The way we feel is universal. Sharing our stories shows us all that we’re not alone, and our challenges and struggles aren't so unique after all. This is the place where I share mine.
Over the weekend, two different people asked me to “come out of my shell.” I heard this all the time back in middle and high school but it’s (thankfully) become rare as an adult, so I decided to look into where it comes from. One source defines the idiom like this: stop being withdrawn; open your heart and mind to life; stop being insecure; stop being shy; become more confident.
I may appear withdrawn at times – introverts often turn inward to analyze situations – but I am an experiencer, and approach life with an open heart and mind. I do have some insecurities, but I’m not insecure, and I am not shy. I am quietly confident.
The Defining Difference
The “come out of your shell” phrase originates from the analogy of a turtle going into its shell, and let me tell you, when I am tapped out from human interaction, I absolutely retreat to reset and recharge. That’s the defining difference between an introvert and an extrovert – the way in which we recharge our brains. An introvert becomes drained after spending a long period of time with groups of people and seeks solitude to recharge, while an extrovert gets their energy from being with other people.
But I do not live in my shell, and during both of the times my “shell” was referenced this weekend, I was showing up as fully me. That just looks a little quieter and softer than our extroverted world is used to.
Staying quiet can be more effective than fighting to be heard, and unexpected insight can arise from the person who has been actively listening, observing, and internally analyzing during a meeting. Susan Cain’s book title alone captures this so beautifully: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.
Let Me Surprise You
I thrive in one-on-one interactions. If you engage me in conversation, you’ll discover a highly passionate person with strong opinions and a lot to say when something matters deeply to me. I’m just not comfortable in bigger groups, and being the center of attention in a large group is about as uncomfortable as it gets for me. There tend to be more than enough people who want to share what they think anyway, and I’m grateful for each one of you. I learn from you and admire how comfortable you are in the spotlight. But that is not where I shine.
So please recognize the difference here. When I am quiet during a meeting or group situation, I am not in my shell. I am fully showing up, attentively listening and absorbing, and most importantly, I’m processing.
According to Susan Cain, “it’s more complicated for introverts to process interactions and events. As they process information, introverts are carefully attending to their internal thoughts and feelings at the same time.” This means that if you ask an introvert for their thoughts and opinions before they’ve fully processed, you’ll get a response, but our most valuable ideas won’t surface until we’ve been able to take the time we need. And I’m not talking hours. I tend to need just a few minutes more than an extrovert to collect my thoughts.
A Liberating Realization
The professional world is a difficult place for introverts to navigate. I’ve been masquerading as an extrovert for most of my career to try to permanently push past my introverted personality. I’ve felt different, not enough – not outgoing enough, talkative enough, assertive enough – and so incredibly misunderstood. When I was told I was in my shell this weekend, I realized that not only is that not true, but I don’t have a shell. I have places where I recharge but when I am out in the world, at work or in any social situation, I am fully engaged, fully present, and absorbing far more than you may ever know. It might look different from the way you engage, so you may not recognize it, but it is equally as valuable.
During my entire career, I have wanted to be like you, dear extrovert. It seems like you have it so easy. You live in a world where you’re more easily understood because most people operate the way you do, and you can function in a group setting with no anxiety. You are big and bold and brave without effort because that’s your innate personality, not because you’ve gathered enough confidence. You seek out the spotlight instead of shrinking from it, and you freely share your opinions in both personal and professional settings.
Stepping Into My Power
But now – and I say this with all due respect – I no longer want to be like you. I’ve finally stepped into my power as an introvert, and am comfortable being quiet and fully me in your extroverted world. I will no longer hide behind apologies for being quieter than most. My quiet confidence, attentive listening and comprehensive approach to processing information are the value that I bring to our talkative world. I am finally not only fully accepting this, but I’m embracing it.
So I encourage you, dear extrovert, to consider this: it may take a little more effort to get to know an introvert or hear our opinions in a professional setting, but if you meet us where we thrive, you’ll discover that the extra effort is more than worth it.
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