Ever feel side-lined and ignored?
Fiona came to see me for a few sessions to help her to get along with other people. She was in her thirties and she told me that she had recently moved to this city and felt lonely at work. She had no friends in her workplace, despite working in a large office with many people of a similar age. She had been there for six months and felt as if she was being “left out of things all the time. It makes me sad because I hoped things would be different here.” Fiona had moved with her husband to this area when he relocated for work, and she was also able to relocate in her administrative role.
From the first session, it was apparent that Fiona was really unhappy and that loneliness was the crux of this. She had a loving relationship with her husband but he worked away a lot and she would sit by herself in her home night after night. She was a bright, attractive women and she said she knew all of the things she should do to make friends, like join clubs and mix with people, but she didn’t know how to put this into practice. She said “There’s no point in me joining clubs when I’m not even included at work and I’m there for 40 hours every week.”
Does this sound familiar to you? I think that there are many Fionas in the world who are unhappy or lonely yet do not quite know what to do about it. On the face of it, Fiona should have been happy. She had a husband who loved her, a lovely home and a new job which she enjoyed. Yet it was apparent from the first session that Fiona had often felt as if she was on the fringes of friendship groups and was not accepted by other people.
We are social beings and it is a very rare person who prefers to have no friends. Even if people only want a small group of 2-3 friends, or even one friend, the fact is that people need other people. Historically, this makes sense because when we lived closer to nature amongst wild animals, the loner would have never survived against a hungry lion or bear. Yet in large numbers, loud, gesticulating people en-masse would look threatening to a predator and would be more likely to be left alone. It was functional for people to act like that to scare away the predators, and whether at the front of the crowd or at the back, it is likely that everyone would have needed to join in to survive as a whole.
As the world we live in now has become noisier, technologically advanced and more fast-paced, some people chose to retreat from this, whereas others prefer to join in and make the noise. I suppose it is this preference that has seen people labelled as introverted and extraverted over the years. Yet, people exist on a continuum, and this preference can and should alter hour-by-hour and day-by-day. So what happens when we call ourselves introverts/extraverts? Or when we allow other people to call us this? Should we rigidly stick to our label as an introvert or extravert, as this has become our comfort blanket, used to help us understand ourselves and be different from others?
Fiona told me that she was an introvert and had never had many friends, but this did not bother her before because she had been able to form a few very close friends over the years and this was enough for her. She had married one of them! But she had moved away and in this new city, in her new, busy office she hadn’t yet made friends or moved beyond polite smiles to any level of conversation. She said “I don’t need to be out all the time and have loads of friends, but a couple would be nice.”
The focus of Fiona’s sessions was on developing social skills that would assist her in the office, with the aim that these skills would then be applied in other contexts. But first, it was absolutely crucial that she stopped thinking of herself as an introvert. When I asked her to explain to me what she meant when she described herself in this way, she said “I’m shy, quiet, reserved and I need time to myself to recharge my batteries.” She told me that her friends where she used to live were also introverts, and they would be shy, quiet and reserved together, before going home to “recharge batteries.” We broke this down into two areas.
Firstly, in her group of friends, whilst being shy, quiet and reserved compared to others, she expanded on this to tell me that they would enjoy coffee and cake at one another’s homes and chat about the latest books or DVDs they had enjoyed. They would sometimes watch a DVD together, usually a romantic comedy, enjoying each other’s company and laughing together. She told me she would also go for walks in the countryside with her friends or they would sometimes bake together. She said they rarely spoke on the phone but would text or email each other. It was clear these were happy memories for her and she missed this interaction.
Secondly, we discussed what she meant by having to “recharge” her “batteries.” She had read this term in a book about introverts and felt it described her well, but she obviously knew that humans are not actually in need of a battery recharge. We are not robots! She explained that she meant she would feel physically and mentally drained after spending time with people, as she felt she needed to be constantly alert to everything that was going on around her; sounds, smells, sights, jostling of things and people in the environment. She said she felt that people were all vying for her attention and involvement and this was tiring. She said the noise and bustle was distracting to her, when she wanted to talk to her friends one-to-one. Fiona felt that this one-to-one interaction was important to her, and she felt extremely hurt and distressed if she was saying something to somebody and they interrupted her, or started talking to somebody else.
Life and soul?
We discussed how in most social groups, even at the busiest party, the person doing the talking is usually only really talking to one or two other people, even if others are in the vicinity, listening in. I asked her to think of examples in the past when she could notice that this was the case, rather than thinking that the “extraverts” were all talking to each other, all at once, all of the time. Fiona laughed when she recounted the times her sister (who she thought was extremely extraverted) would get in a huff if she thought people were not listening to her. She said “It is probably just how I feel too, but I thought she was like that because she wasn’t the centre of attention, rather than because someone wasn’t listening to her.”
I discussed with Fiona how being overstimulated in the environment is not a pleasant experience for anybody, and we all have our different ideas about what is overstimulating. For Fiona, it was a noisy pub or party with large groups of strangers, but for some people it can be large, busy churches or shops, parks with too many children running around and crowded train stations. Fiona was surprised that this actually made sense to her, because she felt that she could experience some of those situations easily with no concerns in relation to her ‘introversion.’ She reflected “I would never say I can’t go to a busy train station because I’m an introvert, so why should this put me off going to a party?” She found that it was the bombardment of her senses in certain environments which was hard for her to deal with, rather than being the result of her introverted label.
Speak your mind
I cannot tell you how frustrated I am to see that some ‘professionals’ advise ‘introverts’ to physically train for impending social interaction, as you would for running a marathon. Some even advise people to take serotonin supplements to deal with it. When did life become such an ordeal? If it is this draining to interact with others in certain ways, then just don’t put yourself through it. You don’t need to explain this or make excuses for it. Just don’t do it! Life is too short for you to have to put yourself through such an ordeal.
You see, I know that the thought ‘I don’t like this type of interaction because I’m an introvert’ causes all kinds of problems for people. This is no more of a valid argument than a so-called ‘extravert’ who tells me that they are unable to sit and have a meaningful conversation with one friend because they would rather be out at a party with twenty friends. What? All day, every day? Nonsense.
We must all develop the ability to adapt to situations as and when we see fit. If you don’t want to go to a loud party, full of people you won’t know, that is fine, and doesn’t have to be because you are an introvert. I have absolutely no inclination to jump off a bridge with a bungee rope tied to my legs. I won’t do this, ever in my life, because I really don’t fancy the idea. It won’t be of any benefit to my life and I’m pretty sure I’d hate every minute. So I won’t spend time training for this and psyching myself up for it because “I have to do it.” Nor will I tell people that I won’t do a bungee-jump because I’m not a risk-taker. I repeat, I just won’t do it, because I don’t have to and that’s my choice as an adult.
Try this same response yourself by inserting whatever it is you don’t want to do (parties, concerts, family gatherings). Let’s try it; I have absolutely no inclination to go to that concert dressed as a rocker. I won’t do this, ever in my life, because I really don’t fancy the idea. It won’t be of any benefit to my life and I’m pretty sure I’d hate every minute. So I won’t spend time training for this and psyching myself up for it because “I have to do it.” Nor will I tell people that I won’t go because I’m an introvert. I repeat, I just won’t do it, because I don’t have to and it is my choice as an adult. Simple!
Back to Fiona
I asked Fiona how she thought an ‘extravert’ would act in her place of work. She found this easy, because she said “they are all extraverts. They go around smiling and laughing and being loud. All chatting to one another and joking around. They all talk to each other all the time.” I asked “How do they ever get any work done?” to which she replied that they did do their work, and it wasn’t that they acted in that way all of the time. Eventually, Fiona identified that some of the people in her office, acted that way some of the time. At other times, she said they were quiet and kept themselves to themselves. For example, she said “they don’t all go for lunch together all the time. That would be difficult as there are about a hundred of us working there.” She said sometimes, many people sat reading at lunch, or ate a sandwich alone at their desks. When I asked why she thought this was she said “well yes, they are extraverts, but sometimes, they must just want to be on their own.” I asked her whether, at those times, she could imagine those same women enjoying a DVD, coffee and cake at her home when her husband was away or going for a walk in the nearby hills. She smiled and said “yes, I think some of them might like that.”
Fiona came to realise that she was allowing the ‘extraverts’ some leeway in the way they chose to behave at different times, yet she would not give herself that same leeway. She said “I thought that because I was an introvert, it was normal to feel drained around people and need time to recharge my batteries.” I gave her the task of going to work the next morning and taking on the role of an ‘extravert’ to see what this felt like, just for half an hour. The rule was that for thirty minutes, she must act like a Hollywood star who was being paid thousands to ‘be an extravert’ for just thirty minutes, and she had to email me afterwards with a full report about her experience.
This is an extract from Fiona’s email which she has allowed me to share;
It was a bit weird at first but I made sure I kept in the role. I thought I had to do it as soon as I got through the office door, otherwise I knew I’d chicken out. So I walked right into the kitchen saying “good morning” to everyone I passed and smiling at them. I made myself a coffee, and started to talk to one of the girls, Leanne about what she had done the night before. She was on her way out of the kitchen and she looked shocked. She stopped and told me she had been to the cinema so we talked about the film she had seen and I laughed when she told me about it. I wasn’t acting then, I really thought it was funny! Then I took my coffee and arranged things around my desk, talking to the girls next to me about the work we had to do that day. They looked surprised too, but were really friendly. It didn’t really feel as weird as I thought it would then. They carried on talking for a bit and we all did some work. They made another drink and asked if I wanted one, then one said “you’re very chatty today” or something like that and they said they hoped I was settling in well and not feeling like the new girl. For the first time, I didn’t feel like the new girl. And it wasn’t as tiring as I thought it would be – I found them quite funny at times and laughing seemed to give me energy. I kept acting like that for the rest of the day too. It was quite easy really. They are really nice and friendly and I hadn’t noticed before. I thought they were just leaving me out.
You see, Fiona had taken the risk of trying a new role, as if she was putting on a new jacket. This is something we can all do and is really useful for us, in so many situations. She was able to see how living as an ‘extravert’ would feel, even though she hadn’t made huge changes to her identity.
I asked her if she would call herself an extravert now and she laughed, saying “no, but I don’t call myself an introvert either, because I’m not. I’m just a normal person who can act in different ways at different times.” Our sessions were at an end.
I’ll finish this article by repeating Fiona’s sentiment; people can (and should) act in different ways at different times. We do not need to label ourselves or other people as introverts, extraverts, ambiverts, risk-takers, impulsive, shy, quiet, etc. Let us simply interact with each other in healthier ways.
If you also want to be included more try to:
1) Pinpoint exactly how this would improve your life, which will motivate you to take decisive action
2) Think of other people as individuals, not a whole group. There are billions of people in the world – is it really likely they fall into two main categories? Think about how you could get along with people one at a time
3) Let people see the interesting side to your character. Show off your baking skills by taking a cake to work. Show your quirkiness by wearing something a little daring – and respond to comments about this. Emphasise your sense of humour by laughing at a funny joke when you hear this around you. People like this!
4) Join in with general discussion around you. If people are talking in a large group around you, listen and plan how to join in the conversation at times. Make a valid point, ask an interesting question and tell people when you agree with their views. This isn’t rude because they aren’t having a private conversation are they?
5) Ask people individually about their day, what they did the night before, what they think about a current piece of news, whether they have planned a holiday that year
6) Ask their opinions on your own choice of holiday, food, sport etc and be genuinely interested in their perspective
7) Allow yourself to be different from the crowd without having to label this or encouraging people to think of you in terms of that label. If people think you are an ‘introvert’ they might assume you won’t want to be asked to join them for a coffee. If they think you are an ‘extravert’ they might be scared you will take all the attention away from them or that you’ll be overbearing, so might not ask you to join them for a coffee
8) Accept there will be times when you won’t be included, or you won’t want to go with the group. This is fine – but explain this simply in terms of your current plans, wishes and moods, rather than linking this to all-encompassing personality traits which are deeply held and long-lasting. For example, if you don’t want to attend a party that night, say this is because you are not in the mood as you’ve had a busy week so you’ll prefer to have a relaxing evening, but you’ll probably go to the next one! Contrast this with “I don’t really like parties. They give me a headache and make me want to go off and be on my own and I won’t know many people there.”
The main thing – stop labelling yourself and others. You don’t need a reason or excuse for your choices.
All names and identifying details of clients have been changed to protect confidentiality