Tortoises are out of fashion. They are no longer the wise ones, taking one patient step after another, coming out victorious in the end. Today, they are the ones who can’t cross the road fast enough, the ones most likely to get hit by a car.
There is shame involved in being a tortoise.
And so I have spent a considerable chunk of my life trying to turn into an extroverted hare, coming up with rationalizations for why I am not, most definitely not, an introverted tortoise.
For one, I don’t move slowly. In fact, I love to dance. I am quick in perceiving and understanding what people say and mean. I am not slow-witted.
But these explanations don’t quite cover what it means to be a tortoise—how their rhythms are slow and deep, how they enjoy taking in the scenery instead of rushing past, how they need the shell that protects their most vulnerable, precious self.
As introverts, it’s easy for us to get alienated from our own nature because of the extrovert bias in the culture at large. So, how do we reconnect with and start celebrating ourselves? It starts with self-awareness and living our own truths.
The Way We Manage Energy
As opposed to extroverts who turn to other people to recharge and renew themselves, too much interaction saps our energy. Introverts turn inward and need quiet spaces to recharge. This is why we turn to nature, to prayer, to solitary hobbies.
We already know this from our own experience. What we often struggle with is the validity of this preference for time alone. I’ve wrestled with this too, thinking that there is something wrong with me if I am not excited about going to a party or socializing at the end of a hectic day.
It’s only recently that I’ve begun to let go of this internal dialogue. By going deeper into my own creativity—writing more, doing photography—I’ve realized that what I am actually lonely for is a connection with myself. When I’m taking a photograph, for example, I feel present and whole.
Engaging in activities that make us happy helps us focus on all that is right with us, instead of wondering whether we are faulty.
As introverts, we need to start giving ourselves permission to go deeper into our own nature. If building legos, reading books, or watching birds gives us joy, that’s what we should be doing instead of going along with what other people think is fun.
It might be fun for them, but is it fun for us?
Another thing that I’ve learned is that although I need time alone, not all interactions affect my energy in the same way. While many social interactions leave me feeling depleted, there are some that have the opposite effect. In her wonderful book, The Introvert’s Way, Sophia Dembling discusses this with Cognitive scientist Jennifer Grimes.
Grimes says that the real issue is not how much energy we put in a situation, but whether we get an adequate return on this energy investment.
She says, “There are people who like to invest a lot of energy and get a lot back. Some people don’t want to invest a lot and don’t expect a lot back. The people who are deemed the extroverts in pop literature, the people who are social butterflies, what they get back on an interpersonal level is sufficient for them.”
As introverts, we need to be aware of this. While small talk is draining for us, meaningful conversations are energizing. They require us to expend energy, but they also give us energy back.
Haven’t we all talked for hours about something we are passionate about, and been at a loss about what to say when we are talking politely with an acquaintance?
The Rhythms of Social Conversation
As an introvert, social conversations can be a challenge for me. I didn’t realize earlier that one of the reasons for this is the difference in the rhythms of how introverts and extroverts communicate.
When we are asked a question, introverts usually pause to think about it before replying. We need this space to formulate our answers. This is different from extroverts, who formulate their answers while talking.
Because of this difference, when we are silent, extroverts can perceive this as meaning that we have nothing to say and rush in with their own thoughts. And while they are talking, we can’t think. This dynamic renders introverts mute.
For me, understanding this has been extremely important. Instead of getting frustrated that I didn’t get a chance to speak, I’ve started responding differently. By showing the other person that I am still thinking by providing visual cues (like furrowing my brows), I hold my ground better in a conversation.
I’ve also started letting myself interrupt the other person. And in the case of those people who are extreme talkers, I’ve understood that it’s okay to disengage and simply walk away. By doing these things, I’ve created more space and freedom in my interactions.
While understanding this basic difference between extroverts and introverts is important, we also need to be aware of the mistakes we can inadvertently make in social situations. One of these is being too quiet in a new group setting. Introverts don’t realize that it is the silent person in the group who gains more and more power as the conversation goes on.
Elaine Aron talks about this dynamic in her wonderful book The Highly Sensitive Person. She says that if we remain silent in a new group, other people can be left wondering if we are judging them, unhappy about being part of the group, or even thinking of leaving the group. As a defence mechanism, the group might reject us before we have a chance to reject them.
So, in a new group, it becomes extremely important for introverts to communicate what they are thinking, even if it is just to say that we are happy to listen and will speak up when we have something to say.
The Focus on all That’s Right with Us
As introverts, most of us have heard messages about all the things that are wrong with us. We are too intense, too solitary, not fun enough.
What’s wrong with thinking deeply? What’s wrong with solitude? What’s wrong with enjoying one-on-one conversations instead of a big party? And fun according to whom?
Once we give ourselves permission to ask these questions, we can also start seeing our own strengths more clearly. What the culture considers an aberration is what makes the best part of us.
Thinking deeply gives us new insights. It helps us see new relationships between things. The solitude we love is also the springboard for our creativity. It gives us the chance to imagine and re-imagine our world.
Aren’t these all amazing things?
As introverts, connecting with our essence is what will help us actualize our talents. Not acting like an extrovert. I am sure it’s great to be a hare, but not if you are a tortoise.