I’m an introvert. Introversion demands solitude. Quite a bit of it, in fact.
No matter where I’ve lived, or with whom or how, I always have a ping in the back of my head telling me to run away. To retreat to a quiet spot. To small rooms with doors. Trails that have no on ramps. To places that are cold, wet and uncomfortable, the bitter openness of the Yorkshire Dales, for example. Craggy rocky walls. Expansive, textured sky. And sheep, which notice you but don’t need to interact. In fact, they usually run. Sheep are perfect introverts.
But I don’t live in Yorkshire. I live in London. I have a husband. And a job. I must function. Like many introverts, I can usually communicate my introvert needs in a world that demands interaction and does not generously dish out solitude.
Don’t misunderstand, I quite like people. In fact, I’m outgoing and comfortable in social settings, especially in England where people are naturally reserved I cannot keep up this behavior forever, however. Too much interaction—especially if it lacks fulfillment—saps my energy. I feel tired and stretched. I withdraw, become cranky. The cracks start to show, and I feel like I’m falling apart.
My emotional state is thirsty, I need to drink solitude. If I cannot find it, I make my own.
I’ve learned to create my own solitude by establishing a mental focus that blocks distractions. This is not unique to me, nor to introverts. Solitude goes hand in hand with creation and self-discovery, and in its nurturing grace great art often thrives. Steinbeck lamented the intrusion of others during his especially productive
Whether it is a moment of reflection or a long period designed to catch the frequency of our own delicate thoughts, solitude is nurturing. Thinking quietly is my natural, preferred state of being, not an adjusted one, which is why I’m emotionally and mentally suited to be a writer.
One of the most difficult issues I’ve faced as an introvert is that from time to time, I must shut people out. And they notice. And they feel rejected. And I feel horrible. I’m from the Midwest, we’re naturally inclined to accommodate others. The older I become, the more confident I am about my preferences, the more imperative it becomes to establish solitude. Yet, I’ve never quite developed the knack (or fortitude) to adequately express myself, even when I feel strongly.
I don’t articulate my need for solitude because I don’t want to reject others. I become passive-aggressive.
I’ll give you an example of the first time I realized I really needed to get better at voicing my needs in a non-passive-aggressive way. A few months ago, I found myself on an airplane. A short flight. Small plane. Loud, like a tornado zipping through an air horn factory. The kind of noise that sets your teeth on edge. Conversations, children, everyone yelling their needs; the stimulation was overwhelming. It was the equivalent of having a browser open with 114 tabs.
But it’s no one’s fault, and it doesn’t make me hate society or break out in hives. It’s just the nature of airplanes. So I tried, per usual, to take comfort in my writing, and to create solitude. To enter my mental tent of silence, support, and nurturing. I call it my Mind Igloo.
Storms rage, but inside my Mind Igloo I’m sheltered, warm, and cozy. With seal-fat fires and warm caribou blankets.
I pulled out my laptop. I did my best to allow my stream of consciousness to float me into the Igloo, considering the thirty-degree angle that the seat tray and seat back created and the constantly present pressure this set-up created on my arm. But for all of my enthusiasm, this takeoff was giving my escape plan some serious headwind.
My hands were at my chest, typing like a Tyrannosaurs Rex pecking. Itsy-bitsy movements. Effort but no real consequence.
I was seated on the aisle. I pulled my elbow in for the food cart. And the beverage cart. And the trash cart. And the beverage cart. And if I’m not mistaken, the trash cart, again. We had very ambitious flight attendants.
I noticed, in my peripheral, a slight movement. The woman next to me. Her magazine and head seemed to move. To the right.
I know this move. I’ve done this move. She’s invading my solitude.
She was reading my computer screen. How utterly annoying. She came into my Igloo without knocking. (Or however you announce your presence to someone inside their Igloo.) Does she not understand introversion?
I typed on. I mean, whatever, we all glance at each other and process instant information. I knew she was reading Vogue and was wearing dirty Uggs.
It happens. Again. No hives. Just the nature of curious people and airplanes.
However, her glance evolved into a trance, as her gaze fixed on my computer screen. I could tell by the way her head moved slightly, and she reacted to what she read (which I think was a short fiction I had started). She hadn’t just come in without knocking, she had moved in with a space heater. Changing the space. Taking it over. I’m not asking anyone to stay out of my line of sight, or out of ear shot. I’m not refusing to interact with someone who wants to get past me or ask me the time. I’m still a functioning part of society.
And this isn’t about her being rude. It is about disruption. Mental disruption. To an introvert, this behavior is imposing and disrespectful, and it diminishes control. It was not her intention, of course (it is never extrovert’s intention to diminish introverts, but it is a consequence). She completely paralyzed my writing and melted the Igloo with her space-heater stare.
I wanted to turn and say:
“Get out of my Mind Igloo! I didn’t invite you! You’re taking away my solitude.”
Instead, I was concerned about her feelings and thought if I didn’t openly confront her, her pain would be minimized. I opted for a passive-aggressive approach. I typed, on my screen, with my T. rex arms:
AND THEN JACK TOOK OUT A KNIFE AND BRUTALLY STABBED THE WOMAN WHO WAS READING OVER HIS SHOULDER!!!
I counted under my breath. I felt like Kennedy facing off with Khrushchev.
Initiating reaction in 3……..2…….1……. Full seconds passed before I saw, in my periphery, a slight movement.
The head righted.
Feeling pretty chuffed, I added (just in case):
JACK THEN BROKE THE KNEES OF THE PERSON WHO WAS ACROSS THE AISLE AND ONE ROW BACK AND ALSO READING OVER HIS SHOULDER!!
The rest of the flight was fine. I didn’t write any more, but I relaxed. I got home, went online, and bought a privacy screen. And noise-cancelling headphones. They have made a huge difference in my public introversion and creation of solitude.
Did I overreact? Sure. I had to be loud to get my quiet. It felt necessary, commensurate. I’m walking around all the time respecting people’s Mind Igloos. If I ever see that you might be constructing or retreating into one, I will do everything in my power to avoid knocking on your door. Minimize myself, so you can flourish. I speak this unspoken communication of people’s needs.
I expect the same from others. But, of course, I don’t always get it. Because people don’t want the same things. I prefer introversion, perhaps she doesn’t. Perhaps she wanted to interact. Perhaps she wanted me to ask why she was flying. Perhaps my anti-social treatment of her was as offensive as what she was doing to me.
I recognize that. At the end of the day, it’s about awareness of your own needs and compassion for the needs of others.
Introversion. Extroversion. Whatever version you are.
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