“It’s okay that you’re shy. You’re an introvert,” an acquaintance informed me in front of a group of my friends. “There’s nothing wrong with that.”
I am shy, sometimes. There is just one problem with her statement, which is that I am definitely not an introvert.
Introvert Versus Extrovert: The Binary
If we are going to stick to the binary of introvert and extrovert, which I don’t like very much, there are a few things to address. It took me many years, and a very useful conversation with my sister, to realise that I am not an introvert.
A few years ago, my sister and I invited some friends over during the holiday season, which involved some shopping, cleaning and cooking. By the time our friends left, she was drained and ready for a nap. “You know,” she told me with no uncertainty the next day, “you’re an extrovert. You actually gain energy from people.”
Somehow, while I had known that an introvert tends to feel drained of energy after spending time with people, while an extrovert feels energised and excited during social encounters, I hadn’t made the connection to myself.
I discussed this with a psychologist, who nodded while I was talking. “Have you ever heard the term ‘shy extrovert’?” she asked. “I’ve done some research in this area and I think it is quite likely that you are one.”
Thinking back to this acquaintance describing me as shy and introverted, I suppose I have to give her points for picking up on the shyness. I’m certain I come across as shy and hesitant.
If first impressions count, I’m screwed. It depends on where you meet me as well as my mental health at the time.
If I’m drinking, and my anxiety and depression are well managed at the time, I might be relatively feisty. I will express my opinions – not my feelings, though – even if they may clash with yours.
However, since I’m usually not drinking, and my mental health isn’t always well managed, many people think I am shy. Passive. And, of course, introverted.
In 2014, I attended an overseas memoir-writing workshop while I was suffering from mental health issues. I had anxiety and depression, which I linked to Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.). I assumed I was an introvert in winter, and a hyperactive extrovert in summer. I preferred to think about my problems as a seasonal issue rather than bouts of recurring depression.
Despite the fact that it was summer in the northern hemisphere, where the workshop took place, my depression didn’t magically vanish. I suffered internally, and on the outside I tried to make friends and contacts, and to develop my writing.
Despite my hard work to fit into the group, I constantly felt like an outsider. I was the only person who had come from Australia. I was the only out queer person in the group. However, my writing workshop, led by Cheryl Strayed, was amazing. She helped me identify the book I wanted to write, which is about winning a lesbian wedding.
In addition to our classes, we had many social gatherings and opportunities for networking. This was not only with our memoir-writing group, but for all students working with other writers, as well as external writers who came along to read their work. When I told people that I was writing a book about equal marriage rights, some reacted with astonishment.
“Why?” one writer demanded. “That’s already happened. That’s old news! Nobody’s going to want to read about that.”
I tried to remind them that their context – America – was different to ours in Australia. This was before the United States Supreme Court legalised federal marriage rights for all people in 2015, but they had states in which “gay marriage” was legal, and many thought that that was enough progress.
Later, I realised how much these comments hurt me and made me feel uncomfortable. I described it to a close friend as feeling like a knobby-kneed fawn, newly confident with the idea for my book, who had been knocked down in such a personal way.
We discussed the way that putting down someone’s ideas can make an insecure person feel better. “But we are all writing about the same shit,” my friend, Kelly, who had also been at the workshop, said. “The terror of being human, what love feels like… It doesn’t actually matter what the subject is about. It’s stuff we can connect to as readers.”
At various social gatherings, several people told me secretly about their previous dabbles with homosexuality, making it sound like a secret from their past. These people usually make a beeline for me – the writer with the openly lesbian story. They often talk about sexuality as a fixed binary, gay and lesbian versus straight, without acknowledging that there is a spectrum.
I understand that it is difficult for people to be open about sexual fluidity, but this way of speaking about sexuality is biphobic and negates my experiences.
When I told Kelly about all of this, she was so empathetic. “The way they talked to you diminishes your life and your heart,” she said. And it’s true; they treated their homosexual past experiences like a dirty secret. But they also seemed wistful.
Later, I was described as “the shyest member of the group”. I was also called “lovely”. While both of these statements may be true – thanks, everyone – it also stressed me out.
I hate the way that social anxiety can be misinterpreted as a personal characteristic. Social anxiety, or any anxiety, indicates many things, but I don’t think it should be linked to assumptions about whether a person is an introvert or extrovert.
I may be regarded as quiet and shy, especially in some circumstances, but I am an extrovert. That’s the danger of the introvert versus extrovert binary; it doesn’t account for things like context and mental health.
I’m extroverted except for when I’m suffering. Depression’s symptoms can make you appear introverted or shy when you are actually suffering.
The Internet for Socially Anxious People
Even as we become a more technologically savvy society, things can actually become harder, not easier, for shy, socially anxious or introverted people. Social media has created a whole new set of platforms on which we are expected to interact with people, at all hours. As a result, I have coined the phrase ‘social media introverts’.
I have been a social media introvert at various times throughout the last few years. Shyness and social anxiety can make interacting in online spaces difficult. When I am suffering from anxiety or depression, I self-censor. I don’t want to share thoughts, photos, memes or articles with my friends. It is too stressful when you feel bad. The number of likes or reactions can feel a bit too much like face-to-face group dynamics.
Whether you are an extrovert or introvert, constant online interaction can take a toll. Meghan Tifft, who wrote an article titled ‘The Agony of Community: An Introverted Writer’s Lament’, describes technology as “just another doorway opening onto the ever unfolding dormitory of life – the one we’re all expected to drift up and down with casual curiosity, looking in on each other for the latest bit of gossip or distraction–not even our desks are our private domain.”
Solutions, Including How to Deal With Dominant Personalities
Online and offline, I find dominant personalities and bullies very overwhelming, due to my past experiences with them.
Generally, I get along well with people, even if they’re bossy, dominant or volatile. I work well with these sorts of personalities because when there are dominant people around, I often censor myself and repress my feelings. In my experience, many dominant people enjoy submissive character traits in their friends or peers.
When I am faced with the untempting prospect of working with one of these people, I struggle. I might try, subconsciously, to be more assertive or even dominant myself, but I fail.
This happened to me when I was a student teacher. My psychologist at the time said, “You don’t need to become dominant to deal with these people. You need your other qualities, like being very analytical, and self-aware, and a good listener, for writing. Your anxious inner voice is the writer; don’t shut her up. Just stay confident and don’t become too afraid of dominant personalities.”
My main advice is this: if dominant people terrify you and lead you to censor yourself during social interactions, please find a way to gain confidence and courage.
Because it is safer to shy away, they don’t realise that they are bullies and therefore don’t seek help. People cower, or avoid them, and so they are able to continue living this way. Let’s stop making it easier for these people.
Of course, I only direct this instruction to those who feel strong enough to try something different. If you’re struggling right now, from any form of mental or physical illness or issue, please find help and support.
Problems with dominant people might not be on the personal level at all. Rather, it could be linked to systemic issues with your work, school, organisation or other system. Some of these dominant personalities and bullies are CEOs, bosses, heads of department, or our politicians. If so, please keep an eye out for resources for support. Many educational institutions and workplaces have some form of free or subsidised counselling available. If yours doesn’t, or you don’t work, you could call Lifeline, Mensline, Kids Helpline or beyondblue (see numbers below). If you are able to afford it, you could see your GP for some support and advice about your mental health.
Finally, if you are a dominant, aggressive or even abusive person, who might unintentionally or intentionally bully people at school, work or home, please seek help. I don’t mean to sound uncaring, but Go the Fuck to Therapy. If you are constantly negative, and spend a significant proportion of your day belittling loved ones, students, or colleagues, it might be time to look at changing this. It will make your life better, and it will improve the quality of life of those around you.
Back to Me
Maybe I am a shy extrovert. One thing that is wonderful about being an introvert, or a shy extrovert, or a caring extrovert, is that you tend to be aware of other people’s feelings. Maybe it is time for us, as a society, to move beyond the binary, and into a more complex understanding of ourselves and our fellow human beings.
Support is available for anyone who may be distressed by phoning:
Lifeline 13 11 14
Mensline 1300 789 978
Kids Helpline 1800 551 800
beyondblue 1300 224 636
For further reading on some of the science behind the binary, check this out.
Take some action
For further reading on this topic, check out Susan Cain's "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking" and "Shy: A Memoir" by Sian Priorooh, yes please