The Quiet Ones

A couple of towns from me, there is a water park. My two kids love this water park. We used to spend hours upon hours there on a summer day. We’d float the Lazy River, hit the small slides, work up to the larger ones as we got braver, lounge in the huge hot tub. It was wonderful to see my kids laughing and splashing and having so much fun. My biggest concern was catching them in time to reapply sunscreen. Life was good.

I wasn’t aware that inside I had slowly started screaming.

After a few visits, the park started to wear on me. It seemed to get louder and more crowded each time. Suddenly everywhere I looked, in every corner, packed onto every ride, on every inch of open space, were children, laughing and yelling and running. It’s like they were closing in on me. I felt my energy level and mood deteriorate. Even the Lazy River seemed too much. The day got hotter, the sun brighter, the smell of chlorinated water sharper. Then it hit me: all of these things were disrupting my inner peace.

You see, I’m an introvert. Those who know me would probably be surprised. I’m relatively outgoing. I like being active in the community. I’m friendly and somewhat interesting. For years I worked in positions where extroversion is a cornerstone: public relations, sales, program management. While I can masquerade successfully as an extrovert, it’s not the most comfortable thing. I can do small talk, but much prefer substance. I can approach complete strangers to sell a product that’s not mine, but I’m not always totally present because my inner dialogue is telling me I’m being less than sincere.

Despite being (or perhaps because I was) a tremendously shy child, growing up I was pushed toward being extroverted, as many kids probably are. At family functions, I was expected to shake older relatives’ hands and make eye contact. At school, I was expected to make friends. Society tends to favor extroversion. You can see it everywhere, from the classroom to corporations to general social settings. Being able to establish relationships (however deep or shallow), being able to assert yourself to get what you want, being the life of the party – this is what’s valued. Being quiet, being more of a thinker than a doer, being reflective – not so much.

It took me about ten years to realize that a career that required the trait of extroversion wasn’t for me. It took me that long to discover that I was an introvert trying to fit into an extrovert’s world, that being outgoing for a living wasn’t my strength. Once I realized this, I felt happier. Once I accepted it, I felt even happier. But it wasn’t until I became a mother and started writing again after twenty years that I really began to revel in my introversion. I could draw on my rich inner world for material. I gave myself permission to once again listen to my intuition, to say no to too much busyness or too many people in one place. Things felt calmer this way.

Today, I will be the first to admit that I find crowds exhausting. My circle of close friends is tight. In the midst of any discussion or argument, my thoughts run deep, and therefore can take a while to travel to the surface. I analyze and process and intuit. I’ve met other artists and mothers who are introverts. And I’ve realized that they contribute to society as much as extroverts do; after all, someone has to come up with ideas and solutions, philosophize about the world, meditate on deep issues. Someone has to be ok sitting in the corner thinking about life. Otherwise, the world would be way too loud.

My 6-year-old is similar to me. As a baby, when presented with new people or situations, he liked to sit and watch for a while before engaging. I called him my take-it-all-in baby. Today he is slow to warm to new people. But once you are in his circle, he’ll sing and dance for you, tell you stories, draw you pictures, accompany you to the toilet and discuss it afterward, any number of things.

I try to honor my son’s introversion and validate his needs. Sometimes I have to remind myself that when he clings to me when I drop him off somewhere doesn’t mean he’s a ruined mama’s boy, that when he leaves other kids to play alone doesn’t mean he’s anti-social, and that when he melts down in a busy and loud setting doesn’t mean he’s choosing to be difficult, but rather he is overwhelmed and over-stimulated (how he can enjoy the water park for hours on end is a mystery). When I weaned him from his pacifiers a few years ago, each night I took one away. I let him pick which one would disappear that night so he felt he had some control over the process. I knew the cold turkey approach wouldn’t work well. By the end of the week, the pacifiers were gone, thankfully without tears.

I try and honor my own needs as well. After being at a social engagement for a couple of hours, I will sense that it’s time to head home. I feel better when I plan my week and stick to that plan. Multitasking is not my strong suit; I prefer to take a deep dive into one or two tasks at a time, lest I feel mental exhaustion coming on. When I honor these needs, life is balanced, and I feel affirmed and connected. That’s when I’m a better wife, mother, writer, and person.

Recently my husband and I made a deal: no more than an hour at the water park at a time. I need time to re-charge my batteries. And a week to recover.

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