Must I fake it?

Self-help books say "be yourself." They also say "be interested in others." For me, it's one or the other.

By Cary Tennis

Published June 1, 2009 10:18AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I was wondering if you could give me some meta-advice. See, I'm quite shy and introverted socially, so I have difficulty in making friends or moving beyond a superficial level of acquaintance. I read self-help books and the like -- I've even had a little counseling -- for advice in how to amend this, but I'm seeing this apparent dichotomy in such advice that I don't know how to resolve. On the one hand, they say that to make connections with people you should turn your attention to the other person, ask them questions about themselves and their lives, and so on. On the other hand, they say you should always try to "be yourself," don't try too hard, act as comes naturally to you. But with my personality, I have to "try hard" to generate conversation, to think of questions to ask people, and to not revert to going on about my own inane opinions if nothing immediately springs to mind (to say nothing of ignoring the feeling of artificiality produced by this strategy). If I acted as came naturally to me I would not be talking much (except to people I already know).

I can see the value in both strategies, but it seems to me the net result is: As an introvert, you can either be yourself, or make connections with people, but not both. And what does this say about how an introverted personality works within society? Looked at from this perspective they seem like an aberration; implicitly, we should not really be like this -- it just doesn't work.

Or am I missing something obvious and this whole "dilemma" is an illusion; the result of "introverted" self-absorption, as I sometimes half-suspect it is?


Dear Unresolved,

I agree with you about the lame "be yourself" bit.

If you were truly yourself, you'd be home by now. A better way to say it might be, Hold your own space. Just hold your own space. People are looking at you. You are there.

Other introverts inhabit the room. Look for them. Don't talk to them. Just stand next to another introvert and eat shrimp. Don't make dumb small talk. There's no need for it. Refuse to do it. Your refusal will be appreciated by other introverts. Model introvert power. Withhold.

The uneasiness of the introvert in a social situation has to do with the signals you are getting from the rest of the people that you do not exist. So assert your existence. You needn't do this in any obvious way. Just feel your toes. Feel your hips. As you stand in a circle of people, feel your breath. Look at the other people. Allow yourself to look at them and think about them. Notice how their mouths move, how their eyes change, what kind of hair they have, what their skin is like, what they are wearing and where it came from. Regard them. Hold your space. Do not worry that you will be called upon, or that you must be ready with shallow patter. Just calm down and observe. Be a million miles away.

This holding of your own space is a form of quiet aggression that can redress the imbalance between the extroverts and the introverts. Yes, the extroverts command airspace. They say phrases. Their faces move. But you have the right to your own thoughts. If what they are saying is ludicrous, you do not have to laugh and pretend. If you make them uncomfortable, they will find some other guacamole.

Picture a conclave of introverts. In such a conclave, silences erupt for deliberation. Such a conclave might be a meeting of church elders, a corporate or academic board meeting, or a meeting of scientists. In such a meeting, an extrovert's chatter is anathema. The power is with the introverts. They hold their space and the extrovert flounders in the silences like a fish flapping on the beach.

I know this to be true because I am an extrovert. I have sat in such meetings. I flounder. I flap. I gasp for air. I am saved from asphyxiation only because I know I will soon be returned to the warm sea of happy chatter where the extrovert thrives. That is how I endure such things. Once freed, I go on with my ridiculous chatter. To hell with the rest of you! I must have my inane chatter, my platitudes, my pointless backslapping! Am I proud of this? Not at all! It is my eternal shame! A writer who utters inane jokes! How will such a man ever win a prize? Who will take him seriously? Pity the poor extroverted writer, out of his head with enjoyment of sheer crowdedness, luxuriating in the warm, sloshy elbowing of a crush about the bar, taking in the roar of a game, attendance today 17,396 plus the ones who snuck in! Pity me and my banality! Oh, to be an introvert, full of impenetrable depths! You have no idea how we shallow lovers of the crowd long for your fathomless silences!

I must say this, too: An introvert who does not care to be noticed has an easier time of it.

Wanting to be noticed is wanting something -- wanting love, perhaps, wanting respect, recognition, acceptance, a place in the world. Wanting is the issue. When you are standing in a circle of people, quietly zero in on what you want. Is it attention? Do you want to be that person that everyone is looking at, the person who is making everyone nod their heads and laugh? Why? What would that get you? Where would it lead? Where would you want it to lead? If you were that person, what would it allow you to get? As you think about these things, you may realize that underneath your irritation you are simply bored.

You can always walk away, you know. You can go to your room. Few social situations are mandatory.

Wanting attention is not the same as wanting interaction. Performers who are introverts can get attention but avoid interaction. The stage keeps the audience at a distance. Backstage only a few are admitted. One can have some quiet time. You can also get attention without interaction by jobs such as teaching and lecturing, which put you at the center of the room but do not require you to be all palsy-walsy with folks. You do your thing and then they leave except for maybe one eager introvert who stays after class to help.

So it is helpful to bolster your sense that you do exist. I think, without overstating it, that often it is that simple. You are as real as anything else in the room. You are being seen. You are holding space. Others are regarding you and thinking about you and wondering about you. You do exist. People are seeing you. You are there.

There's more about introversion in this here book!

Makes a great gift. Can be personalized for the giftee of your choice. Signed first editions on sale now.

What? You want more advice?


Cary Tennis

MORE FROM Cary TennisFOLLOW carytennisLIKE Cary Tennis

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Coupling Psychology Since You Asked