Jenna, my comrade in bloggery over at The Wishing Well, just published a post about Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. To my great surprise, her reaction to it was very different from mine. Since I had recommended it to her enthusiastically, I started out writing a reply in a comment, but it became way too long, so I’m publishing it here.
Wow, did we read the same book? Before I read Quiet, it had literally never crossed my mind that I was an introvert, much less an HSP (which Elaine Aron believes Susan Cain also is). I thought I was an extrovert inhibited by a tendency to isolate. I defended this, extolling the joys of solitude, as I still do. However, before I read Quiet, those joys were seriously undermined by my secret fear that solitude was an unhealthy indulgence, an escape from my shameful inability to interact “normally.” Whether it was my failure to produce extroverted bubble and bounce on command, or my persistent inclination towards behavior I had been taught was dysfunctional, I was coming up short no matter what I did.
THAT is what extrovert bias did for, or rather to, me for most of my life, making me feel sick and cowardly for following my own self-healing instincts. Therefore, encountering the notion that pleasure in my own company was not only OK, but that pseudo-extroverting was working against my nature was hugely validating and liberating.
Cain repeatedly refers to careers that do not require much pseudo-extroverting as better options for introverts. Surely her chapter about the intense pressure ivy league colleges exert on all students to behave like high extroverts was criticizing that approach, not advocating it? She recommends science and technology (I would add freelance and/or creative work to that) as fields where introverts can find work environments that suit our personality type. Didn’t she mention her own career in this context? There’s a reason she’s an EX-Wall Street lawyer!
For me, the biggest flaw in Quiet is that Cain doesn’t really distinguish between introversion and high sensory processing sensitivity. A lot of qualities she describes as “introverted” are probably more related to being an HSP. When I started reading other books and blogs by non-HSP introverts, it quickly became apparent that Susan Cain’s introversion differed in several respects from theirs.
This not only confuses the general reading audience about what introversion is, but also keeps her from exploring the amplifications and contradictions of being an HSP + an introvert. For example, I suspect HSP introverts may have more porous social boundaries than non-HSP introverts because of our high empathy and responsiveness to our environment. Sometimes I envy the disinterest non-HSP introverts describe towards people they interact with who are not a part of their social circle (co-workers, service providers, neighbors, etc.). Other times, that indifference seems a little scandalous to me, and all the time, difficult to imagine. Almost all of my social relationships originate from situational contact.
On the other hand, I wonder whether non-HSP introverts may be less daunted when approaching complex and lengthy tasks, as long as there is a peaceful, private environment to work on it and they can self-pace. I’ve been conceiving ambitious projects and immediately feeling crushed by the magnitude of them all my life, which I imagine comes more from my HSP side. Not that all HSPs necessarily experience this to the same degree I do. I suspect family training has a lot to do with how much this aspect of being an HSP manifests in adult life. If I’d been supported in my enthusiasms but taught how to tackle projects one step at a time as a child, I might feel more confident now.
It’s been quite awhile since I read Quiet, and I’m unquestionably biased in its favor, since it had such a transformational effect on my self-perception. However, as I remember it, Cain asserts pretty strongly that the U.S. is heavily biased in favor of extroverts, and that this is both unacceptably harmful to introverts, and a real waste of what we have to offer. When I first read the book, I thought she might be overstating this. However, as I’ve grown more aware of how much I’ve internalized extrovert bias and tried to conform to it, I don’t think that anymore.
Her advice to introverts I understood as strategies to navigate and survive in an extrovert-favoring world, but not as a suggestion that there was anything wrong with how we are, or that we shouldn’t be ourselves. I also thought she was speaking from her HSP side, recognizing that overwhelmed initial reactions are not necessarily an accurate indicator of our capabilities (which is something Elaine Aron also says). I read that as an encouragement to evaluate such reactions rationally so that we don’t underestimate ourselves, not as an invalidation or dismissal of the differing needs of introverts.
There are a couple of things that may explain why Jenna and I reacted so differently to Quiet. One is that she’s known she was an introvert for a long time, so it didn’t have the same life-changing impact for her that it did for me. Another is that it’s difficult to overstate the impact Cain’s book has had, world wide. Understanding of and sympathy for introversion has vastly improved, in just three short years. It was quite audacious, almost inflammatory, for Cain to go as far as she did in advocating for introverts at the time Quiet was published. But then thousands of articles, videos, books, blog posts, TED Talks, research papers, discussions, performances, infographics, and let us not forget the mighty cartoons, followed in the wake of Quiet. The introverts are silent no more. Jenna is reading the book in a vastly different world from the one I read it in.
Last but not least, it has been close to three years since I read the book, and my memory is packed to capacity, so things get smushed together or leak out of it a lot. I’ve taken in a ton of other stuff since then that has informed my perceptions and beliefs about introversion and HSPS. It’s quite possible that some of the insights I attribute to Quiet may have been generated by other sources.
In any event, I continue to encourage HSPs and/or introverts to check it out if they haven’t yet. It’ll be very interesting to see how the conversation about this book evolves as societal perceptions about introverts continue to develop and morph.