While this is the Year of the Rooster, I’m thinking about other birds of late: ducks and swans to be precise. You might recall the story of The Ugly Duckling, in which a signet is born amongst a brood of ducklings. Being so different, he is persecuted and ostracized by his family, flock, and other animals near the pond. He endures numerous ordeals and nearly dies, until one day he is finally recognized by a flock of beautiful swans as one of its own. Still, he has a difficult time believing that he himself is one of these gorgeous and graceful birds until they have him look at his reflection in the water. Doing so, he sees what he truly is, and in that recognition everything makes sense and he is, at last, home.
There are a lot of ugly ducklings around, a lot of people who feel flawed and different and who long to fit in but just … don’t: People who prefer one-on-one conversations to large groups. People who like solitude. People who dislike small talk and shirk social gatherings. People who like to go deep. People who are introverts.
One such person is a client of mine who recently had an epiphany about his own swan-ness after he read a book by Susan Cain titled, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Ironically, he couldn’t stop talking about it. He was completely liberated to discover, after many decades, that he isn’t weird or wrong or even a duck: He’s a swan. He’s an introvert.
My client was so enamored of this book and its insights that he lent it to me. Honestly, I wasn’t sure I’d be reading anything new; I’ve studied the topic and taken the Myers-Briggs assessment for introversion and extraversion. But just a few pages in I had a major awakening: My entire adult life I thought I was a misanthropic extravert. Turns out I am what Cain calls a, “Pseudo-extravert.” In other words, an introvert who can pass. Go figure.
Like my client, I went from “There’s something wrong with me,” to “There’s nothing wrong with me, I’m just an introvert!” in one, quick, quiet moment of revelation. One cannot overstate the enormity of such a shift in perception. To go from feeling like a misfit on the Island of Unwanted Toys to feeling perfect and necessary and important just as you are is, well, HUGE.
This information is crucially important because there’s a 30 to 50 percent chance that you, too, might be a swan trying to live in a Duck Dynasty and suffering mightily under its tyranny. Being an introvert in a hugely extraverted culture is no easy thing. In an extraverted, bombastic culture of high energy, high volume, competition and assertiveness, asensitive swan can feel overwhelmed (a common experience for introverts), favoring, as they do, quiet, introspection, intimacy and deep conversation. Because of this mismatch of temperament and environment, “swantroverts” are less comfortable out in the world and often, as was true in my case, in their own families.
My entire life I have been accused of being “too sensitive.” To learn that most introverts are highly sensitive — in every respect — helps make sense of how I experience and navigate my life. This, coupled with other introverted indicators (can’t listen to news, can’t handle violence of any sort, don’t like noise, avoid most social engagements) shifts my thinking from negative (“There’s something wrong with me”) to neutral, even positive. (“Baby, I was born this way!”) What a relief!
Part of my mission in life is to help people find and embrace their true selves, and Ms. Cain’s work goes a long way in helping many of us to that end. Whoever you are, whatever you are, you are not a problem to be fixed but a gift to be revealed. I invite you to take a peek in the pond; you might be surprised by who you discover there.
KATE INGRAM, MA, is a counselor and life coach helping clients to navigate major life transitions and to discover lives of greater meaning, purpose and joy.