friends with with everyone I meet on the road – as some travellers seem to. As I get older I think that we are all  degrees of things … Not great for mass marketing, it’s easier to sell us stuff if we can be neatly categorized, but fantastically freeing once you go with it.

  • Mayafredd

    That is because you have not explored yourself yet, you may be shy from exposing yourself to others, cause you yourself don’t understand certain things in your personality, Until then I assure you will be as much open to people as you never had…
    I was once that, and when I become my self best friend, I then could be anybody’s friend ;)

  • Vitamins for Skin

    I’d much rather be me than plenty of other people

  • Christopher Rushford

    Thank you for writing this,Carlos. I too am an I trivet who must constantly fight the battle to remain who I am. I recently moved back in with my mom and stepfather and it has been difficult for exactly this reason; my mom has ADHD and my step dad is very boisterous and outgoing. He says that he understands what it means to be an introvert but he shows that he truly doesn’t and keeps trying to get me to be like him and then will get upset when I continue to “live inside of my head.”

    I hope that as more I formation about this is put out, it will counter this trend. Groupthink has been shown to be more of a problem than a solution when done haphazardly even among extroverts and I am disconcerted about it being popularized the way that it is.

  • onlysky

    Thank you for sharing this video, and your thoughts on it!  It’s inspiring and comforting to know other people out there face the same social frustrations.  Your well-written perspective on it has given me a surge of optimism and hope!  Really loved it.

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  • Erica SantOs
  • Marco

    Hi, I relly enjoyed the article as well as the video, I suppose because I am an introvert, as a teenager I my friends confused with me being “shy”, only much much later by myself I found the distinction between introverst and extroverts, anyway…. today I think I am happy with who I am and could not see myself any different, also because some of my friends see me as crazy in the funny things I do, so I suppose its a good mixture introverts + slightly creazy = cool:)

  • Afiq Malik

    Hi guys,

    Found the TED talk video a few days ago. Leads me to this article. Thank you for writing the article.

    As nearly every introverts that I have met quoted ‘shy’ and ‘not aggressive’ as the effect of not being understood, my journey has been a bit different. I have been called as a snob and ‘big-headed’ as a kid because my actions were taken as being pompous; a direct effect of being able to see and accomplish goals, in a better way, entirely on my own.

    Unfortunately, I am less equipped with talents to teach others without humiliating them (which I have no clue about), my teachers and friends deemed me as an enemy rather than an ally.

    It had a bad effect on me to this day.

    Admittedly, I may have a very poor social skills, and I have to work on that ;)

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