Perception is an odd thing. I get the feeling sometimes that even introspection is flawed. The most perceptive of individuals can be misled sometimes, and it has been my introspection (introversion) that has given some people the wrong impression of me from time to time. A few weeks ago I was team interpreting with a colleague I’ve known for sometime. When I misinterpreted something, I gladly accepted her feed, but later she commented that I had given her stink-eye the moment that she had fed me the correct English term to voice. I was stunned and ashamed. Stink-eye! Me?! I frantically sifted back through my memories to that moment — had I felt any ill-will toward my colleague that could have shown on my face? Not at all! I respect her a great deal, and if I am failing to interpret accurately, well, that’s why we work in teams! Feed me, Seymour!
What had I been feeling, then? Embarrassment, surely. It never feels good to be caught in a mistake, and my audience in this case wasn’t limited to just my colleague. My internal-editor, highly developed as it is from years of practiced self-loathing prior to my becoming a professional interpreter, had simultaneously caught the error and I was already chiding myself for having done wrong. Perhaps this is what my colleague didn’t know and therefore misunderstood about my look: I already hate myself more than I could ever hate anyone else, especially you. I was simply unaware that all of that inner monologue was playing across my face.
Living with this disease has shown me that it colors all aspects of life. The way I touch the world around me, the feel of it, and the light as it enters my eyes. The sounds that ensnare and entrap me, or comfort and soothe me. Like many people with mental illness, I have a love-hate relationship with my madness. On the one hand, the quirks of my non-neuronormative mind have made me especially empathetic, introspective, intelligent, and creative. However, these gifts are tempered by bouts of extreme sadness, mood lability, anxiety, obsessive compulsive behavior, and mania. When I’m in a depressive state, I’m extremely low-energy which makes me twice as introverted as I am on a normal day. In a manic state, however, I may be extroverted, aggressive, or combative — and I have no control how I will react to any given situation.
Being bipolar is one thing, but being an introvert? Though it’s a popular buzzword these days, it can be damned inconvenient. Introverts are highly marginalized and stigmatized in our low-context culture which places a higher value on the number of words in a communication than the content of the message expressed. Americans are also by and large individualistic, emphasizing the importance of the individual over the community. Thus, if a person does not put in the requisite facetime and pay the expected homage to the highest ranking individuals in the room, that person is perceived as haughty or rude. This is where it gets tough for your garden-variety introvert. We are much happier to be on the fringes of the gathering, having deep conversations with one or two people who we know very well than engaging in small talk with strangers. Introverts gain more from high-context interactions, but our society wasn’t designed with us in mind. As author Susan Cain explains in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts, “In our society, the ideal self is bold, gregarious, and comfortable in the spotlight. We like to think that we value individuality, but mostly we admire the type of individual who’s comfortable “putting himself out there.” Our schools, workplaces, and religious institutions are designed for extroverts. Introverts are to extroverts what American women were to men in the 1950s — second-class citizens with gigantic amounts of untapped talent.”
But as with all things, it is rarely so simple. Often introversion or extraversion in an individual will vary with context. People are confounded by my introverted tendencies when I am often observed to be quite extroverted in certain situations. “Why can’t you be this much fun all of the time?” they wonder. I’m not a math problem — I’m just a human being trying to make it day by day with this disease, one that often alters my personality in drastic ways. I don’t always know if I’m doing it right, because I am convinced that my ego is flawed and my intuition is telling lies. There are days when I spend a great deal of time looking inward in an attempt to locate that truth. Sometimes, I get lost in there, wandering around the dusty halls of my wayward mind for days. In general, introverts are more likely to look inward than outward — I wonder, do we also tend to struggle with the same twists and turns of mind?
I am a trained apologist, conditioned through years of abuse and bad relationships to accept responsibility for everything in my environment, even above and beyond that which I am capable of having caused to happen. When confronted by a disagreeable individual or someone who has treated me poorly, I am far more likely to take their behavior and internalize it than to stand up for myself and say, “hey, I don’t deserve this” because I have been hard-wired to believe that actually, yes, I do deserve this. I am wrong and bad and wrong-bad and I deserve this. The doubt never subsides, and neither does the chattering in my mind that gives it momentum. Is this the secret kept within the heart of the introvert, the key to our powerlessness?
I don’t mean to conflate introversion and mental illness, but I do believe there is more than a casual link between the two. I, for one, am fighting an endless war with myself, attacked on all sides by inner demons that speak in the voices of those whom I love the most. These are the same poor souls that are sometimes unwittingly attacked when I am despondent and disassociative. I am practiced at the post-tantrum apology, as my husband can attest, but to apologize for being introverted? To apologize for having a low-energy, highly inward-turn day? This is something I can neither control nor would necessarily change, given the opportunity. That some circles of individuals, largely extroverts themselves, misconstrue my silence as rudeness is something I cannot contend with. I feel increasingly less willing to try, since despite my best efforts to combat my natural tendencies the criticism for coming across as “rude”, “selfish”, or “ungrateful” continues regardless. This is true also of others battling for their right to introversion. We seek comfort in ways that are sometimes contradictory to the terms of normalcy and happiness of the masses — but that doesn’t make us freakishly odd. Still, we beat ourselves up, and for whom? For them?
No, for them, we give explanations: “I am not being sick at you.” “I am introverted, but I need to be social for my mental health. I would like it if people didn’t misunderstand my social ineptitude for rudeness.” “I am both social and introverted. I would like to be welcomed into the group on my own terms.” We try our best to acclimatize to the surroundings in which we find ourselves and hide those things that make other people uncomfortable. We do our best. It’s no surprise, really, that psychologists report that introversion is fucking exhausting, just as much as any given mental illness or behavioral disorder. (Not to mention, as I said, the co-occurrence of mental illness and introversion.) But it’s also incredibly powerful. Just as bipolar disorder gives me a unique world view, introverts are seen to be more creative, innovative, and self-reliant. Some of the world’s best public speakers and leaders are introverts, Ghandi, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Rosa Parks among them. In fact, there is some research to suggest a link between a higher I.Q. and a higher level of introversion. From Carl King, filmmaker and introvert: “A world without Introverts would be a world with few scientists, musicians, artists, poets, filmmakers, doctors, mathematicians, writers, and philosophers.” So the world wasn’t made for us — big deal! I’m used to that — I’m also left-handed.