Today’s psychology-based article digs into why I act the way I do in social situations. It was an eye-opener for me to write (and rewrite), and I hope it inspires you to think about your own social coping strategies as well!
I enjoy being around people about 5,000 times more than I enjoy being alone with no one to contact (unless I’m very sick or very tired, and even then I still hate suffering alone). When something happens to me, I want to talk about it; I want to share my experiences, I want to hear what others have to say. I feel my most alive, my most vibrant, when I am part of a loud, boisterous conversation or group music/dance performance, where the emotional energy pings back and forth between us all at lightning speeds, and the more energy you give to the gloriously chaotic situation, the more you have.
But I realize my way of life is not the way everyone lives–because I love an introvert.
I certainly don’t begrudge introverts their chosen way of living. I just couldn’t survive living as my boyfriend does; I would literally go batpoo crazy being alone all the time, not speaking up as much, not being as active in social gatherings. It’s just not how my brain or emotions work, but I love him and so I try to understand as much as I can. However, there are some things he does that are classic “introvert” behaviors, which I’ve had the hardest time understanding.
This article is written as the “other side of the coin” to “How to piss off an introvert”. We extroverts are people, too, and sometimes introverted behaviors are agitating to us. (I wouldn’t go so far as to say they “piss me off,” but I definitely get worried!) Here are 3 of the most worrying introvert behaviors, PLUS a handy cheat sheet to figuring out the extrovert(s) in your life!
Worrisome Introvert Behavior #1: The Flat “Mugshot” Expression at Parties
It’s really hard to enjoy a party when you spot somebody else sitting off by themselves who looks like they would rather be enduring a root canal. I don’t know if this goes for all extroverts or if it’s just me, but seeing somebody with that expression immediately dampens my enjoyment. I’m a “fixer” and a “nurturer,” so my immediate instinct is to go over and see what’s wrong, because obviously something’s wrong if they’re sitting there unsmiling!
Before you start arguing with me in your head, I know the counter-argument already, because my boyfriend and I have gone back and forth (jokingly) about this many times. You’re “not mad,” and you “don’t hate everything and everyone at the party.” But it sure looks like it! You look like you could be on America’s Most Wanted with that face! How am I not supposed to worry and not assume that something’s wrong? And most of all, how can I leave you alone without worrying that you’re not enjoying yourself (which makes me feel like I’m ignoring your needs and being a really bad person)?
Worrisome Introvert Behavior #2: The “Silent Treatment”
Imagine this scenario: you have been riding silently in the car with me for 45 minutes. I have tried every small-talk conversation tactic I know, talking about the most interesting things I can, asking questions, trying to draw you out so that I can communicate with you and enjoy your different perspective on things. But no matter what I do, you stare straight ahead, not replying or adding anything to the conversation, and yet insist, when questioned, that you’re not mad at me.
This happens with more people than just my boyfriend–many of the introverts I’ve met in my life have done this, and I end up confused and agitated because I don’t know what to do or say to reach them. One thing about extroverts: we show love through communication. If we don’t like you, we don’t talk to you. If I’m bothering to try to talk to you, it means I really want to get to know you, and I want to make the best impression possible. It doesn’t mean that I’m trying to talk your ear off or see how annoying I can be in 10 minutes. I just want human contact, and introverts are exotic, because y’all don’t talk a whole lot but you usually have something awesome to say when you do.
OK, OK, maybe not all of us extroverts are as paranoid about losing friends as I am, but you get the point. You sitting there in silence makes me feel like I’ve done something wrong, and I start getting desperate for ways to fix whatever I’ve done. (Which usually leads to more blathering as I hunt for something, ANYTHING to say to reconnect with them, and I end up bothering the heck out of them without meaning to.) This is extrovert torture supreme!
Worrisome Introvert Behavior #3: Spending Lots of Time Alone
Being alone, to an extrovert, is punishment, plain and simple. A solitary extrovert is like a device that ought to be able to connect to the Internet but can’t. How much can you do on an iPhone that can’t make calls and can’t get on the Internet, for instance? NOT MUCH! Same with extroverts; we literally don’t know what to do with ourselves without others around. We might be able to get a few things done around the house or attempt to read a book/watch a movie, but it’s just not as interesting without someone else there to talk to. (Internet or text communications only partly alleviate this; face-to-face communication time is the best.)
So, when an introvert (like my awesome boyfriend) says they want some time alone, it’s an instinctive shock. You mean you actually WANT to be alone? You mean I can’t spend time with you at ALL? Am I that draining that you have to get away from me?
You think I’m exaggerating, but for the first couple of years of our relationship, I battled against these feelings every time my “wub” said he needed alone time. I actually worked myself into a full-blown anxiety attack once, lying there alone in my bedroom, nauseated and dizzy, scared to death he was going to call any minute and break up with me because he wanted even MORE “alone time.” I didn’t yet understand that the request for alone time had nothing to do with me; it terrified me because I thought it held a lot more significance than it did.
Maybe not every extrovert is terrified of losing relationships, but we still worry. When we like people, we want to spend time with them. And introverts are usually amazing people who have vastly different perspectives on life. Y’all are fascinating and interesting–and then suddenly, you deprive us of your wonderful selves because you say you need “alone time.” Know what that translates to in extrovert-ese? “REJECTION.” Like I said, if extroverts don’t like you, we’ll avoid you. When you choose not to be around us, we may just interpret that as “you don’t like us.” The resulting emotional state we end up in resembles the dog pound scene from Lady and the Tramp:
How to Put Our Minds at Ease
The two ways of life I’ve described here, however, do not have to be diametrically opposed or hostile to each other. Here are the best ways to put our extrovert brains at ease:
- Take a little time to explain in words what you need from us as a friend or significant other. I recognize that introverts have different emotional needs, but extroverts won’t magically understand those needs without some communication. If something we’re doing is bugging you, we need to know.
- Suggest things we can do together that aren’t so mentally draining for you. If you hate going out to parties because they exhaust you, for instance, would there perhaps be a happy middle ground of “being social without being in public”, like hanging out and watching movies at home?
- Extroverts aren’t less mature than introverts; we simply relate to others differently.
- Extroverts are usually other-focused and thus concerned about others’ emotional welfare, especially in social situations. If you don’t look happy, we feel like bad friends/significant others for not ensuring that you’re having a good time.
- Extroverts use conversation as the primary way to show love and/or friendship. If you’re silent, our main means of showing you we care about you is shut down.
- Extroverts choose to spend time with those they love and appreciate. If you want alone time, it literally requires a mindset-shift for us to not read that as rejection.
- Extroverts just want to be friendly, and sometimes that gets misread as “annoying.” Just a little explanation, however, can stop us from blathering around trying to find out what’s wrong!
We all cope with society in various ways. Some of us use our smartphones to avoid conversations with strangers; some of us prefer the Internet to face-to-face communications. We are individuals roaming through a sea of more individuals, and most of us actively try to avoid threats and pass the time as peacefully as possible.
I’m certainly one of those who avoids conflict and threats as much as possible. I don’t like to be in or near fights; conflict makes me VERY uncomfortable. Thus, I find myself using certain coping strategies to make myself a non-threatening individual, to dissuade people from trying to harm me, and to maintain friendships. These are not entirely selfless strategies; I often do these things to keep my own sanity (or what I have left of it) more than anything.
Below are the social strategies I find myself using all the time, to maintain my social role as a “helper” and a non-threat.
#1: Saying “sorry” all the time
I’ve done this for so long that it’s become an instinct. Any time anything happens, whether it’s really my fault or not, I end up saying “sorry,” either to express regret or to express compassion. The slightly twisted reasoning behind it: if I say “sorry” enough, people might understand that I commiserate with them, and thus are more inclined to see me in a positive light later on.
#2: Being helpful
If I help someone, I boost them up–as well as boosting my own feelings of self-worth. Helping that person may also lead to them having a positive memory of me, making them less likely to harm me or act against me in the future.
#3: Being emotional
Though it seems counter-intuitive, this is also a coping strategy. I had to dig a while in my consciousness for this reasoning, but from what I’ve been able to gather, becoming overly emotional means that others are moved to help me calm down, forgetting for a moment their own gripes with each other. (I have actually done this quite often in situations where a group needs to pull together to make it through–I somehow express the stress of the rest of the group, and we end up becoming a more solid unit as a result.)
#4: Forgiving quickly (or at least saying that I have)
If I forgive quickly, I am perceived as somehow a “better” person–though I confess sometimes that I can’t forgive as easily as the words spring to my mouth. (That’s a hard thing to realize about myself.)
#5: Staying quiet when I have a minor complaint
I don’t like to make a “big scene” and will stay quiet rather than being assertive. Reason: I don’t want to be seen as a nag or as a bothersome person.
What I’ve Learned from Exploring My Coping Strategies
All of the above strategies focus around others seeing me as someone they want to be around, someone they want to help, and someone that they look on with favor. This is related heavily to my experience of severe loneliness early in my school life, which shaped me more than I wish to admit. My way of dealing with threats, usually in the form of another person who is more aggressive, is to make sure they do not perceive me as a similar threat. Only then can I have some semblance of peace, since I have maintained harmonious relationships with them.
Coping strategies are the unconscious tricks we all use to maneuver in society, but sometimes they don’t always function the way we intend. One reason I posted this is because I have to dig into why I act the way I do in order to change the malfunctioning strategies–for certain, I can’t go around the workplace crying every time I feel threatened!
Learning about our inner emotional workings is a freeing and somewhat disturbing experience, one that has helped me get a better handle on who I am and who I am becoming. Try it for yourself–what’s really making you act the way you do in certain social situations? You might just learn something really interesting about yourself in the process!