“I Vant to Be Alone”: The Curse & Blessing of Introversion

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It was Greta Garbo who originally said it, in her soft, musical Swedish accent: “I vant to be alone.”

Introverts have always gotten a bad rep: isolated, shy, socially awkward.

The truth is, the definition of introversion is anything but that. Really, introverts are people who get their energy and recharge from being alone, rather than from being around people. And although the data varies, it seems that around half the population is introverted.

The problem is, much of the world is still sort of anti-introvert.

Case in point: I was a teacher. I was extraordinarily good at working with hundreds of students. I learned hundreds names in a flash, paid attention to details from my students’ lives, built elegant systems to engage record percentages of kids in their work in my classes. I showed up with enthusiasm and focus and humor, implicitly asking my middle schoolers to match my energy in showing up to work. Most of all, I strove to “teach with my presence”: show up in a way so as to see each of them individually but equitably and let them know I valued them as people. I’m so proud of what I did and how I impacted people.

But here was the problem: I taught high-energy subjects for eight hour school days. Two minutes between classes, a planning break in a tiny office shared with two other people, and a rushed lunch break where I slammed down microwaved food while making sure everything was ready for the next round. 

Needless to say, my highly introverted self wasn’t getting what she needed.

(Neither was my body either, by the way. Eventually I developed painful chronic gut issues and chronic fatigue, which ultimately led to the decision to leave teaching in order to reclaim my health and a better quality of life. And the hilarious cherry on top of that cake? I couldn’t even find a private, quiet place to have phone calls about private health stuff with my doctor.)

The truth is, I need about a 75-80% / 25-20% split of alone work & working around people.

Have you seen the offices of most companies still??

They are modern monstrosities of misguided collaboration, dismantling the cubicle model in favor of the open-office mosh pit of everyone working together, side by side, out in the open.

That environment literally gives me anxiety. As an introvert, I just can’t work in it. I can’t deal with having human beings around me all day. I can’t do my best work where there is so much energy around me. I can’t concentrate when there is conversation around me, music with lyrics, hell, even just the presence of people around me eventually wears me out and I need to retreat.

The weird thing is, I am phenomenal with people, a rockstar at building relationships, connecting, and communicating. 

It’s just that I need a heavy balance of working from my “Cave of Introversion” in order to do that well. 

Basically, I think cats make the best office mates.

But in all seriousness, we are doing a disservice to nearly half the population in that we don’t have a work model that allows introverts the quietude they need to do their best work.

In fact, the whole “go-do-hustle” model in our society is also pretty counter to introvert needs. Slack and space are actually essential ingredients for creativity. They are also essential ingredients for introverts. That “go-do-hustle” paradigm doesn’t really allow for the time introverts need to recharge, recalibrate, and rebalance, so they can show up and do their best work and be their best selves.

Here is what I have learned my introvert self needs:

  • time in nature, alone

  • a work environment where much of the time I can work in a bubble - no one around

  • an absence of the TV on in the background

  • a high degree of control over my schedule - when to break, eat, bathroom

  • the right balance of meaningful human interaction and alone time recharging

  • lots of rest - sleep, meditation, even time doing nothing

  • I can’t attend conferences or team trip things and not have a private room to retreat into at the end of the day

And here are some of my superpowers as an introvert:

  • I don’t often get tugged in the direction of all the lemmings: I have a pretty solid core of self and values.

  • I’m an incredible listener. I don’t need to hold court, always be “right,” or hear myself pontificate on stuff.

  • I’m a killer writer. While I know all introverts are not writers, I would suspect that most good writers are at least heavily introverted (or that good writing requires introversion).

  • My self-awareness (strengths, weaknesses, what I need, what I can give) is higher, in part because of that reconnection to self via introverted time.

  • I am very ok being alone. I don’t need people around me to validate me or make me happy.

  • I suspect that my high level of empathy is also tied to introversion. I can tune into other people really well.

For me, it has been a journey of looking at the above and realizing it is perfect. There is a lot of messaging that says that somehow a high need for introversion like mine isn’t practical, possible, isn’t “right.”

We need to change that.

We need to foster the paradigm shift that says: our differences are beautiful and perfect. There is no “right” way to be, work, or be successful. We need work environments and cultures that evolve to be inclusive, of different races, genders, and backgrounds, yes, but also of different styles and needs. We need to give people the agency and dignity to say, what works for you? Use your best judgement. We need to acknowledge that the need for alone time and space is also a superpower.

If you’re an introvert, I would love to hear how you manage your needs in your work and life. Join the conversation here. And PS, we all are on a scale of introversion-extroversion, so likely even the extroverts have introverted needs too!

Image by @quietpoem.