talking the talk

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This is a bit different from what I typically read and review. I don't often read non-fiction, but when my mom got this out of the library and I read the inside flap, I knew I would have to give it a shot. It sounded like something I could relate to and possibly benefit from and it was. As soon as I started it, I was totally engrossed. And as I made my way through the entire thing, I felt like I was learning more and more about myself.

My whole life I've been an introvert. I keep to myself more than the people around me do. I tend to prefer reading/writing to partying. I'm very self-conscious about speaking; when I talk in front of a bunch of unfamiliar people, I stumble over my words and blush and feel like a moron hence, I usually opt not to speak at all unless someone forces me to and/or speaks to me first.

I've grown used to labels like "shy" and "quiet," to the rude questions like "Can you talk", "Do you speak English", and "Have you been in this class the whole year" The confrontations and notes from teachers/professors are expected by now. "You need to speak up more in class," "Don't be shy!" etc.

Just thinking about it right now makes me want to punch a wall. People act as if it's some magical switch I can turn on and off. They think I don't talk much because I'm incompetent, because I'm lazy, because I'm a bitch, because I think I'm better than everyone else. People who know me well can see I'm none of those things (at least, I hope I'm not), but for a lot of people it seems to be a challenge to understand that. It's not that I blame them, because I think it's hard to comprehend what it's like to be an introvert if you haven't experienced it yourself. But still, it's frustrating.

What makes being an introvert so hard is that--especially in the US--we are held up to what Susan Cain calls the "Extrovert Ideal." That is, we are told our whole lives that the "ideal" person is an extrovert--outgoing, confident, well-spoken, etc. Extroverted people are thought of as being more important, more authoritative, and more attractive. If you are a shy, you are more likely to be seen as weak, a pushover, a bad leader, an awkward/unattractive person. We're constantly told that in order to succeed, we need to stand up for ourselves, push others out of the way, be the loudest, take the most risks. If you're a shy/introverted person, you are constantly told that you need to change--that if you continue to be quiet, you're never going to get anywhere in life. You won't get a good job, you won't succeed, no one will want to date you ... you name it.

Needless to say, I hate being shy. I'm tired of always being told that I need to speak up more, that I just have to be more confident. It's like, do you think I want to be this way Do you think I enjoy not being able to say what I want to say, that I feel totally idiotic every time I open my mouth, that I don't even want people to look at me because I'm so self-conscious Trust me, if I could, I would be more confident. If I could just shut off all the thoughts in my head, I would gladly speak up more often.

But I've always felt like my brain just wasn't wired that way. People act as if it's as easy as just speaking up, that the leap from being introverted to being extraverted is as easy as, "You know what I'm just not going to be shy today! Yay!"

And yeah. It's not like that at all. It's like, when I'm surrounded by people I don't (or only barely) know, I just go on lockdown. My mind doesn't generate things to say. My mouth refuses to open. I just completely freeze up. And it's not that I don't want to participate in the conversation. I wish talking was easy for me. I do want to contribute. Yet, there's this voice in my head telling me to not say anything, and to just sit back and observe.

So, obviously, this is a very frustrating trait to have. It holds me back in a lot of social situations. I have trouble making friends (although I do have friends, so don't worry). I've managed to live for two decades without ever having a boyfriend. My grades have suffered. So on and so forth.

I've struggled with this my whole life, I constantly beat myself up about it I've always wondered what the hell was wrong with me. Why couldn't I just magically gain some confidence Why couldn't I just suck it up and be a more social person

I've spent my whole life trying to find something to blame, some reason why I've always been like this. Is it because I'm part of a large family, and therefore I've always felt like I should just keep my problems to myself Is it because I grew up in such an academically competitive town where there was too much pressure to be the star student

Of course, there must be various contributing factors. But according to Cain's book, it may be due more to nature than to nurture than we may think.

Cain discusses several studies that relate introversion/extroversion to sensitivity. And apparently, people with more active amygdalae--a part of the brain that plays a significant role in processing memory and emotional reactions--are far more likely to be introverts. People fall roughly into two groups: "high reactive" and "low reactive." If you are a more high reactive individual, you are more likely to:

- React more strongly to stimuli--new sounds, meeting new people, seeing disturbing images, etc.
- Be more empathetic towards other people
- Be very observational, notice small details
- React more emotionally to artwork/music/books/etc.
- Be more prone to emotional problems like anxiety/depression
- Be very sensitive about what other people think of you, and therefore become timid in social situations where you don't know many people

This isn't to say, of course, that more low reactive people don't experience these things, it's just that it tends to happen on a lower scale for them because their amygdalae are not as sensitive. Also, high reactive does not automatically equal introverted and low reactive doesn't automatically equal extroverted, but research suggests a strong correlation between the two traits.

But what's most important to realize about levels of reactivity is that they can't be controlled. Cain discusses one study in which infants were tested for how reactive they were to stimuli--and a majority of high-reactive infants grew up to be introverts, while the low-reactive infants tended to grow up to be extroverts. It's studies such as these that suggest we don't choose introversion or extroversion; they are built into our DNA.

One can easily fake one or the other. That is, you can be an introvert and still speak a lot and socialize frequently--it's just that, as an introvert, you will be more drained by social interaction. Because introverts are often more high-reactive individuals and therefore react more strongly to stimuli, a room of new faces is much more exhausting to process than it would be for someone who is more low-reactive.

I could go on and on about this, but of course--if you want to learn more, I highly suggest reading this book. There's a lot of fascinating information about the subject.

Quiet seriously changed the way I think about myself. I still dislike being shy and introverted for many reasons. But after reading this, I also know that I might not have the same creative and observant traits that I have now, if I were extroverted instead. And more importantly, I know that it isn't my fault for being this way--and that millions of people face the same struggle that I do. I don't know if I can say that I really accept who I am, at least not yet. But at least I feel like I understand it a lot better.

Over all, I think this book is well-written and well-researched, and Cain narrates it with heart and humor--drawing from her own experience as an introvert alongside her studies of the subject. I thought Quiet was brilliant, and I recommend it to introverts and extroverts alike.



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