My Cat, the Introvert
Samantha is my cat. She is a disappointment, as cats go. She isn’t long-haired and furry. She isn’t lazy and cuddly. She’s skittish, spends most of her day in the basement, comes out to eat and socialize but only if immediate family are around. All strangers offend her. She will disappear even for my parents until their fifth and final day of any given visit. Then she might stoop to an appearance once or twice. She is an extreme introvert and isn’t ashamed of it. No amount of social pressure will change her behavior. She doesn’t pretend to be sociable. She doesn’t act extroverted for the sake of social norms.
I noticed this behavior in my cat because I have been reading a great book called “Quiet” by Susan Cain, which is about introverts and how they interact in a world that prefers the behavior of extroverts. The book delves deeply into it’s subject matter and goes way beyond an over-simplistic definition of all personalities as introvert or extrovert. The discussions are interesting but the one that struck me the most is in chapter 9, when Ms. Cain discusses how introverts can act like extroverts for the good of some cause, and how much that costs in terms of personality and personal truth. It’s a nuanced version of “fake it ’til you make it”.
It turns out that all of us have core personal projects. These things have been described in other literature in various ways: “Flow”, or “What I was born to do”, or “Passion”, or “The meaning of life”, or a hundred other terms for the things that turn us on. Whatever your personality type, investing in things that turn you on energizes you and things that don’t interest you drain you. If you are an introverted person in general and you are ACTING extroverted, this will either be OK with you because it serves a core personal project, or it will drain you of energy because it serves a cause you don’t believe in or that you don’t care about. My cat, of course, has no core personal projects. Her brain consists of ears, eyes, nose, and instinct. Why would she act extroverted just because the optimal house cat is openhearted and affectionate? Better to act according to her nature.
Acting against our nature is a primary source of pain in humans. I know. I have done it for years. Many people, especially introverts, convince themselves that they want what they ought to want. They present a self to society that they aren’t really but is in the service of a self or identity they think is acceptable. It’s OK to present any self you want, but the key is to do it in a way that allows you to achieve your passions, your purpose, your core personal projects. In any other situation you are lying to yourself and everyone else and you are likely to be very uncomfortable in life. I am by nature an introvert. I prefer reading and writing to social interaction, although I can excel at such human interfaces. I can put myself out there to make a patient feel comfortable in a pre-operative setting, comfortable in putting their life in my hands. And they are safe in my hands. But after that interaction, which is draining for me, I am glad to retreat to my office or call room for the alone-time that fuels me.
People who do work that doesn’t really suit them personality-wise tend to find hiding places. “Restorative niches” as Ms. Cain calls them. Say you are the kind of person who prefers libraries and museums and thrives on research but your current project, a great research initiative that could get you a big promotion, involves enrolling patients in a study in which they will receive either a certain drug or a placebo. Any research of this kind of necessity involves talking to people y0u don’t know, people who might be in some distress by virtue of being in the patient role, and people who have different values and education than you do. To a native researcher, read introvert, these conversations would be uncomfortable and exhausting. The researcher is likely to do two things to make themselves less uncomfortable: they are likely to ACT extroverted in the service of their core personal project, but this person is also likely to limit their subject enrollment to one or two patients per day. Any more interaction of such a personal nature would be too stressful. Or the researcher will enroll one patient per day and “reward” themselves for that one human interaction by closeting themselves in the lab the rest of the day. The researcher who is pretending to be an extrovert in order to enroll study participants is not being fake, acting, or being untrue to their true natures. They are acting in the interest of a core personal project. But they will also provide themselves with a restorative niche in which to retreat back into being truly themselves. The pain comes when the introvert does not have recourse to the corrective effects of a restorative niche.
Is all this just a way of excusing “fake” behavior? Maybe. All of us do it every day in some form or another. Be as true to yourself as you can be, then go out and find your core personal project and make it happen, no matter what your personality type.