I wound up getting a pretty invaluable takeaway from the Staycation-that-wasn’t.
When it was over — or not over, really, since it didn’t really happen, but you know what I mean — I realized that I had stayed off my personal Twitter without even noticing. Then I realized that going back on filled me with some level of dread. So did the prospect of doing pretty much anything that involved promotion or standing out from the madding crowd in any way. While I didn’t get the time off I wanted, I was at least able to get a handful of days separate from my larger work world of late and away from its constant din. In a word, anything potentially extroverted or which carried the pressure to be extroverted made me feel highly anxious and depressed.
Growing up, music, writing and teaching were always my big loves, as they are still. Unsurprisingly, my musical abilities tended to be the ones that got the most attention and focus from others. Some of that was just because I loved to make music, but I suspect a larger part of it was that making music tends to involve a level of performance that writing (well, until fairly recently) and teaching, especially when you do it the way I’ve always liked to, do not.
The thing is, I never liked performing. I still don’t. What I liked was making music, being a part of music, or even more to the point, being so much a part of music that what I was in those moments was music itself, separate from myself, invisible as myself. My favorite part of any kind of art has always been the process, not the product, and really being able to get lost inside that process. Before I went to the arts high school I did, I was always in the choir at every school I attended. I remember people feeling very invested in getting solos or not, but that was never my interest. Being in the choir — in it – was my favorite part. I especially loved those moments when you’d be singing with everyone else, and all the harmonies would be just right: even though you were still singling just as clearly and loudly when your own voice was more audible, you’d blend in so that you couldn’t distinguish your voice from anyone else’s anymore. It was like you opened your mouth and everyone’s voice came out, and yours was only one part. It’s the same reason I loved being in the mosh pit during my high school years: things were loud and intense, sure, but everyone was part of the crowd, it required going with that flow or people would wind up underfoot.
I loved being at the arts school. Being able to focus on my writing was fantastic, but I was there primarily to study music, and I loved that, too. At the end of senior year, everyone needed to present their own project, and I was so happy to be able to form a band and be able to collaborate with a group, rather than playing alone. But by the time graduation was coming up, I,d realized that a life in music would probably mean a life performing. Making my living as someone who only stayed in the studio was not likely to be doable (I should have learned a brass instrument, I know). If I wanted to sing, I’d need to learn to like performing. I tried. During my gap year, my friend Joe and I would play open mikes and at a couple bars and I literally tired to see if I could learn to like performing if I just sang and played my dulcimer with my back turned to the audience. (Yes, really. I did like it better, but audiences, as you’re probably not surprised to hear, found it a bit odd.) What about street performing, I thought? Maybe that would work. Nope. Also? Fucking brr.
So, when I started college, I decided to stop studying music and focus instead on literature and sociology, and on writing and teaching. There’ve been two decades between then and now, and a lot happened in my life and in the world in between. And of course, silly me, I decided to write and teach about and subjects that seem perfectly normal and relaxed to me, but also wonderfully complex, so never boring, but which most of the world finds provocative and feels the need to yell about a lot.
But over the last couple of decades, the biggest thing that happened around my little epiphany I’m about to talk about is that it seems to me that our culture has become a culture of constant and en-masse extroversion to the exclusion of all other ways of being. A “look at me” world. If how a lot of the world seems to be going right now was a kid in class, it seems like it’d be the kid who always has their hand up for every question, even though half the time, they don’t have the answer or weren’t even paying attention to what the question was.
Everything seems to involve marketing. Everything feels like it involves making yourself louder and louder and louder and bigger and bigger and bigger. If you don’t want to be on television — or, if you’re like me and that kind of visibility sounds like a circle of hell Dante would have invented if he’d written the Divine Comedy in the 21st century — it must mean you’re not really motivated to do whatever it is you do. Hell, we have reality television, and people who aspire to be on reality television as a what-I-want-to-be-when-I-grow-up. If you just want to quietly do your own thing, it’s often assumed you must not want to involve other people or make an impact on the world, since making an impact involves being seen as widely, as largely as possible, even if what you have to offer when given those opportunities is less than the best you’ve got to offer. I can’t express how many times over the last year or two I have found myself arguing with colleagues who just don’t understand — they’re not being assholes, they just clearly don’t get it – why I don’t self promote more, more, more and how I can be highly dedicated to doing what I am without wanting to spend more time marketing myself and my work than time doing my work. It’s gotten to the point where if anyone around me even starts the sentence, “You know, you really should promote yourself better by….” I feel on the verge of tears or shin-kicking, sometimes both.
And in the subject I work in, in sex, I feel like it’s just gotten really bad — and maybe it always was — to the point where the promotion and marketing schtick has gotten so fever-pitch that even smart people I know with great intentions frequently sound like snake oil salesmen to me. I ran from two professional email lists screaming in the last year because where I had been looking for educated community to deepen the actual work we all do, most of what I found was what sounded like a nonstop infomercial from hundreds of people at once, some of whom, it seemed to me, spent more time marketing than actually doing the work, because when they did ask about work-related things, the questions they asked were so rudimentary it made it obvious how little time they spent doing the work they were promoting.
When I’ve been trying to figure out why I’ve felt so burnt out and tired, I kept finding myself very perplexed. I love the work I do. Working with teens and young people, especially when they’re in crisis, can be very challenging, but it rarely wears me out: it tends to energize me instead. I never get tired of writing: I still love the process. Same goes for teaching: I still love working as en educator. The money stuff is always tiresome, so I often look there when I’m trying to identify a source of stress, but that’s not it. I wish I had more time for my life, still, and for my own creative work, but I’ve been working on that with some measure of success. I keep being asked for things from too many people who seem to forget I’m just one person over here, but as frustrating as that is, I can let mostly those annoyances go when I experience them. I’ve wracked my brain with all of these puzzle pieces and more, trying to find out where, exactly, so much of my stress seems to be coming from.
Then I realized that I somehow have managed to often fall into working in this extroverted mode that doesn’t work for me at all. In fact, it keeps me from doing my best work; from my best self, even. From who I am and the way that I do things best.
I’m gragarious, sure. And very open. Sometimes loud and boisterous. But I’m not extroverted. I’m introverted. It’s one of the reasons I always loved writing. It’s one of the reasons why I’m always much more concerned with getting enough time alone than with getting enough social time, and why I always feel completely perplexed when people ask me if I get lonely now that I live on the island or if I get bored out here. When I was in the UK early this year, Blue took some time off and was home alone for several days. When he told me on the phone he hadn’t seen a single person in days, I said, “I know, isn’t it AWESOME?” (I think it is. Blue, on the other hand, was a little freaked out by the experience.) It’s one of the reasons I fell so in love with Montessori when I discovered it, where the teacher isn’t the focus, the students are. It’s one of the reasons I still love making music, and tend to save it for cherished, quiet times when I’m alone. It’s the main reason why it’s been very hard for me to have to adjust to the fact that semi-regularly now, I have to do public talks for big groups, something I’ve gotten decent at doing, but am always most thrilled when it’s over. My introverted nature is not news to me nor is it to anyone who knows me well.
And yet. Because — and really, I can’t believe how unaware of this I have been — it seems like the way things have been around this is that this, this high-key extroversion, is The Way you do them, I have tried to do them that way. I have tried to keep my own personal and professional din at something resembling the level of what seems like everyone else’s. I have pushed myself really hard to perform the way a lot of my colleagues perform. Heck, I can actually track this back to way earlier in my life, to times even as a kid where I forced myself to learn to be loud because I so badly wanted to do things, and the only way it seemed I was going to be able to get a chance to do them was if I acted like I was extroverted.
And that, my dears, is what I realized has been making me so incredibly worn out, above and beyond all else.
For an extrovert, see, that stuff obviously feels energizing and exhilarating. Not for an introvert: it gives me an intense desire for a rock to go hide under where I can take a long nap or listen to my records alone all day. An extrovert loves to be in the spotlight. We introverts generally can’t stand it, especially if we’re not at least sharing it, ideally with someone who wants that spot right on them, far, far away from us. My sense is that for extroverts, being constantly visible and in the middle of everything helps them focus. For an introvert, especially for this introvert, it feels like trying to watch one screen while 50 different screens with different things on them are on at once. It’s distracting. For me to see out clearly, I have to start by seeing in: and I can’t do that very well if I’m trying to be extroverted. It’s like extroversion puts a flashlight in my eyes. Not only does it just feel wrong — wrong like you feel when you’re trying to get somewhere, and someone tells you you’re on the right street, but you are 110% certain you’re utterly turned around – it makes it really, really hard for me to even remember what I’m supposed to be doing, let alone enjoy it.
The thing is, I — and my other fellow introverts — should be able to be who we are, the way we are, and do what we want to do in life and in the world in our way. It’s no more wrong or right than the other way: these are both ways of being. Not putting out a constant, flashy, look-look-look outflow doesn’t mean I don’t want to do things that have a big impact, nor that I don’t think my work has value: it usually just means that I want to be in the work and focusing on the work itself, and focusing on myself in such a way that I’m the vehicle for it, rather than the other way round.
I thought a little about some of the people I’ve admired most in the world who were clearly introverted: Blake, Goodall, Thoreau, Ghandi, Woolf, Bronte, Curie, Einstein, Dr. Suess, Jung, King, Van Gogh, Chopin, Yeats, Joni Mitchell, Georgia O’Keefe, Remedios Varo, nearly every writer and artist whose work I find most visionary and my father. Then I started thinking about how they’d fare in the world right now, and how hard it might even be to find them and what they did if they didn’t shift to an extroverted model. I mean, would Virginia Woolf really be like, “No, srsly, everyone, COME SEE MY ROOM! Pls RT!” Would Thoreau have a daily photoblog of Walden Pond? Why? How the hell would Chopin have composed anything with one hand on a cell phone? How on earth could activists like King and Ghandi have done what they did as well as they did with the kind of reactive urgency we have right now?
Then I realized that all the people on my list were brilliant people, very self-possessed and visionary people who I feel certain would have found a way to be who they are, and to do things the way that felt right to them, without taking on a way of being that would be more likely to stand in the way of their work and their lives than it would be likely to enhance it.
I am, at the moment, without solid answers about how to do this differently. At the same time, it’s not like I’ve ever really thought about it before: I only, and quite foolishly, just hit upon this awareness last week.
But I’m so very grateful to have gotten to that awareness, even if what got me there mostly seems to have been a lot of deep annoyance, a ton of new grey hairs, distraction from all of the things I actually want to do and which need a level of full attention tough to come by anymore for me to do them as well as I can, and feeling very misunderstood pretty much constantly, all unpleasant things.
For now, I’m just going to start thinking about this. I have a few strategies to start with, though, like staying away from social media I can until I figure out a way to manage it that really works for me, taking baby steps to ask the extroverts in my circles to accept I’m different than they are, doing things more quietly, even if it seems like a gamble to do so, and just reminding myself that the way it seems like everything has to be done isn’t the way everything has to be done. There are other ways to do things than whatever the predominant model is or seems to be at a given time, something I know and have always applied to near everything in my life and my work, something I tell other people at least several times a day, and something I used to do all the time, so there’s no reason I can’t apply the same here with this, starting now.