Talking more isn't always the answer.
My teenage daughter just left for a week to Kiawah Island with her best friend, her dad, and stepmother. As they pulled away from our driveway to go to the airport, I fought back tears, knowing that it would be easier for her if she looked back and saw me smiling.
Many people call me “overprotective,” but I don’t care, and it does not inform my parenting. My sweetie was born six weeks early, and though she spent only a few hours in the NICU, she did emerge highly sensory sensitive. I had to endure years of people telling me to just “let her deal with it” and “you’re babying her” as I adapted and modified her environment to assist her to ease into the world.
I will forever be indebted to two people: the former OT (Occupational Therapist) at the elementary school where I work and my daughter’s 3-year-old preschool teacher. They were the only two people in our lives who had answers and support, not judgment and moral advice. The OT informally diagnosed her with sensory processing disorder (which, up until that point, I had never heard of) and put her on the Wilbarger Brushing Protocol. It changed her/our lives.
The brushing protocol consisted of three times daily dry-brushing of her arms and legs with a surgical scrub brush, along with joint compressions. I watched the relief and anxiety wash away day after day as we used the protocol. She started gagging less on food and started requesting Lunchables and fruit snacks—just like those her preschool friends had in their lunches. No more mandarin oranges and cottage cheese. She began to wear shorts and short sleeves. Prior to that, when I’d try to force her into summer clothing for the summer months, she would scream bloody murder, crying that the “air was hurting” her. She began to sleep through the night. Prior to that, she would wake 5-6 times a night crying for me.
And then there was “Miss Angela,” her angel of a preschool teacher. I still get choked up when I write her name. This woman loved who my daughter was. She accepted her copious tears of missing me, let her carry her yellow blankie everywhere for the entire school day, and knew that time, love, and patience (and the brushing protocol) would allow her to grow beyond those needs. And my daughter did.
And now, I am here, practicing staying—practicing for when she goes off to college. She told me last night, she was most worried that I would just be in a corner, crying, not eating or drinking. I hate that she thinks that of me… Is that who I am to her?
So this week, I need to return to my “before kid” life. Where will I go? What will I do? I need to have stories for her so that she knows it’s okay to leave.
And I need to do those things so I know it’s okay for her to leave and for me to stay.
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I’m 20 years old, and I’m a Portuguese student about to move to Cambridge, UK, to study drama. I hold a vast world inside of my mind. There were times when I was alone in my home and I’d start imagining myself somewhere else, imagining as if there was a perfect place just for me. And that’s when I’d feel agony because I didn’t feel right where I was. I would cry over that, that strange feeling of dis-belonging, a need to run away from everything I knew and enter into something or some place that would perfectly fulfill me. It was a utopia, of course. My daily anxious feelings don’t help either—every thought of self-doubt consumes me every single time.
Then, the performing arts came as a sort of liberation in my life. With every drama group I’d join, every time I would step on stage, the voice that was locked inside me screaming to get out was finally and wildly released on a theater stage. It was as if I was telling the world: “I’m here. I belong here.”
Though I’m reserved socially and speak only when I truly think I have something important to say, when I’m about to perform in front of a big audience, nothing holds me back. I’m not afraid of their reactions; in fact, I want reactions. I’m not afraid of being eccentric or even obscene. I’m being seen and heard, and I love it.
As I’m growing up, there are decisions about life to be made and day-to-day activities to be done, and there is little time to torture myself with these thoughts of self-doubt that creep into my mind. But I’m not going to lie, they are still there, every single day—only it’s up to me to not be my own enemy and listen to them.
Instead, I’ve decided to make my life’s journey joyful. I will not listen to the self-doubt if I can help it. And now, I’m taking the next step towards joy by moving to the UK to graduate as an artist, to work as one, and travel a lot.
Am I afraid of going forward? Hell, yes. But the fear doesn’t overshadow my strong desire to see what I can make of my path, of where I can go, and of what I can conquer. I’m pursuing my dream, I’m going to learn and to discover. And sometimes, I will still be alone with myself and with that screaming feeling of dissatisfaction. But other times, I will get out of my head and just go, probably always in pursuit of that place that doesn’t exist, that feeling of complete fulfillment that probably will never come. And that’s okay because I don’t know anyway what I would do if I found it.
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I’m Manuela Ribeiro, an introvert living in Portugal. I was raised in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). I went to school there, and I had an English education. After my dad’s death, I found myself flying into Portugal at the age of 12. Many things have happened in my life, and what amazes me is that all this time I thought I was different, and now I realize I was right.
As a young girl, I felt ashamed of being quiet. My mother was always comparing me to other noisy kids and wishing that I could be like them once in awhile. Books were my best friends, and all I wanted to do was to stay in the library and read, read, read. I liked music and dancing, and I could be funny and playful, but only in very small groups.
Despite all odds, I always lived according to my values, and I felt this invisible strength inside me. There was this courage, this inner silent power that kept me going. When I focused on something, I didn’t stop till I achieved it. Many times I was misunderstood: people picked on me and called me a snob (among other names). Although it hurt, I knew I had the power to carry on, and I did. Two years ago, I decided to become a Certified Coach, which I did. And right after that, I wrote my first book, Desistir Não É Opção (Giving Up Isn’t an Option), which was self-published.
Now, here is the thing: People who truly know me know I’m an introvert. But I can tell you that people I meet can’t tell the difference unless I’m in a very big group or at a party. That’s when others might be able to see my more introverted side kick in. I like observing, asking questions, and going outside a party now and then to restore my level of energy.
I believe one day, I will be on a stage speaking to lots of people about my book, and I’m taking the necessary steps for that to happen. So, you see, introverts are resilient people always full of surprises—never to be underestimated.
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I’m a writer. As a general rule, I write in silence. I find it impossible to pour my thoughts out onto paper when I am surrounded by noise—not even soft music playing in the background. Life would certainly be easier if my pen and I could function harmoniously while the noise of the world carried on around me, but the reality is that noise distracts me, taking my mind off my work. I need quiet for my thoughts to flow and peace to write them down.
My son harbors the same need, but unlike me, he doesn’t have any control over his working environment. He sits in a classroom with nearly 30 other children. He has to focus on his sums, read instructions, and complete tasks while all around him his classmates chatter with or whisper to each other, shuffle around, drop things, consult with the teacher, or demonstratively vie for his attention.
My son is distracted by this classroom noise, and he loses his train of thought; his concentration ebbs. His frustration builds because he’s a conscientious student who cannot meet his own high expectations. The level of the work is within his reach; the quiet he needs to concentrate is not. He falls behind on his tasks. He shuts down. And he says nothing to his teacher. He feels helpless. He feels inadequate. He feels like a failure. His self-esteem is quashed. But he stays quiet.
Quiet doesn’t mean he’s okay.
Other children draw attention to themselves like magnets with their noise and disruptive behavior. Teachers have no choice but to react. Quiet children, like my son, fade away in classrooms all over the world. Children like my son feel lost in the learning spaces filled with chatter, fidgeting, and distractions—the very environments that are set up to nurture them and help them blossom. Their learning is impeded. Bright students doubt themselves. Enthusiastic pupils lose their hunger to learn.
There are no tell-tale signs on my child’s face that he is struggling. His head is down, and from the outside, he seems focused as if he is working devotedly on his schoolwork. It’s a brilliant façade that hides his racing mind, which is frantically trying to process the overload of sensory input that engulfs him.
His introverted nature means he won’t purposefully draw attention to himself—he won’t scream for help even when he needs it most.
Instead, he’ll muddle on as best he can, bottling up his emotions, frustrations, and struggles until he gets home. As he crosses that threshold of safety, comes in through the front door of our home, he releases what he has kept corked up during his school day: there’s an explosion of big emotions. It may take the form of fat uncontrollable tears, or anger, or aggression, or a wordless retreat to a safe haven to be alone.
I can take my son in my arms, hold him, and let him know I understand how he feels. I can let him know I have his back, that he’s in safe hands, and that he can let go of his emotions. And I can listen.
I can keep the dialogue open with those whose role it is to educate him. I can keep talking, but lessening the dim in the classroom seems an impossible ask. I don’t have the power to conjure up the quiet he needs in the place he needs it most..
So, you’re in a room full of people at a party. Someone approaches you (or you approach someone for some reason). You don’t feel anxiety, and you don’t feel shy. You can normally talk to that other person as if you’ve known them for years. That’s the extroverted part of you. After a couple of minutes of nice chit-chat, that person goes away. Minutes pass, you’re standing/sitting alone. You have no urge to communicate with others. You take a sip of what you’re drinking, watch the crowd, listen to the music, and eat food. No one approaches you, and you’re glad. You kind of wish you’ve stayed home and watched movies. That’s the introverted part. The moment someone does approach you, your little extrovert wakes up. Again, you communicate with no boundaries whatsoever.
It sounds great to be an extroverted introvert, doesn’t it?
Nope. Not always.
First of all, people don’t understand. You go out to parties, and you sing and dance and mingle with people, and all of a sudden, in everybody’s eyes, you’re an extrovert. The moment you decline a couple of invitations to some concerts or parties, people start gossiping that you’re “getting weird.” They ask you if you’re feeling fine. They judge you for not going out when they thought you would. That’s the worst part. I mean, sometimes you enjoy reading (a bad) book more than going to (a bad) concert, and that’s fine. And sometimes, they will understand. But mostly, they won’t.
How extroverts see you is really funny. Friday and Saturday nights are just not your thing sometimes. You try your best not to set off negative vibes in those days, but it often seems as if you fail at it. For you, it’s just too crowded and too noisy. You pray to God some of your friends will get bored soon. But they don’t. And you can’t leave them all of a sudden. It’s hard to explain to the extroverts that you, who likes concerts and being with a lot of friends, are feeling anxious.
How introverts see you is even funnier. You’re something like their PR manager. You completely understand their anxieties and how frightened they are when they need to communicate with the world. We all feel it sometimes. So, from time to time, you take it as your duty to communicate with the outer world when they don’t feel like it. Honestly, it’s really nice to have someone with whom you can grab a cup of coffee on Friday or Saturday afternoon, knowing it doesn’t have to end up as a late-night circus in town.
All in all, I’m just another brick in a wall. (Just kidding). Now, I hope I made it a little bit more clear how extroverted introverts (at least my type) function. And please, never judge a person if they don’t feel like going out, don’t try to persuade them that it’s going to be fun, never say that they seem depressed (saying that won’t solve anything), and always respect their decision whether they’re introverts, extroverts, or anything in-between.
I promised myself I wouldn’t look back. I did. I really did. It wasn’t in my nature to go back. I believed it was better to look forward and to begin a new chapter than to continue on with the cliff hanger. And to tell you the truth—I feel like I’m about to give you my biggest secret in the world—I was a hypocrite.
Why did I stop and look back on my past? Why did I pause to add my two cents to every memory? And why did I reflect on these events when I got older? It was like, or—rather—I was like a fine cheese that got better as it aged.
It was rather painful to admit that I paused and reflected back at the beginning. It felt wrong. It wasn’t my place to fill in the holes that were in me. I was the girl who enjoyed reflecting through other ways without the mechanism of talking. Through art and through writing I found my tools.
Yet, I was ostracized, accosted for my quiet presence and the bland aloof demeanor I presented. I couldn’t tell them I couldn’t speak my own language. I didn’t flow with others. I didn’t raise my voice. I listened. I didn’t give my opinions. I analyzed. I didn’t present. I gave research. I didn’t talk. I chose my words.
It was quantity vs. quality. My fourth-grade teacher said it was harder to dig your way out of a hole than to climb your way out of one, but it was I who dug deeper. I fumbled. I cracked. I cried. I bled. I broke. I strived to be louder. I tried, but it was hard. The voices got louder. A physical assault on my senses. There was no out. I was a cornered king. Outmatched and outgunned by my opponents. I licked my wounds and drove back into the recesses of my mind. I was the obscurity, an oddity no one tried to befriend. Rather, I was befriended out of pity.
And inside my mind, I watched. I struggled. I failed. And I grew. I silenced my heart while it screamed at me that I wasn’t shy. I was reserved. I wasn’t weak. I was strong. My mind was quiet. It was loud.
I was Atlas. I was given the world on my shoulders. I was Prometheus. I was chained to the rock to face my punishment. I was Pandora that opened the box. I was Orion. I was Achilles. I was Hamlet.
Yet, there were a few who found me, accepting me for who I am. They were extroverted in their ways, but they were my outlet. They gave me strength and encouraged me to find my own self. To define my weaknesses that I saw as my strength. And to see my weaknesses as my foundation to improve.
I didn’t realize until I learned to open my eyes and reflected back that it was all right to be quiet. That it was the quietest voice that was always the loudest.
My introversion was not a disadvantage—it was a tool. My cliffhangers weren’t an ending—they were the beginning. I wasn’t the cheese that was left to rot and to be eaten by worms. No, I was savored and enriched by the years gone by.
I rushed out of my Introductory Geology class session on metamorphic rocks a bit early that day, brushing off student questions at the end of class with hurried apologies, and walked to my car at the fastest clip I could manage. My destination was a restaurant: the Margarita at Pine Creek, where I was giving a lunch talk for the Pikes Peak Environmental Forum. I agreed to this plan because I had no lab that afternoon with my students, but this talk was still crunched between class and afternoon meetings.
I had decided to talk about the crossover between earthquake science and climate science. Newly-discovered links between the atmosphere and earth have been shaking up my scientific community in recent years, creating collaboration between scientists in disparate realms through new technologies and the discovery of new phenomena.
The sun blazing, my car was sweltering hot as I drove up to the restaurant, and by the time I entered the restaurant, I was more in the mind of summer than fall. As I walked inside the restaurant, the calm atmosphere was striking, with the mixed sunlight and shadows from the trees entering through the windows to give a feeling of the outside being brought inside.
I was the first to arrive, as I prefer, so I had ample time to take in my surroundings. I then quickly turned my thoughts inward to run through the talk in my head. The topic was new to me, and I did quite a bit of research to put it together—a bit more than I’d usually do for a public talk—but I had been interested in using this material for a class I was teaching in the spring anyway. However, even after 9 years of teaching college classes, I still had butterflies in my stomach.
The host arrived along with the earlier guests, and I ate lunch while making small talk with several of them. I was lucky: we found some good things to talk about, and the time for chitchat was thankfully short, owing to the fact that I was giving a talk for most of lunch.
The talk went well. The audience asked lots of questions, and I received a warm reception with many thanks from them after the talk. However, my brain was already rushing back to the myriad tasks and meetings I still had to do that afternoon at school, and I struggled to stay present in my post-talk conversations with the guests.
After many of the guests had funneled out of the restaurant, a woman approached me. She was upper middle-age with short, cropped white hair and a simple, comfortable dress. Her calm expression was striking and inviting in a way that made me feel immediately at ease. She thanked me for the talk and expressed how much more connected she felt to the earth after hearing me speak. “I’m just going to go home and lie on the ground in my backyard,” she said, “and feel the earth for a while.”
Immediately, my subconscious brought up a visual of her house: small and cute with lots of wind chimes. It had a kitchen filled with herbs and crystals hanging in all the windows. I assumed she was one of those persons whose comments often leave me lost for words: someone who values the hidden and unexplainable energies of the world more than scientific explanations. Yet, her statement pulled a tiny bit at my soul. What she described doing with her afternoon sounded much better to me than what I was doing with mine. She went on: “I really like going to these talks. I like to get out and meet new people and learn new things. Then I need to go home and just be alone with my thoughts for a while because I’m an introvert.”
I thought that sounded wonderful. I wanted to have that life and to be like her when I’m 55. Then, a new thought hit me like a firecracker in my brain. She’s an introvert, and she’s okay with that! Moreover, she talks about it with other people and has constructed her life to be in tune with her introverted temperament. At the time, I felt—more than understood—that this was very different from the norms of society and certainly different from the norms of my profession and workplace.
I’m 40, so 55 is not that far away. How could I become like her when I felt my life was set up to move in such a different direction: to a place full of busyness and constant interaction with people all day?
What I have learned since that day at the Margarita is that I had constructed my career as a geology professor to be in line with my core values: promoting education, mentoring young people to find their paths and gifts, helping young people also work on their shortcomings, and studying the earth.
My daily activities, however, were starkly out of line with my introverted nature: being the center of attention for hours each day, attending back-to-back meetings, having student appointments for entire afternoons, making daily small talk with students and faculty, and—in the rare moments I had time at my desk—being interrupted regularly. I was pretending to be an extrovert because I thought being an introvert was socially unacceptable, and that led me into a job that clashed with my personality.
Though the full weight of that lesson at the Margarita needed many months (plus some therapy) to settle on my brain before I could fully describe and understand it, without the 30-second influence of this woman’s conversation, I’d be far behind where I am today in accepting who I am, making positive changes to move my career in a direction more in line with my temperament, and speaking openly to friends and family about my introverted nature.
As much as my talk moved her, I wish I could thank her and let her know how much her comment moved my life.
Just like a typical introvert, I walk around within my own personal bubble. When people get too close for comfort, I have to resist the urge to push them out. Once in a blue moon, though, someone—a stranger—would come along and burst through the bubble… And to my utter horror, I would actually enjoy it.
One sunny Sunday, after two consecutive weekends of staying in, I decided to take myself on a day out. As usual, I had my sunglasses and headphones on as if I was creating a physical barrier between the surroundings and myself. While I was waiting for the train, my eyes caught sight of an acquaintance. I immediately hoped he would not see me or approach me. It had nothing to do with him, he is a nice guy—but at that moment, all I really wanted was to enjoy my music during the one-and-a-half-hour train ride instead of talking to someone, to anyone. So I did my best to hide among the people between us, and I succeeded. When the train came, I made sure he got on the train first before I got onto a different carriage.
I got a seat by the window on a two-person seat, with the seats opposite me empty.
I am in New South Wales, Australia, where the trains have seats that you could ‘flip’ to change the direction the seats are facing, whether it’s forward or backward. It also means that if you do not want to sit facing another stranger, you could flip the seat and end up having the row to yourself.
At the next stop, a cute blonde girl boarded the train. She paused by my seat, quickly scanned the rest of the train, then smiled at me and sat right opposite of me, taking me by a huge surprise. Most people would have flipped the seat to sit with their backs toward a stranger instead of having to face the stranger. But not this girl. Not only that, she also could have sat by the aisle, but again, she amazed me by scooting towards the window seat. Now, we were directly opposite each other. Our legs bumped, and we had to cross our legs strategically to make space for one another.
In most instances, I would have been outraged by the proximity, especially when there were other empty seats. Not today though. Not her. There was something about this girl that made her presence non-intrusive. It did not feel like my space was being invaded at all. It felt nice. It felt comfortable.
My self-deprecating mind then wondered why she had chosen to sit with me. I wondered if she would regret her decision and move to another seat the next chance she got. But no, she only made herself more comfortable, resting her jacket on her lap. Next, she took out a textbook from her bag and began reading and highlighting it.
At one point during the ride, I removed my sunglasses. Somehow, I did not want to hide behind them anymore. Even though at times the sun’s glare bothered me, I kept my sunglasses off. So there I was, sitting on a train, listening to my favorite playlist with the girl opposite me, who was listening to her own music through her earphones while reading and highlighting her textbook.
It was as if we were both in our own worlds, yet the borders of our worlds intertwined a little. It was beautiful. We sat like that throughout my whole ride, our legs touching comfortably. When the train reached my stop, I looked at her, feeling dread. We both nodded—me signaling her that I was leaving, and her moving her legs to make space for me to walk out.
That is my story about a girl on a train who crashed into my bubble and somehow magically made it more graceful with her presence. How could a stranger have such a profound effect on an introvert without saying a single word?
I work in advertising—a highly creative, collaborative, and extroverted environment that puts my introversion center stage every single day.
I get invited to creative brainstorming sessions all the time with many strong and loud personalities. Once, I was in such a session with 15 other people, who pitched awesome ideas with such confidence and ease that I couldn’t keep up. My energy started to drop, and I couldn’t focus on my own thoughts. As an introvert, I don’t shine in these situations, nor do I say things for the sake of saying things. I like to participate with purpose.
Too overwhelmed and self-conscious to say anything, I sat there and took notes while listening to everyone else. On my way out of that meeting, my lack of participation was made painfully obvious when someone turned around and said to me, “Oh, hey Sandra! You were in that meeting? I didn’t see you; I didn’t even notice you were there.”
That comment stuck with me, and I replayed it over and over again in my head. It made me question my place in a creative industry. Was this the wrong career choice for my personality type? Do I belong here? Am I even creative enough to work here?
When the going gets tough, the introvert gets thoughtful. I interviewed industry leaders, creative writers, and designers in the very place I work—and they also happen to be introverts. These are the introverts I like to call A Perfectly Calculated Creative Force.
I learned a lot and gained valuable feedback from them, which has helped me throughout my career. I’ve turned that feedback and insight into nine tools to help other introverts bring their own perfectly calculated creative force to the mix. My hope is that if you’re in a similar situation, you’ll find some of these tools helpful as well.
1. Express your work style. Share what you need, what happens behind the scenes, and the value of working autonomously. If big group meetings or brainstorms freak you out, offer to moderate or structure the meeting so you can be actively engaged in the process.
2. Ask open-ended questions. In a brainstorm, you don’t always have to speak up with an original idea, but you can start asking open-ended questions that generate discussion and guide the conversation.
3. Follow up. Take time to process and send a follow up. If big meetings are overwhelming and you need time to process, take that time. Just make sure you follow up with an email or one-on-one meeting to share your valuable thoughts.
4. Allow yourself to pause. Take a minute (or two) when someone puts you on the spot. Pausing before you speak allows you to collect your thoughts and provide an informed answer. This will also help you separate emotion and impulse and present a voice of reason.
5. Actively listen. Show you’re actively engaged and listening with non-verbal signals such as eye contact, posture, nodding, and mirroring others. Since you’re always thinking, you need to show people you’re listening and engaged.
6. Connect the dots. Take the pressure off yourself and summarize what others are saying in a different way. Focus on the commonalities between two opposing camps rather than the differences. Be intentional when focusing on others’ ideas, and be a connector of ideas.
7. Prepare and research. Information will help with confidence, so be proactive with meeting invites. Ask why you’re invited or ask for objectives. Don’t aim to be right, but, rather, aim to provide your unique point of view.
8. Build a trust circle. Find an extrovert you can connect with and make him/her your ally. Form a strategic alliance so you can help each other be successful. Create stronger relationships by setting up one-on-one conversations and follow-up meetings.
9. Be yourself, and own it. Learn more about yourself as an introvert, your inclinations, and your preferences at work. Don’t apologize for being an introvert, but seek a mutual understanding of your ways of working with others.
While we may live in an extroverted world, you don’t have to be the loudest person in the room to have the most impactful voice.
Two years ago, I decided to change the direction of my life—quite drastically. Upon arriving at college, I had declared my major in Exercise Physiology in hopes to go into physical therapy. For years, I had dreamt about making a difference in the lives of others by going into medicine. As more time went by, I found I was dissatisfied with the future I had envisioned for myself. I couldn’t find satisfaction in the goals I made for my life. I had come to a crossroads.
At this make-it-or-break-it point, I had to choose my major. This major had to allow me to:
1. make a living, and
2. make my life meaningful through helping society/people progress.
I looked into other careers and majors I thought would be interesting and where I felt I could make a difference. Psychology, International Studies, and English were among the areas of study I considered, but none of those felt like the right choice.
I remember quite clearly the day everything clicked. I was at home with my roommates, and we were all sitting in our living room, doing homework. In that small, poorly lit apartment, I felt like the heavens had opened.
My roommate was a Communications major at the time and had been talking about an assignment for a class for which she was a Teacher’s Assistant. I had observed what she had done to prepare and how she was changed because of that class. It truly was incredible to see, and I wanted to have the same experience badly. The depth of progression, writing, learning, and self-discovery I saw in that one glimpse made me crave that class and the whole major that came along with it.
Within three months of my “major crisis,” I officially changed my major to Communications with an emphasis on Public Relations. At that point, I thought I had figured it all out and everything was going to be smooth from there on. I was enormously wrong. Choosing my major was only a battle; the following two years would be the war.
In the quiet of the night, I had to be honest with myself because this new major would be a total change of terrain for a self-declared introvert. I wouldn’t be surrounded by like-minded introverts I was used to in Exercise Physiology. I was now surrounded by, what I consider to be, some of the loudest extroverts and opinionated people on campus. For the next three years, five days a week, I would be among peers who feed off public speaking, public forum, and high-paced competition to be the best. But surprisingly, in what is generally known as a department where extroverts thrive, I have been able to find a place among those that differ in abilities, personalities, and temperament.
This major has allowed me to be creative and to think for myself. I have been able to discover my strong skills as well as my areas of weakness, where I can improve.
Going through this journey is truly indescribable. I come prepared with my work, my ideas, and my paradigm. I collaborate one-on-one, where I am most comfortable, and my collaborators are able to feed off my creativity while I feed off theirs. Although I am still in the process of assimilating and becoming more comfortable in an extrovert-dominant major, it is wonderful to see that extroverts can learn from me and I from them.
I’ve also discovered that balance truly is the strategy for winning the battle and staying my own course. Balance in work. Balance in school. Balance in life.
I love spending time alone with no one to rush me, nowhere to be, and no one to worry about. There’s something wonderful about sitting in a cafe with a notebook, watching with amusement as confused tourists and daily commuters rush by. Something in the soft music of a nearby street performer could lull me to sleep.
I came alone to Rennes, France, at age 17 to study abroad for my junior year of college. I had always been independent, and I was able to thrive in France even being away from my parents, friends, and community. But as my year abroad came to an end, I realized that although I’d been “on my own,” I’d always been surrounded by other foreign students and had never taken the chance to completely immerse myself into the local environment. So, I decided to go solo. I biked one morning to the local gare routiere (bus station) and bought a ticket to a little Breton town called Josselin.
This is what I learned:
1. When you are alone, you have complete freedom to surrender to the moment. Strolling solo through a century-old town is an intimate experience. The details of your surroundings are magnified, intensified: the smoke rising from quaint wood-carved homes, the soft light passing through delicate stained-glass windows of a cathedral, the colorful street music, the crossing of a bridge overlooking a rushing river.
2. When you are alone, you have control of your wanderings. You’re free to follow the slightest whim down a picturesque narrow street or a path along a winding river. You don’t have to see all the tourist attractions on your best friend’s list or all the famous museums. Follow your own list, or—better—don’t even write one. Do what suits you in the moment, and have that surprise you.
3. When you are alone, you go at your own pace. Let a table of French cheeses lure you from your stroll. Stop in as many bookstores as you desire, maybe even decide to settle in with a cup of coffee and a good novel (I finally started The Great Gatsby). Stroll through a local market; wander the streets, pretending to be Audrey Hepburn; hum “La Vie en Rose” under your breath. Pause for a pastry, a crispy croissant, or a tangy tarte au citron. Treat yourself, and savor that which you do for yourself and yourself alone.
4. When you are alone, you can leave your comfort zone. Even being an introvert, I struck up a conversation with a street guitar player who, it turns out, shared a love of my favorite composer. I would never have considered the interaction in the comfort of my friends. Joining a crowd watching Celtic street dancers, I was suddenly pulled into the fray by a tall blond man. Embarrassing? Extremely. I can’t dance, and I would never do so in front of others. But luckily, nobody knew me, and nobody there would ever see me again. And in the moment, I completely let go of my fears and came away beaming with joy (and sweat).
Traveling alone isn’t a sign of social isolation, but rather a liberating embrace of everything a city has to offer. I don’t know whether I’ll ever come back there again, but I know I’ll want to experience this kind of “alone time” travel again. I’ll lean back against the plush bus seat, turn up my music, and watch the world fly by at high speed.
My father was an avid reader, and our house was full of books. His taste was good and his reading lists impressive. Every evening or so, his close banker friends would surround him on the pretext of some pending work chores, but I could see that the discussions almost always went towards books, philosophy, and psychology. Politics, I am so proud to say, never sustained a presence there. These settings had their small but permanent mark on my developing mind.
I was lucky enough that even after the premature death of my father at an age of 52, my education at age 18 continued on the back of whatever finance was available to my young widowed mother. The decision we took together to decline a clerical job offered to me under a scheme called “deceased quota” by my late father’s employer turned out to be a good one. I enrolled in the premier engineering university of Pakistan in the Electrical Engineering department for my graduate education.
Something weird happened at the engineering school. I had developed a taste for books, reading, and thinking in solitude already. The engineering university exposed me to a very high standard of curriculum, authored by top North American technical authors. I was drawn towards the technicalities being discussed, the quality of the authorship, and the big picture concepts. I was sucked in by the abstract sections of the various subjects these books were discussing. Sometimes, I would re-read the paragraphs or pages or even entire chapters—not for the lack of understanding them but for giving me the delight of reading them again and again.
In 1995, I was among the few dozen people in the city of Karachi (with a population of well over 10 million) for whom the “Internet happened.” From a United Nations Development Program (UNDP) funded arrangement, we used store-and-forward dial-up Internet to send and receive emails from Karachi to New York, US. But around 1996, the Internet became much more accessible to all in Pakistan, and the information floodgates opened.
Unlike youngsters today, who consider the Internet a utility just like gas, electricity, or water, I had seen the Internet bloom from a very young state to a solid presence it has become today. Much of the unique closeness I experience from having seen the Internet blossom into what it is today has to do with the fact that it has allowed me to learn so much about myself and my introvert personality. From pop culture to serious research articles and audio/video content on introversion, the Internet has given me more than what I could’ve asked for.
When I entered a professional career, I got successive jobs in telecommunication companies of Pakistan, where my work invariably revolved around the Internet. In the past 19 years, I climbed the corporate ladder to eventually achieve the top slot of a network technologist in an important telecoms operation. As I look back at the work done, teams developed, and business conducted, I become more and more conscious of the introvert nature I have carried all along.
The works by leading introverts, their books and blogs, and accompanying research have handed me a mixed bag of charms and chills. From the personal to the professional, the advent of the Internet, much like the books of my youth, has changed my life in many ways and made me who I am today.
“I am like a rusty gate. Even if you find the key, you’ll have to work hard to open me up to find out what secrets are behind my door.” ~ 10-year-old me
When I was 10, my 5th grade teacher had our class write a poem. She wanted it to be titled “I Am.” We had the freedom to write whatever we wanted as long as each sentence started with “I Am.” I was excited to write this poem—to share my words on paper with my favorite teacher and let her know from my heart who I was. I loved writing and wanted to get it just right, erasing, writing, and erasing my words again. Then and now, words float around my head like butterflies, and when I want to share them, I have to capture them and arrange them just so.
A few days later, she asked me to read my poem to my class, and I flushed with embarrassment. The 10-year-old me was no different from who I am today: reserved to a fault. An introvert. And painfully shy. I remembered shuffling to the front of the classroom, never once looking at my classmates because that would have been too painful. As I read my poem, my eyes never left my paper. When I finished, I looked up and saw that Mrs. Ripley had tears in her eyes. And I knew—I knew—she understood my words. She understood me.
It was then, at 10 years old, I was given the first glimpse of my voice. But just as I noticed her tears of understanding, I heard a snicker from a classmate. And then a laugh from another while she teased: “A rusty gate? I don’t get it! Why would you call yourself a rusty gate?” And then more laughter.
At that moment, I heard something inside me yell:
And so I did.
I retreated back inside myself and forgot all about Mrs. Ripley’s tears as she shushed the class and looked at me apologetically. And I turned away from writing. I wouldn’t write like that again for a very long time.
I’m an observer. A listener. So soft-spoken that when I finally do decide to speak, people often don’t even hear my words. And although I’d like to repeat myself, I lose my courage to say it louder because that feels like shouting to my ears.
For a long time, I thought because of my quiet ways, it meant I had nothing of value to share. But what Mrs. Ripley’s tears taught me so many years ago was that I did. I do.
I have a voice.
It took what felt like a lifetime to find it. I started writing again after I became a mother, sharing pieces of my heart with the world. No longer able to contain those words that were like butterflies—catch and release. When I finally found my voice with writing, it felt like I was shouting but in a way that was comfortable for me. And when people would write back telling me they felt similarly, it was the most magical feeling of all—being heard and understood and connecting with people in a way I couldn’t in person with my wallflower ways.
I will never be the social butterfly. Instead, I’m the quiet butterfly catcher.
This is my revolutionary story. I have gone from being a painfully “tongue-tied” child when meeting new people to an adult happy in her own skin but delicately balancing base introversion with essential extroversion.
I have transitioned from facing a large giggling derisive group to being able to hold the rapt attention of an audience for more than two hours at a stretch.
Four years ago, I left a well-paying corporate job to start my own practice as a Chartered Accountant. I did not advertise. I did not ask to be referred. I dreaded the networking word. I went ahead with zero marketing, almost ostrich-like.
I’ve been told I have been doing it all wrong. I’ve been rebuked. I’ve seen shocked faces. I’ve been told by seniors in the profession that I won’t survive unless I attach myself to a larger, more visible firm. I have been told that as a woman professional, I shouldn’t be doing it all alone for the sake of a future balancing act. I was told I was too young to be on my own.
But I went ahead quietly and stubbornly. Four years later, I am still here and doing decently well.
Yes, I am here because of my technical skills, because of my determination and drive to fight all odds. But I am also struck by the amount of trust I hold in my clients’ hearts. It’s the power of empathy, confidentiality, and quality service. It’s the power of me listening when they speak and observing and understanding what they need from a financial advisor rather than forcing my opinion of what I think they should or should not do.
And somewhere, I also feel, it’s the power of not putting myself “out there” and instead doing things in a way that felt comfortable to me.
I link all of this to the power of my introversion. There are days when I feel like quitting. But most days, I remember an old quote,
“People may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”
And this, I believe, is the strength of my quiet perseverance—be it with my clients or my students.
As long as I can remember, I have enjoyed the company of people. I love public speaking, meeting new people, and having meaningful conversations with random strangers at a park, a conference, or even an airplane. I am not shy, and as long as I feel emotionally safe, I have no trouble expressing myself.
And yet, I dread large crowded spaces. I’d rather be in an empty train than a loud, fully crowded one. Please do not invite me to an indoor musical concert. Friday night dinners in a bustling downtown have never been my idea of an ideal beginning of the weekend activity. I’ve always preferred a restorative yoga class to wrap up my week instead. And I’d rather spend a few days in a secluded cabin than at a hustling, bustling resort. But still, I somehow kept trying to go for another networking event, another happy hour, another loud birthday party only to find myself incredibly drained and exhausted, but I kept at it because I wrongly believed that’s what I needed to do to fit into this world.
However, it wasn’t until I became a mom that I realized how much I valued quiet time, soft music, one-on-one conversations, and simple walks with the stroller. Being around a toddler, who is always asking questions, instantly goes from one activity to another, and has a million needs in a day means that my quiet self needs even more nurturing to have the headspace and emotional energy to be present to, loving toward, and accepting of my child.
Have I cracked the perfect code? Not really. There are times I wish we could all have five minutes of silence in our house, and I have been trying various tricks with my toddler, but I haven’t quite mastered it yet. That said, here are a few other things that help me thrive as an introverted parent:
1) Genuine Acceptance. This is the foundation for me. I need to accept, love, and respect myself for who I am—and not compare myself to the people who can spend a Saturday going from one social engagement to another and feel energized at the end of the day. Those parents are beautiful in their own way, but I am not one of them, and I need to make choices that honor who I am.
2) Prioritize Nature. I’ll always pick a few hours at a park over a crowded indoor museum. I have even done professional meetings on a Saturday morning at a park while my son plays in the sand. Family vacations typically mean cabins and tents or spending time at a national park.
3) Long Bed Times. My husband and I love bedtime with our son. It’s peaceful, and we’re all together in our bed. We keep this time long, rich, and full of hugs, cuddles, stories, singing, and quiet time. It’s something I look forward to every night, and it’s my most precious time with my son.
4) No to Crowds. I have learned to politely decline (most) invitations to loud, crowded parties and express my love and gratitude in other ways. Sometimes, I politely suggest we do something one-on-one on a different weekend, or I send a handmade birthday card.
5) Time Alone. Most importantly, I have learned to prioritize, schedule, and appreciate quiet time. That’s time alone in the car without turning on NPR, solo walks around my house, or blocked calendars to work in silence at my office. It means waking up at 5 a.m. on a Saturday to write in silence or to attend a meditation class. It means connecting with myself so that I can have a richer and more purposeful connection with the outside world.
Are you an introverted parent? If so, what are some of your unique ways of nourishing yourself?
The Twelve Wild Geese is an old Irish myth from the oral tradition. It has been told and retold in many different voices. This is my memory of it:
In Ireland, long ago, there was a queen who had twelve fine sons but regretted the lack of a daughter. One careless morning she spoke a whim out loud. “I’d give my twelve sons for a raven-haired blue-eyed daughter.” Immediately, her belly was filled. But as the girl was born, the sons were turned into wild geese. Years passed, and the girl heard of her brothers’ curse. She made an oath to an old witch that she would be silent for five years so that her brothers could be freed. She suffered all manner of joy, hardship, and sorrow in those five years, but she never spoke once. On the first morning of the sixth year, the wild geese flew towards her. As they landed, they turned into handsome men, and all of the ills the girl had suffered were put to rights.
The Irish tradition, as it is usually told on the world stage, centers around “the gift of the gab,” drinking, partying, and “the craic.” That narrative is not false, but it is theater. It sells well. At times, and in small doses, I love it, but it is the peaceful, quiet earthiness of Irish tradition, which grounds me.
I remember an Irish teacher in school smiling knowingly when I said that I loved the Romantics. She had something more in store for me. It was her mission, I think, to turn me from a fanciful teenager to a solid woman, and she did so with old Irish poetry.
She was also the catalyst who made me see what my mother had been nurturing me with for years. At home, we were taught to love all kinds of literature. John Irving and John Updike references were regularly thrown into ordinary everyday chat. But it was with the gentle, wise quiet of Irish mythology and of our writers—John McGahern and Mary Lavin; Molly Keane and Frank O’Connor; Seamus Heaney, Patrick Kavanagh, and Yeats—that we were cradled.
It does not pay in Irish legends to be “boastful or careless in your words.” Loudmouths are considered fools or, like the queen in the Twelve Wild Geese, dangerous. In the Táin Bó Cúailgne, an epic from early Irish mythology, the spontaneous, arrogant pillow-talk of Queen Medb and her husband Ailill brings years of war to Ireland. In another episode of the Táin, “The Birth Pangs of Ulster,” Ulster’s safety is jeopardized for nine years when, as punishment for boasting about their women, the men of Ulster are cursed with nine months of birth-pains at every moment of adversity. The heroes of Irish mythology think, seek guidance, and are slow to speak: the great king Conchobar “never gave a judgment until it was ripe, for fear it might be wrong.”
In the 5th and 6th centuries, our monks spread quiet reflection, education, harmony, and prayer across a dark, tortured, tumultuous Europe. Irish writers seem to work their craft to the same end: disempower cruel, angry, divisive isolation and honor gentle, liberating quiet and the steadiness of the relationships that grow in it.
Quiet in Irish literature is honored, but the dark side of Irish silence is not whitewashed. It can be brutal and threatening: the “punishing silence” of John McGahern’s father in his black moods; the guilty isolation of the Protestant upper class, symbolized by Bram Stoker’s Dracula; the cruelty of novelist’s Patrick McCabe’s small-minded towns. In the poem “Limbo,” Seamus Heaney shames the deadly silence of an oppressive church. Poet Patrick Kavanagh will not allow solitude to be romanticized uncritically. In the poem “Inniskeen Road: July Evening,” he writes, “I have what every poet hates in spite of all the solemn talk of contemplation.”
Quiet in the Irish literary tradition is nurturing, maternal.
Mary Lavin starts a short story with, “Mother had a lot to say. This does not mean she was always talking but that we children felt the wells she drew upon were deep, deep, deep.”
John McGahern walks the lanes of Leitrim with his mother, briefly freed from the too frequent episodes of violence he experienced as a little boy.
Seamus Heaney quietly peels potatoes with his mother, not a word exchanged between them, feeling “never closer the whole rest of our lives.”
Quiet is observant. It watches. It notices. It thinks.
Joyce—inside the minds of Dublin people always watching, always thinking, always existing more in their own chaotic and unclear minds than in the world around them—reassures me that my thoughts need not always be ordered or pretty and that I am not the only one wandering through the day in a private world.
Quiet is a tool to protect a delicate and precious wonder.
In Austin Clarke’s poem, “The Planter’s Daughter,” grace and beauty are measured by the quiet used to honor it: “The men who had seen her drank deep and were silent.”
Quiet is a luxury.
These writers recognize that quiet is often not understood till it is lost. When the freedom the city promised him proves only to be noise, confusion, and “binibshaoirse” (barbed-freedom), poet Séan Ó Ríordáin aches for the quiet relief of his remote rural home. Christy Moore, the ballad-maker, rejects the constant “remote-control” stimulation that leaves no room for imagination: “I’m going away for ten years, I’m going to wander among the Wicklow hills.”
They know quiet is elusive. It is a fleeting, hard-won luxury. Yeats writes:
“I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.”
I am grateful they crave the elusive quiet—these writers, these poets. Because they thirst for it, they create it. They gift it to us through their words. Their words are my quiet home, my rising sun. My oasis.
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