“We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!” – J.R.R. Tolkien
Hello, my name is Becky, and I am an introvert.
Since I believe that introversion is not a matter of choice, I would say I’ve been an introvert since my birth, about four decades ago. I struggle every day to deal with a world designed to reward the easily outgoing. I have a closet full of clothes perfectly chosen for a wallflower. A wardrobe of just the right colors and shapes to draw absolutely no attention, good, bad or otherwise, to myself. I am used to shopping for an introvert, planning a schedule for an introvert, and carefully choosing hobbies and activities for an introvert. I have spent much energy learning how to clothe and care for my introverted self.
And now I have son. And he is an extrovert. And I have no idea how to dress him.
I have been spending time this last year trying to intentionally analyze how the aspects of my own personal culture are affecting my son. I have looked at little details like the music I listen to or how I exercise, and bigger issues like religion and spirituality. I have used this blog as my personal measuring stick, setting goals for myself and tracking my progress. I have to say that I have been very pleased with the results this exploration has brought in my day to day life. I have seen progress on many fronts that I don’t think would have occurred without this intentional depth of planning. And yet, I confess that I am also ashamed. Ashamed to have left this one issue untouched for so long, when I know that it is clearly the most urgent.
Since I am confessing here, I must admit that like the introvert that I am, I have left this one detail untouched on purpose, because I have such fear and discomfort with it. I feel like I have spent my whole life banging away at this part of myself… trying, trying, trying to change an inherent part of my personality that just can’t be changed. Just these last few years had I finally come to a sense of acceptance and appreciation about this aspect of myself. I had finally quit trying to be less introverted. Now here she is back again, Becky the self-loathing introvert, back striving for change.
The word “confession” is really no good without the word “full,” so in the spirit of full confession I suppose I must restart this post in a more honest fashion by putting back in a word that has been in my mind but skillfully omitted so far.
Hello, my name is Becky and I am a horrible introvert.
For almost all of my life, I have never been able to say the word “introvert” without adding a “horrible” in front of it. It has taken me significant practice to leave it off, and even now I sometimes will slip up. With all my current wisdom, though, I can say honestly that I believe I have been an introvert from birth, but the “horrible” part didn’t get tacked on until years later when I learned what an appealing word it seemed to be to describe myself.
From birth my parents would have described me as a happy baby, not excessively fearful, capable of playing alone well, but also dealing well with other kids and adults, but then life happened. At three, I was burned quite badly in an accident. At five, my mom and I were in a fatality car crash which left her emotionally injured and withdrawing from life. At six, my dad had cancer. In these formative years, I spent almost all of my energy focused on my family. I was a pint-sized peacemaker. I cooked, I cleaned, I chored, and I cared for them. I was obedient and understanding of the stress my family was under. I would have gladly sacrificed any outgoing impulse in order to not put further stress on my overwhelmed parents. I did not ask to go to play. I did not ask to have friends over. An afternoon spent with another child outside of the scripted, scheduled routine of school was a rarity.
When I progressed into my tweens and teens, my lack of interaction with those outside of my family became increasingly obvious as I missed out on the social cues that were becoming more and more important. I began to avoid speaking in order not to make a mistake. I began to hear myself described as painfully shy, and so I began to believe that I was not introverted, but rather shy. And that shyness was a condition that should be painful, and so it began to feel painful, very painful. I began to withdraw from even those friends that I did have as I felt more and more awkward. There would be weeks and months at a time that I would not speak unless spoken to, a personal comfort-zone rule I tend to fall back on to this day.
As an adult, I was determined to overcome my shyness, and to an extent I succeeded. I purposefully put myself into situations that would absolutely force me to go directly against my introverted tendencies, and I gritted my way through the pain. Through years of hard work and education, I eventually created an alternate persona, Dr Rebecca Faulkner, who was reasonably confident and outgoing enough to take me through many situations; however, I still always feel much more comfortable in relationships where I have a clearly defined, practiced, and best-of-all scripted role.
My son, however, is completely opposed to me being a doctor. He wants none of my professionalism in his life. And in my heart, I have to agree with him. He is always wanting to get to the genuine heart of his mother. He wants Becky, even when she is shy and pained, she is what he needs. My son wants this mother-Becky to take him out into the world and teach him how to interact with it, and oh, how inadequate she feels to the task.
That my son is by nature an extrovert is not a doubt to me anymore. Since I find him the most fascinating creature on the planet, I have been actively studying his personality every day of his life. I have asked my son personality questions repeatedly, and taken parent questionnaires as well. I’ve interviewed his teachers and quizzed other adults around him, and come to the quite clear conclusion that he is an ENP. An extroverted intuitive perceiving child, a little visionary, an born inspirer.
He has a few stumbling blocks in his path though. He has difficulty with facial recognition. He often has difficulty remembering and recognizing faces, and tends to place people by their clothing or body movements which frequently leads to confusion. He’s not good with names either. He also lives in a such a rich internal imaginary world that it is difficult for him to understand why others can’t see things the way he does, why they don’t know what he is talking about. He loves having his mother around in social situations to give him little cues that help his interactions go smoother. In many ways I have found this comforting. In many situations I would prefer to be the mom at the top of the jungle gym or the mom in the pool than to have to sit on the sidelines with other parents who I don’t feel comfortable around.
Let’s face it. Mom to mom talks are just not my cup of tea, but a child can’t broker their own personal life. My son needs his mom to be willing to create and maintain his social schedule. However, I have up until now conducted most of my mom-interactions under the umbrella of two unwritten personal rules. “Speak when you are spoken to” and “Don’t ask-Don’t say No.”
The first rule is pretty self-explanatory. I have been content t.o wait until others approach me or speak first. I have spent what felt like hours at birthday parties sitting next to other parents who are most likely perfectly nice people who would gladly have a conversation with me, and I have instead been silent waiting for them to speak first. I have had perfectly reasonable opening lines, like “What’s the score of the game?” right on the tip of my tongue and not been able to make it come out of my mouth. There have been many occasions when my son has begged for me to speak to another grown up on his behalf and I just couldn’t make myself do it. Why? I would step into traffic to save that child, but some days just speaking to a not-quite-stranger seems impossible.
Yet, not speaking up may be sending my son all sorts of silent messages that I don’t intend. Messages about the nature of relationships, the importance of his ideas, the worth of myself and himself, and the need to show compassion to others. His nature is to be outgoing and accepting and very perceptive and responsive to the feelings of those around him. I want to help him enhance these strengths, not believe that they should be stifled or constrained. How can I teach him to be true to himself and still stay true to myself at the same time?
My other self-imposed rule has been,“Don’t ask, Don’t say No.” By this I mean that we never turn down a birthday party or playdate invitation unless my son is physically ill. I will change my schedule completely around, drastically, to make sure he can attend any friend’s event he is invited to, or any school activity. I will take this to weird extents, I mean I once even rebooked an entire vacation just to make it to a kids two hour birthday party. I know it is important for my son to interact with other kids and have the chance to build bridges that can lead to meaningful friendships over the next few years when friendships will become so important. But seriously, I can hear the extroverts out there saying, “Well, uhh, rather than rebooking vacations, wouldn’t it be easier to just invite some kids over to play?” The answer is, “No, easily outgoing person. No it would not.” Why? Because that would involve inviting, and for an horrible introvert to actually reach out and make plans to invite someone into her personal space is just painful.
To explain for those who might not understand, introverts do enjoy people. We just have trouble meeting them. For those few souls who convince me that they are safe, I can happily blurb out my life story, and sit up with a drink late into the night expounding about all my hopes and fears about life, the universe, and everything. But opening up enough to a stranger to get to that point of comfort is difficult. I love entertaining. I adore setting a beautiful table, and I love cooking for friends. Every time we have had people over to our house, I have completely enjoyed it, even though I know the conversation will leave me exhausted. But working myself up to planning such an invitation just almost never happens. I love when people haphazardly show up at my home unannounced or invite themselves at the last minute because it is so convenient for me. I want to be with people, but I just won’t ask.
My son is openly bothered by this. He is always begging to have friends over for a playdate. He is always wishing to see his cousins. He would drop anything any hour of the day to see Matthew’s youngest siblings. He asks, politely, respectfully, but over and over to have people come to his house, or to make plans with others. Why do I put him off? Why do I make excuses? Why can’t I just see this as a basic need he has, like healthy food and warm clothes, that I just have to provide and so force myself to do it with the good feelings that a mother has when meeting her child’s basic needs? I wish I could just put aside all my awkwardness for his sake, but on most days it feels like giving him a kidney would be easier.
How extreme do I take this? My son has never had a birthday party with friends. I make up for this with volume and intensity. He usually has three family parties every year each with a different theme, and then I will purposefully take him out of state on some splashy trip to Legoland or the Great Wolf Lodge as a “present,” all just to avoid having to send out party invitations. He has never had a sleepover. We’ve never had a school friend at our house. My precious boy would so gladly be a social butterfly, and he just can’t get mom to leave the cocoon.
I worry about what all this is telling my son. How is he processing it in his brain? He thinks deeply about things, but he often thinks about them in ways I find unexpected. I have a habit of making him repeat back things that I have told him, because more often than not he has heard the exact opposite of what I said. As in, “What did I just tell you about that laser?” to which he replied, “That if you look straight in it you’ll see something awesome in your eye.” No, it was exact opposite. Like the days he comes home from school and says, “I learned today that galaxies don’t exist,” or “My teacher told me the sun is going to explode any day now.” Nope again, the exact opposite. So what is he hearing and thinking about all the times I make excuses or just tell him no. I’ve tried to talk to him about it, but I can’t get a full enough answer to alleviate my fears.
I have always said that my son may not be perfect, but he is the perfect child for me. I love every detail of his fascinating personality. I adore every way that he is like me, and I cherish every way that he is different. The challenge that I think I will be facing over the next few years, is how can I be the right mom for him?
I think I’m just going to have to grit it out.
I’m going to have to set some very clear goals for myself and hang onto them as if my son’s life depended upon it. I accept that I’m not going to find this comfortable, but if I can work it deep enough into my head that it is a necessity then surely I can do it. After all, I have cut off body parts, injected poison in my veins, lay quietly on a table while was blasted repeatedly with radiation. I’ve sold everything I owned, walked away from those I loved, and turned my life upside down, all because believed it was the right thing for this little boy of mine. I realized now, however, that risking my life is the easy part. Risking myself, combating my inner nature, is the real battle. And, like any battle, it will not be won in a single fell swoop. I will have to repeatedly step into the fray on my son’s behalf, and I will have to do it with a smile on face, and fake a confidence that I don’t feel in the hopes that he can somehow learn his own true confidence in the process.
To clothe this extrovert of mine, I will have to find a way to weave a whole new fabric than any I am accustomed to. It will feel rough and scratchy to me. It will constrict me in ways that I won’t like. But if I want him to be proud wearing it, then I will just have to accept that he will need to see me proudly wearing it first. Not forever, surely not forever, but long enough for him to see both utility and beauty in its threads. Long enough for him to learn how to weave on his own. Then, hopefully, I can happily return to my cocoon, knowing my son is flying through the world clothed in the strongest, lightest, most beautiful silk, of a pattern all his own.