Once upon a time, I thought I knew who I was

This blog really started two years ago. I’d been having trouble finding the right job. A LOT of trouble. Something was obviously up, and I honestly didn’t know what. So I sat down in the middle of my life and refused to budge until I figured it out.

I didn’t make much headway for the first 18 months. Well, that’s not entirely true. My bruised ego slowly recovered from the last Job From Hell. I started a blog on one of my quirkier interests. I found my high school friends on FaceBook. I took a summer job. I studied a foreign language. I explored a new career. All good.

But my wallet was getting slimmer and slimmer, with no better understanding of what was broken, and what to do to fix it.

Silence is Golden

I love silence with a passion. To me, it’s not an absence of something, but an iridescent, sublime presence, that can move me to acute and transcendent bliss. It’s better than really great chocolate; it’s better than sex. I live in the cultural void of a suburb because it’s relatively quiet for an urban environment.

But not really. Dogs bark. And bark. And bark. Yard services descend, sensurrounding my hapless home like invading hordes brandishing motorized clubs and maces. Compulsive remodelers practice their filthy habits right out in the open for everyone to hear. I’ve been trying to figure out how to escape to the country and still have an income for years.

Enter Susan Cain. One day when I was listening to the radio to avoid overhearing my neighbor’s 8th phone conversation in two hours, I came across a radio interview about her new book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

The subtitle seemed to set introversion and talking in opposition. I’m a talker. So I couldn’t be an introvert, right? But luckily, any book called Quiet was too intriguing to pass up.

Susan Cain described some introverts. They sounded an awful lot like me. Could I be an introvert after all?

I thought being shy about talking was pretty much the definition of introvert. And I’m not. Really, really not. I initiate conversations with strangers at the bus stop. I speak first (and second, and third) in meetings. I’m the person whose hand the teacher has to ignore so others can have a chance.

But as it turns out, the defining characteristic of introverts is not their level of sociability, but whether contact with others energizes or tires them. Hmm.

I Vant to be Alone

I love being alone as much as I love silence. I have a great time playing by myself, and never feel like it would be more fun with company. When I start a new relationship, I go through the 5 stages of grieving for my lost alone time. And when I end one, getting it back is a substantial consolation.

But what do you call that? I’ve been struggling for years with the title, “loner.” Isn’t that some creepy guy with bad hygiene and massacre fantasies?

I feel like I have to make the effort to prove I’m not the female version of that guy (aging cat lady), but I start to feel overwhelmingly busy if I go out more than twice a month. And that’s when I’m not working full time. If I am, once a month, tops.

flowering lilypads float on a serene pond

Visual Intermission

Not a New Story

Me and my brain, we’ve been through tough times before. Like 38 years of undiagnosed depression. That was bad.

Then there was menopause with its total collapse of memory and focus. But I’m back to normal now. Well, I think I am. My memory of what I was like before is a little hazy. And also… in addition… one other thing… damn, what was I talking about?

Realizing that I was clinically depressed transformed my life. Once I understood what that meant, it reframed everything. And for awhile, treating depression was the answer to every problem.

When that didn’t work for my job issues and solitary tendencies (which I regarded as something to be solved), I thought it meant I hadn’t fully resolved my depression. Even though I felt pretty good.

Chatterbox

And then I heard Susan Cain on the radio. I immediately bought her book (which I never do). I worked my way down the list. Check, check, check. Wait, needs to think things over? I’ll get back to you on that.

I dug out the Myers-Briggs test I took 20 years ago. I loathed every minute of that test. Choosing between pairs with no option for “both” or “neither” was torture. I refused to answer 40% of the questions. The counselor said the outcome would be accurate anyway. Seriously?? If it’s valid with only 60% of the questions, why was it so damn long??

But right there in my resulting type, the very first letter, the I…  that stood for Introvert. Omigod, thought I, I’ve been a certified introvert for 20 years, and never knew.

But what about my verbalness? Was I an ambivert? I’m ambi-a lot of things, so it wouldn’t surprise me, but I get a little tired of seeing all sides. Introvert was such a good fit otherwise. It explained so much.

Susan Cain writes about introverts pretending to be extroverts. I had never asked myself whether I was really comfortable with my verbal assertiveness. One-on-one, yes, comfortable and natural. In other contexts… maybe not. It’s more like I feel compelled to do it.

Where did that come from? Maybe from the way my father trained me to use multisyllabic sentences to entertain his friends when I was still a toddler? When the average 2 year old was pointing and grunting, I was answering the question, “would you like some more?” with “I’ve had a sufficiency. Any more would be a superfluity.”

I was so young, I barely remember doing this, and I certainly don’t recall how I felt about it. But the part about engaging adult attention with verbal skills, that stuck. Adult attention is equivalent to survival for children.

I started giving myself permission to sit on the sidelines, being present in a conversation, but not participating as actively. Surprise! That was actually pretty comfortable. More comfortable than being the center of attention in some situations.

What a shock to realize I’ve been operating under a sense of pressure to perform my whole life without ever being conscious of it.

Sensitive Type

Susan Cain’s Quiet describes a conference for Highly Sensitive People. I’d heard of that in passing, but didn’t know what it was. My immediate reaction to the label was negative. Was it some kind of neurotic elitism?

But as Cain continued to describe the conference, things started jumping out at me. She mentioned Elaine Aron, the research psychologist who defined the type and coined the name. I visited Aron’s website and took the self-test. Once again, check, check, check. ALL of the 27 traits on her self-test were true of me.

What was going on?? Was I just in an identifying mood? But no. It turns out (according to Elaine Aron) that Susan Cain is an HSP as well as an introvert, and much of her book really pertains to the former category rather than the latter.

Introverts make up more than half of the population. People with high sensory processing sensitivity (a less button-pushing name for HSPs) are more like 15-20%, according to Aron.

Finally, the job problems were explained. Turns out, my skill set primarily qualifies me for jobs and work environments that are the worst possible match for my personality type.

So Who Am I, Really?

I’m still figuring out what’s an HSP quality vs. an introversion quality, and how much of an introvert I actually am. I’ve joined Meetup groups for introverts (chuckling at the irony), watched YouTube videos, and taken out library books. I’m working my way through self-help career exploration. And I started this blog because, well, it’s what I do. Scribo, ergo sum.

SensitiveType is for everyone else who’s going through the same process – and even more for the people who haven’t realized they need to yet. Jump in. It changes everything, in ways you never imagined.

I’ll probably have to spend some more time in really challenging work environments before I find other solutions. But now I understand why they’re challenging, and how to find better answers. I hope that’s going to reduce the stress a little. I’ll let you know.

What Does it Mean?

I used to have a friend who often asked me this. Like I would know.

It’s a good question, though. I’m in the early stages of an internal paradigm shift, and as I look around, I’m not the only one. The world is in dire need of a paradigm shift right now. I’m not sure the one it needs is the same as the one we’re having, but I can’t wait to find out.

So Kit, if you’re still wondering — I’ll get back to you on that.

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