Stop Talking

An open letter to extroverts from an introvert

“Stop talking,” said no one ever, to me.

For I am an introvert.

No, I’m not shy. I’m not a bitch, I’m not anti-social, I’m not moody, or upset, and I certainly don’t need you to try to “pull me out of my shell” or help me “snap out of it.” I am quiet. And I wish you would be as well.

Introverts make up 25-30% of the population. Merriam Webster defines introversion as “the act of directing one’s attention toward or getting gratification from one’s own interests, thoughts, and feelings.” True, there is a fair amount of introspection with introverts, but the main difference is the energy source. Introverts get energy from within themselves; extroverts from outside themselves.

For me, silence really is golden. It’s not enough that you stop talking; I don’t like to hear anything at all. A ticking clock can send me over the edge. Someone chomping or popping gum? Oh dear god in heaven. The sound of shoes clipping briskly down the hall, or even worse, the scuffing sound of dragging feet. “PICK THEM UP!” I yell (silently in my head.) Hum? I might hurt you. I’m guessing all these things bother me as much as silence bothers you.

You are just being friendly by making small talk. “People who hum are happy!” You tell me. But, I’m happy too. I’m happy sitting alone in the dark. I’m happy taking long walks alone with no iPod and no distractions. I can sit and read for hours. I can think, gather my thoughts, and then write them down. This makes me happy. So please stop talking to me, trying to draw me out. Better yet, stop talking altogether.

I learned that I was an introvert – and what that means – in my 30’s, from a therapist. When I think about it now, I cannot believe I didn’t know. My life before this knowledge was drastically different than after and I could have saved myself so much angst and turmoil.

Carl Jung was a Swiss psychiatrist who believed people experience the world through different “channels.” He labeled these three channels: Introversion/Extroversion, Sensing/Intuition and Thinking/Feeling. During the Second World War, Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers added a fourth to Jung’s channels – Judging/Perception. There are 16 different combinations a person could have on the Jung/Meyers Briggs scale and different percentages of each one as well. I am an INFJ (Introversion/Intuition/Feeling/Judging) with a score of 100% for introversion.

When I “came out” as an introvert to my mom, she scoffed and immediately blurted, “No you are NOT!” She then proceeded to cry wondering what she had done wrong that I needed therapy. The conversation was initiated when she simply could not grasp the concept of reading a book while on vacation. In her view, we were all together, so we should be either: a) talking, b) doing something (while talking), or c) talking about doing something. And then she brought up Spain again. She has never gotten over a trip to Spain years ago, when I was probably twelve. We were driving from Spain to the rock of Gibraltar and I “had my head buried in a book the whole time!” She always says this with considerable disdain. But books are my sanctuary. I can escape and I have an excuse to be quiet and a reason people should not talk to me.

During the same vacation when I came out as an introvert to my parents, even on a thoughtful drive through the countryside, both of them talked. My mom pointed out road signs, “oh, look, farm fresh squash!” she would say, as if we couldn’t see or read the sign ourselves. Every few miles my dad would say, “Boy, it sure is beautiful out here.” They simply couldn’t bear to let more than a few moments of silence pass.

My therapist told me about Dr. John Gottman’s “bids” for emotional attention. Gottman is known for his work in relationship analysis and he says people send out bids for attention, and the responses determine the strength and status of a relationship. The other person will turn toward, turn away, or turn against the bid. In this particular car ride, I noticed that my parents turned toward each other. I turned against both of them. My internal dialogue was volatile. And it often is. I think one key thing you should know about us is while we may be quiet on the outside, we are likely yelling obscenities on the inside. One of my go-to inside rants is, naturally, “STOP.TALKING.” And it isn’t personal. Well, not usually. It also depends on my mood, and how much I have previously been drained by interaction that day.

The first time I said “stop talking” out loud was after my 20-year high school reunion. I was hung over and wiped out from talking to hundreds of people for hours the night before. My friend Julie called and went on, and on, and on. I did not speak. Finally there was a brief lull in her conversation. I managed to softly croak “stop talking.” At that time, those were the only words I could say and it mustered up considerable strength for me to get them out.

There have been times in my life when I have been so drained that I literally could not talk. If someone asked me a question, I was not able to answer. This was before I was “diagnosed;” now that I know what I need to take care of myself I will never let it get to that point again.

Many of you equate introversion with shyness. I’m not shy; I just don’t like to speak unless it means something. I don’t like crowds of people or groups of any size because it’s difficult to have in-depth conversations in that type of setting. My husband has some social anxiety issues. He doesn’t like large gatherings either, but for different reasons. People who have social anxiety, or who are shy, will get nervous when having to talk to people, especially if they don’t know them well. I’m not nervous at all; I just don’t like it. I would love to sit down with one or two people and talk for hours about something interesting, emotional, and meaningful, but even 15 minutes of small talk and I’m drained.

My mom’s denial of my introversion stemmed from a misunderstanding of what introversion means. She thought that since I’m outgoing, I am an extrovert. But those terms are not interchangable. You might have an inaccurate impression of me as well. People who don’t know me think that I’m serious and reserved. Sure, I can be reserved until I know you well, but I’m rarely serious. I am a goofy, smart-ass, downright immature person. I used to have a major crush on a college professor. He wrote me a letter of reference after graduation that had a line in it that I still remember fondly. “What at first seems a rather reserved demeanor” he said, “hid a droll wit and sparkling sense of humor.”

“Quiet, serious, reserved” may be common labels for introverts, but what makes us introverts is where we draw our energy. Some of us are loud and fun and crazy and the life of the party. But then we go home and sequester in a dark room alone for days recharging. That is the difference.

Time is precious to us, in different ways than it is to you. We need to plan, not because we keep to a schedule, but because we need time to emotionally prepare for interaction with people, especially a lot of people. Don’t throw us a surprise party. And please do not “add in” others when you’ve have made a plan with an introvert.

Relationships are important to us and a priority. And we are consummate secret-keepers because we truly value the concept of privacy. We want to listen to you and get to know the authentic you. Often that involves you letting us into a deeper place, and we do not take that privilege lightly. Please do not announce our secrets to the world. If we tell you something, it is in confidence unless we say otherwise.

We shy from the spotlight. We are often quiet and don’t draw attention to ourselves. We rarely even wear bright clothing. I had someone say to me once, “You know, if there were different shades of black, you would have variety in your wardrobe.” Please don’t put us on the spot. We will tell you our story in our own time.

As much as we like to blend in, this can result in being overlooked. In social settings I tend to meet extroverts whom I have met before but you don’t remember me. I’m forgettable, and that is OK with me. But I remember you. I may not be the best with names but I remember people I have met before, even briefly. As an introvert I am on the outskirts soaking everything in while you extroverts flit around the party happily chatting to any and all, but rarely committing these interactions to memory.

This is also OK.

I am, and always will be, grateful to you. Please continue to pick up the slack of a conversation. Let me sit there silently, fully absorbed in the conversation, but not having any interest in actively partaking in it. In return, when you don’t remember me, I will politely pretend I haven’t met you before, just as I pretend I don’t know all of your deepest, darkest secrets, told to me by your friend who is flitting about the party.

You need people and external stimuli to function just as much as we need to get away from those same stimuli to function. Some of you are what I call “over-lappers” in your relationships – you have another already lined up before you get out of one relationship – there is not even one day where you are alone. When I think about that, I feel fortunate that I am an introvert. We get lonely too, and we want to be around people, but just not as much as you. I was happy being single. I am happy being married too, but I found a person who respects my needs and doesn’t take it personally when I need to be alone.

And I need to be alone often.

In a world where people don’t stop talking, I am grateful that I finally started. Now that I understand who I am and what that means, I am able to tell you what I need. I can simply say I need to be alone. Or that I will drive separately and meet you at a party. Or that I will visit you but stay at a hotel instead of your house. I make sure that I take care of myself and am able to recharge. I no longer force myself to try to be like you and fit into your world. I allow myself to just be me.

Now, if I could only get you to stop talking once in a while.

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