Try putting that on a dating profile or resume, I dare you. Because if sharp, speedy, extroverts are the rockstars of the world, where exactly does that leave the rest of us?
Of course we don’t all fit neatly or even consistently into one personality type or another. Myers Briggs questions when I was 6, would most likely have resulted in responses such as, “What? Sorry were you talking? I was staring at that cloud thinking it looked like an upside down elephant eating donuts.” A strong INFP. A few years of trying to pass exams, get jobs, earn money and not be a social misfit, and I started to answer those questions more along the lines of, “Yes I love to be around people all the time, and I very much like to know what the plan is.” I’d twisted myself into being an ENFJ in order to try to survive. In my 40’s, I’m reconnecting with the donut-eating elephants. In other words, I think that when we’re inhabiting our true, rather than adapted selves, we all have strong tendencies in one direction or another, even if those tendencies are changeable according to age or circumstance. But I can’t remember the last time I heard someone speak with reverence about a quiet personality who needs a lot of alone time, or someone generally quite slow in the way they process life. So this is my love letter to you people, myself included. Because we are not the surface dwellers. We are the ones who have been called to drop below. We are astronauts of inner space, and we are rockstars too (insert fist pump.)
If you have ever been called to grow a thicker skin, not to take everything so seriously, lighten up, speed up, stop being so sensitive, get over it, move on, stop isolating, be more sociable, you get the picture, then I’d like to present you with a possibly new or different perspective...What if all that sensitivity, that need for a slower pace, or a need to stay present with something for a longer period of time than just skimming over it, is because you were called to do something in the field of change, transformation or innovation, even if that field is just the business of being you.
When I think of vocations that require a slow, sensitive and consistently inquisitive mind, I think of inventors, researchers, all kinds of therapists, scientists, creatives, empaths, reformers, code-breakers, explorers, parents, the list is endless. Because all of these people need patience, the capacity to spend long stretches of time alone, or to be extremely present for that which they are spending time with, whether it’s a patient, a slide under a microscope or a child. Often there is a deep need for compassion and empathy, or to be able to drop below the surface and to see the deeper dimensions of the picture. Code-breakers need to see patterns, as do psychotherapists, not something you can generally see at first glance. Inventors and effective reformers need patience and tenacity. Imagine if they’d told Thomas Edison to hurry up and get on with it. (Actually I think they did, but he didn’t listen.)
I never tested well in school because of the clock element. Classrooms didn’t really work for me because of the need to incorporate a lot of other energy, and to get the information and move on. By the time I graduated high school, it would have been easy to mistake me as a slightly below average student. But truthfully, my personality just wasn’t a fit for that type of learning environment. I was incredibly fortunate however, when I was around 9- years-old, to be put into a class with only 5 other students. It gave me a brief glimpse of my true capacity. I blossomed in that room. It was peaceful, and more able to cater to my slow speed. Ironically by the time I graduated into a new and bigger class, I was way ahead of my classmates, and spent a year relearning everything I already knew. Because speed doesn’t equal more.
I’m forever grateful for that time because I came to see what my ideal working conditions look like. In my 30’s, with no formal qualifications for entry, I gained a place at University to do an undergrad in Creative Writing. I was supposedly ‘behind’ the other students because I’d left high school at 17, but the learning style suited me, i.e. lectures, personal research and very little interaction. I graduated 3 years later with great results. After that, I took a low responsibility job on a TV drama, in the hopes that the less I had to think about during those 8 office hours, the more free I would be to focus on writing at night and on weekends. The result was that I spent more or less 7 years beating myself up for not writing. Why? Because I had no idea that I was an introvert, and that after 8 hours of sitting in a large, energetic production office, filled with people and social interaction, I was so energetically drained that the only thing I had the capacity for at the end of the day was food, tv and sleep, the same way I imagine an extrovert would feel if they spent the day working at home alone.
So after years of working in these environments, when I left to try working alone in a room I was nervous, because I’d forgotten about those ideal working conditions that I was created for. I don’t get lonely, I’m not isolated, I’m free. I’m energised by the space and the quiet, as all true introverts are. And I can work. Productively.
Because I was born a slow, quiet, introvert, but I had adapted myself to try to fit into social and working environments that I was never meant for. I became louder, more outgoing, more vocal, faster, less sensitive, and harder. Much of this was simply the abandonment of my feminine energy in order to try to 'toughen up' for the working world or in an attempt to become a supposedly independent woman. It was a mess, and it has been a long road home. Life started to send me introverted friends who knew how to take the alone time they needed. I thought that something was wrong with them until I realised they were giving themselves something that I had lost the capacity to give to myself. They needed time out to reenergize, process and regroup. Then my beautiful Goddaughter arrived, and she, like I once had, wanted to do things alone. Not always, but often. It was the perfect reminder that this was an innate state of being, not a symptom of social dysfunction. It was a gift with a purpose.
So the question I’m coming to ask myself now is, “Why was I born this way?” Rather than, “Why oh why was I born with this disability that doesn’t fit the world we live in, something the world often seems to want to cure me of?”
Here are some of the answers I have so far. My tendency to feel deeply does not allow me to tolerate living out of alignment with integrity, my potential, my truth, or accountability for my own life. The pain becomes too much, too fast. I have to change, do the work, take the risk and own my choices. It also allows me to deeply empathise with others.
Being slow allows me to see more detail, be more present and to experience and integrate more deeply. When a movie director or writer wants us to really see, or feel some element of story or character, even if it’s just to really see the beauty of of a thing, they often slow the film down or the dialogue stops. In that space we become far more present for what we’re witnessing. That’s how my brain (in its admittedly rarely uncaffeinated state) works, more or less all the time. And slow does that for everyone. Everything becomes heightened, the experience becomes richer. It allows for more intimacy . It allows for a deeper experience of everything.
My comfort with being alone has allowed me to enjoy extensive solo travelling, move abroad to places where I don’t know anyone, enjoy a vocation that requires me, for the most part, to be alone, and to easily navigate times of being single or away from friends and family for any reason at all. It’s liberating, and I was born this way. The irony is, that if you ask anyone who really knows me, they would most likely describe me as being very sociable with a lot of friends. And I am, and I do. Being an introvert isn’t about being a weird hermit or even being shy or fragile any more than being slow is about being unintelligent or developmentally challenged. One of my favourite introverts in the world throws the best parties of anyone I know. He has an incredible gift for bringing people together and creating an atmosphere that’s always fun and filled with his creative gifts for food, ambiance and putting compatible people together in a room. All of the gifts that make him a sensitive, creative, deeply thinking soul. Introversion then is about how and where you get your energy. Like many introverts, mine comes from solitude and silence. And it’s where I work things out, whether it be work related or any other aspect of life. Untimed, alone and quiet is when my super powers kick in.
And now to send out some love to all the speedy extroverts I can’t live without. You think on your feet, you love karaoke, you’re great in a time crunch, or a crisis. You don’t need to think about it too much, or see how you feel to get to an answer or a solution, so you just get it done. You can make choices in the moment. You draw me out of myself when I retreat too far. You pull me onto the dance-floor when I hesitate. You push me to publicly speak when I feel too exposed. I teach you how to eat in restaurants alone, or take solo beach walks, or just how to sit quietly. I teach you to stay with the feelings and to smell the roses or how to follow your heart. You teach me to just go for it and to worry about all that other stuff later. But we don’t need to be each other, we just need each other.
So the next time you see me at a party sitting alone, people watching, please don’t mistake me for being shy or antisocial or not having a great time. I’m probably having the time of my life, making up stories about who and what I’m seeing, loving that song that just came on, waiting for the next extrovert to show up and tell me their story. And if you’ve just offered me a new piece of information, no matter what the setting, and I become quiet and sort of glaze over, it means that I am very interested in what you’ve just said. I’m not bored or dismissing you, I am in fact utterly engaged. It’s just that you said something that is so compelling for me, that I want to take it away for a day or so and ruminate and think it over and see what it feels like and what I want to do with it. It’s something that feels rich in possibility to me, and I want to find out what that possibility is. And please don't mistake my speed as a reflection of my intelligence or my skill or as having anything to do with the likelihood of me succeeding or getting to where I'm going. It's just that I travel by feeling my way through and integrating every single second of my experience, which takes time. And because I'm constantly sifting out what is true for me and what isn't, because I'm too sensitive to carry anything that isn't mine, and because I have too much ground I want to cover, which means I need to travel light.
Natalie Peatfield is a British Writer commenting on current topics with humor, heart and a fresh, mindful perspective. You can find more of her writing at her blog Travelling Light - www.nataliepeatfield.com