Introverts and shy people all over rejoice: there is nothing wrong with you. There is nothing wrong with needing space and quiet, and preferring a low key dinner with a good friend to a loud and extravagant party.
There is nothing wrong with needing time to retreat from the world and recharge your internal batteries, or to feel overwhelmed by too much pressure or too much information.
I’m a latecomer to Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. It’s been out for a while, but that doesn’t make its message any less important.
One major point she makes is that introverts are thinkers and creators. “The glory of the disposition that stops to consider stimuli rather than rushing to engage with them is its long association with intellectual and artistic achievement”, science journalist Winifred Gallagher is quoted. He concludes that neither Einstein’s theory of relativity nor John Milton’s Paradise Lost was “dashed off by a party animal.”
Susan Cain adds more great achievements by venerable introverts: Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity, Chopin’s nocturnes, Charles Schulz’s Charlie Brown. Even techno revolutionaries like Google founder Sergey Brin or Facebook creator Marc Zuckerberg are included. The list goes on to include Al Gore, Warren Buffett, Rosa Parks and Mahatma Gandhi.
Many of us turn to the mind. We are called cerebral, innovative, brooding, creative. But also spiritual, psychologically minded, curious about the inner workings of all things. Endlessly fascinated by the wonders of nature, and inspired by the journey of discovery.
Of course, not all introverts end up famous. Many of us struggle with feelings of loneliness, fear of conflict, depression and low self esteem.
Many times, our negative self image goes back to the messages we received from our families and our culture. Extroverted children are deemed preferable to quiet ones by lots of parents, for fear that their kids will end up as outsiders or loners. The angst they are putting on their children ends up creating just that: youngers who feel bad about themselves …
Most people who seek psychotherapy believe that they are weak, that their life force has been shaken to the core, that they can’t face the world and its challenges. But it’s quite the opposite. Daring to look at oneself and one’s imperfections really is an act of heroism.
Most of us don’t like to admit that we often are in need: we crave to be in a loving relationship, grow roots and find stability in a community, want the security of having a financial cushion and so on. So much of our self exploration focuses on our needs and how we can avoid the pitfalls of never saying no to anyone.
And not just that. Sometimes we are weak. When our child is in pain and we can’t help, we feel each pang of that pain with them. When we are exhausted and run down, we don’t have it in us to stand up to whoever we feel treats us unfairly.
Defeat cannot always be averted. All there is to do is to admit that we have failed. There is no way to pretend otherwise. We need to be able to face the truth of our human existence.
Admitting to feeling vulnerable and confused automatically takes the aggression out of a fight. Saying calmly “that really hurt me” or “I just don’t have it in me” deflects anger and opens the door for dialogue and cooperation. It avoids defensiveness and the typical downward spiral of self righteousness and stonewalling.
Seeing our weaknesses enables us to move past them, because we first have to become aware of our limitations before we can try to do something about it.
Knowing that we are vulnerable makes compassion with others possible. Everyone appreciates compassion, kindness and gentleness.
Every feeling is temporary. All things must pass, as George Harrison said. And there will be an end to feeling weak and incapacitated too. It’s all part of the human experience. The sooner we can accept that, the easier we will move past it.
“Why Do I Do That?” is the title of a new book by fellow blogger Joseph Burgo which deals exclusively with the ways we try to deal with difficult feelings and situations in life: It’s our defense mechanisms that make us look away when things get dicey or hard to deal with. The book is released on October 29th and will be available on Amazon in print-on-demand and eBook versions. In this interview, Joe Burgo explains how he got fascinated by the topic.
What do people defend against?
In the broadest sense, they always defend against pain. Donald Melzer said that defenses are lies we tell ourselves to evade pain, which is a very elegant way of saying it.
There are different kinds of pain. In my book I divide it into three areas. We are primarily concerned with what it’s like to need and depend on other people, which can lead to frustration, hurt and disappointment. Secondarily, we are concerned with being able to manage a lot of intense feelings that come up in relationships. And we try to develop some sense of personal self worth, to feel that we have value, and when we don’t, that leads to shame, a deeply painful experience. So need and dependency, strong feelings and self esteem, those are the areas where pain comes up and we rely on defense mechanisms.
What are the classic defense mechanisms?
Well, there are repression and denial. All defenses rely on repression, even though it’s a defense in its own right. Displacement, reaction formation. Splitting, idealization. Projection. And then there’s a bunch of other ones that are secondary, like defenses that involve ideas of control, and lastly defenses against shame.
What are these?
Narcissism is the primary defense against shame.
Narcissism is a defense?
Pathological narcissism is a defense against shame. There are people who are currently writing about this connection, its kind of out there in the profession right now.
How do you work with patients in terms of defenses?
As I was writing the book, I didn’t really think that I am working on defenses but I guess …
Exercise can be just as effective against depression as medication, especially in mild to moderate cases. Study after study has come to this conclusion, and it can even help with major depression and to prevent reoccurring episodes of it.
Many alternative health professionals talk about how “food is medicine;” now, the corresponding view is “exercise is medicine.” A recent news item claiming that exercise is more crucial in managing diabetes than food, is an example of this new viewpoint.
Having a stronger body increases overall well-being, even in people with low self esteem. Body and mind cannot be seen separately – an insight that athletes back in ancient Greece were well aware off.
Of course, it’s difficult to motivate yourself to move when you are depressed. It’s important to find an activity that suits the pace you are comfortable with. If walking is all you can do, then walking it is (especially when done in nature). If dancing feels possible, do that. If you like Yoga, great.
You don’t have to hit the gym. Find something that appeals to you. Being active on a regular basis (say two or three times a week) is much more beneficial than doing something strenuous once in a while.
If you can avoid medication and exercise regularly instead, even better. Drugs can have serious negative side effects, especially when taken over a long period of time. Some studies even suggest that antidepressants can lead to chronic depression.
This phenomenon seems to occur in many people, who had an initial positive response to SSRIs, then stayed on the drugs, relapsed and became treatment-resistant. This is when the depression may become permanent.
Other cautionary tales include that psychiatric drugs have led to impairment in brain development in animal studies. Robert Whitaker, author of “Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness”, points out that the widely believed theory of chemical imbalances in the brain had turned out to be false.
It is undeniable that drugs have helped and still help countless people, especially with severe mental illness. …
It’s bad enough feeling anxious or depressed. But what makes the emotional pain so much worse, is that we can’t just accept what it going on inside our minds. We have to criticize ourselves for being afraid, angry, jealous and so on. That’s what really brings us down: the inner critic.
Let’s say something went wrong at work. One of your clients decided to go with another firm and you feel directly affected. It’s one thing to get over the loss of business. It means loss of income, loss of contacts, loss of reputation.
It wouldn’t be so bad to just let it go and be done with it.
But that’s usually not the end of the story. We start to feel that we should’ve known they weren’t happy; that it’s something we did wrong, and it’s solely our responsibility. We should’ve done this to prevent their leaving, and that to find a quick replacement.
We come down hard on ourselves and cannot possibly forgive that we can’t read other people’s minds, or potentially made a mistake. It’s unacceptable that we’re human, and humans can’t always know.
What’s needed in order to silence the self-critical voices in out head is self-compassion.
We need to look at ourselves with the benevolence and understanding we’d offer a child or a good friend. “Don’t worry so much”, we could say to ourselves. “You did everything you could. You worked your butt off, talked to everyone you could and made a big effort to make the client happy. Sometimes we can’t control all the factors, and I can’t know all the ins and outs of why they left our company.”
It’s important to put yourself in the shoes of someone who will talk you down from your self-blame and relentless criticism.
And it’s not just psychological strategy to get familiar with self-compassion; there are actual studies that have shown it’s positive affects.
New research concludes that self-compassion leads to “significant positive association with self-reported measures of happiness, optimism, positive affect, wisdom, personal initiative, curiosity and exploration, agreeableness, extroversion, and conscientiousness.”
If we can leave …
Lots of people are shy. I am, kind of. It doesn’t come out as much, now that I don’t go to loud parties and crowded bars anymore. I prefer lunch dates and small dinner parties, and my social needs are fully met by being in quieter and smaller settings.
A big part of why people suffer so much around others is because they feel they should abide by certain social standards. Sometimes they’re not even aware that they don’t like particular forms of gathering.
Some college students (or former college students) prefer to binge drink rather than admit to themselves that they feel awkward around people they don’t know very well. The alcohol kills all anxiety and serves as a social lubricant in order to feel more comfortable.
Sometimes it’s possible to stick to a limit of one or two drinks that hold them over all night. A moderate amount of alcohol can work well to calm the anxiety without being excessive. Unfortunately, many people can’t stop once there’s a mild buzz, especially when everybody else is knocking down glass after glass.
The difficulty in trying to hold a conversation when in the grip of social anxiety, is the flightyness we communicate to others. We feel insecure about whether we have anything interesting to say, and this belief is openly displayed on our face, for everyone to spot.
Our gaze goes somewhere towards the other end of the room, our voice falters, maybe our whole body is turned inwards or away. We start thinking about our own awkwardness rather than what we’re trying to say, and come across as flighty and unfocussed.
This is often what makes the person we’re trying to talk to lose interest, or wonder what’s going on. If we ourselves don’t believe that what we have to say is worthwhile, then others will do just the same.
The key to dealing with this anxiety is presence and awareness. As soon as we begin to focus intently on what we’re trying to communicate and how it’s going to be received, there’s a whole different emphasis on the connection between the two people involved …
One of my clients came in the other day and was quite upset. About herself.
“Why can’t I just stick to my guns?” she asked aghast.
It’s something that happens to her quite frequently. She thinks she has an opinion about something, but as soon as someone else explains why they think differently, she sways over to the other side.
“It bothers me that I am so understanding” she concluded.
Indeed, her understanding of others regularly makes her forget her own point of view.
It’s the old story: it’s hard to just say no, put up a boundary and side with one’s own experience. Whenever another influence appears, your own position takes a back seat. We call it self defeat.
Of course, there is always the need for balance. Someone who blindly and continually insists on their point of view is not well adjusted either. Unevenness towards either side – too little consistence or too much – is undesirable.
We need to remember to put up a firm boundary towards others when we feel that we are taken over too easily.
How do we do that?
Awareness is the key, as always. When do you tend to get swept away by others? In a certain social setting, with your in-laws, your wife’s girlfriends, your high school buddies, your doctor?
People in authority have the most power over us – whether it’s a domineering relative, a store clerk or a cop. Any kind of uniform will usually do the trick.
Observe yourself when your determination begins to soften and the other person wins out just by the sheer volume of their words or their voice.
Put both feet on the ground, straighten your posture and stay firm.
Your have come to your own conclusions, and they are worth no less than anybody else’s.
Recently, one of my patients insisted that her boyfriend be able to read her every desire from her eyes. As she contemplated what it would be like to let go of this habit, she asked a question that gets to the heart of letting go: “Do you want to be right or do you want to he happy?”
We all have our attachments.
We get attached to the idea that our spouses should know exactly what our needs are. We get attached to knowing our way to work and get pissed off when the road is blocked. We get attached to things always going our way and feel stifled when they don’t.
Sometimes we have to literally let go of a relationship that is no longer a good idea.
When a friendship has run its course and feels chronically stale or exhausting. When an ex is moving on with his life and doesn’t have time for us anymore. When a relative is destroying himself with drugs or alcohol and we realize that we only sustain the addiction.
Life is difficult at times. There is no one who is spared. Pain is necessary so we can appreciate the joy of life. There is not one without the other.
The earlier we can accept that, the less we will suffer. Only then can we be free.
“What if my boss saw me do xyz and starts thinking less of me?”
“My brother-in-law made a snide remark about our cousin, what if he talks badly about me as well?”
“I overheard my mom saying I look fat in that dress, I feel terrible.”
Other people’s opinions can wreak havoc on our self esteem. We take their judgements at face value and allow a careless remark to torture us for a long time.
To some degree, the attitudes in our most important social groups provide orientation and structure. It’s not that we shouldn’t care about anybody’s opinion at all. But we also shouldn’t let somebody dominate our mental well being.
Self doubt is one of the most destructive forces for our sense of self. If another person plants the seed of self doubt in our minds and we get stuck in it, we may very well end up in a depression.
When you feel the effects of someone else’s words get to you, put up an mental barrier around yourself. Imagine a protective shield go up that prevents any negative influence from getting to you.
If it gets out of hand, remove yourself from the source of negativity.
Remember, it’s nothing but a person’s opinion. We give others authority over whether their remark get through to us. We have the power to reject them or allow them to find their way in.
Look at the larger picture. Considering the sphere of your town, your country, our whole planet, one small person’s words mean nothing.
Imagine you are an astronaut, looking back at the earth from space. This view renders all chatter, all the self importance of small minds meaningless.
It’s up to you what you want to do with it.
One of my patients came in this week in full workout gear, having biked from his home to my office. He smiled and relayed a message he got from a friend who is a psychiatrist: Instead of taking an SSRI-antidepressant, he recommended working out three times a week.
The effects, said the specialist, would be the same in cases of mild to moderate anxiety and depression.
The message concurs with a recent New York Times article about how to motivate people to exercise. Most of us know first hand that the threats of weight gain and heart disease don’t do much to get us moving.
But as soon as mental health and happiness is addressed, people seem to pay attention.