“Nobody realizes that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal.” Albert Camus
Not too long ago, I was assigned to lead a fairly large project at work. It involved heavy interactions with various departments, endless meetings, lots of brainstorming exercises, and more importantly—a need for a skillful and charismatic leader, who can build a good rapport with all types of groups and individuals.
For many—especially extroverts—this opportunity will present an outright prospect to shine in the spotlight—a harbinger of future successes and recognition, and possibly a solid step toward the pinnacle of one’s career. Of course, it doesn’t mean—we all know this—that an introvert is not going to be up for the challenge, nor that we can’t excel or exhibit preeminent managerial skills and talents. We are equally suited for the job, but such a high-visibility position comes with some acute preparation. It will simply require more mental priming and longer time spent in our “restorative niches,” thus— making our quiet times outside of work a precious gem, worth savoring.
But when we add another nuance to the situation above—if that introvert is also shy and suffers from social anxiety, things shift in a rather different perspective. Frequently, the ostensibly incompatible combination of introversion, shyness/ anxiety, and exemplar leadership can easily be foreseen as a recipe for a disaster.
It’s a well established fact that not all introverts are shy, nor are they socially anxious. Although these states may be closely linked, they are distinct. But research also tells us that introverts are, on average, more likely to be shy than extroverts.
The dynamics of the affair between introversion and shyness tend to exhibit a downward spiraling effect. That is, if one is shy and introvert, introversion intensifies our feelings of shyness, which—in turn—may lead to a further walk down the rabbit hole of social aversion and more acute craving of alone-time.
Admittedly, in work settings, the combination is inherently unwelcome, as it often reveals a poignant tale of self-dissatisfaction and perceived unworthiness. For all who are introverts and suffer from social anxiety, it appears that we are at a serious disadvantage professionally and socially—one that may be very challenging to remedy.Or, as one may bluntly state the prevalent stance in this situation—“we are doomed.”
Well, contrary to such stereotypical thinking we often get tangled in, losing our safety net and venturing in new foreign lands—especially ones that we have been conditioned to believe we’ll never belong to—is indeed frightening, but has the potential to make us more—more fulfilled, more resilient, more daring.
Here’s what I have found to work for me—to help distance oneself from social uneasiness, so that we can gain from our introvert powers instead.
• Focus on the issue at hand first, not on the people—I know, I know. Being solely task-oriented goes completely against what we’ve been taught to believe over and over— about the value of networking and about the importance of paying close attention to people, this may not always be the right initial approach if we are to ease our social anxiety.
Focusing on the task or the result can help divert our thoughts from worrying about the impression we think we are making on others. On the other hand—we will appear more driven, focused and efficient.
In the long run, an accomplished leader will need to master both skills and sides—people and tasks. But as many introverts can attest, we often need some extra time to warm up to others. So, in the interim state of becoming comfortable enough with a group, establishing competence may just be the better approach.
• Don’t pretend that you are invisible…because you are really not (unless you own Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak, of course). Shyness can often make us want to claim a quiet nook in the room and stay in the shadows, where we can observe rather than engage. Naturally, such a passive-defensive approach is barely a winning career strategy.
Rather than playing invisible, if we are socially bashful, the smarter approach is to unfold gradually, at a pace we feel comfortable with, starting with just a few comments at every meeting. A phased strategy will help us slowly improve on our shyness, as we grow more familiar with others, but it will also let us leverage our strengths as introverts—as discussions in small groups are our forte, our chance to shine, to be heard.
Letting it all slip away—by fussing about our lack of extroverted-type eloquence and enthusiasm—will simply be a missed opportunity to claim out spot at the table—not only as quiet leaders, but also, as individuals who can raise above the ingrained (but sometimes just perceived) setbacks of their temperaments.
• Ask questions—Form the years of experience I’ve had in the corporate world, I have grasped a major observation. Asking questions doesn’t make us appear less knowledgeable, slow at grasping ideas, or not clever enough. On the contrary, research tells us that asking questions is a highly constructive undertaking, it shows inquisitiveness, a desire to understand, to learn more, so one can be more helpful.
However, high social sensitivity may often prevent us from fully and effectively engaging with others, and of exploring a matter in depth to find a better solution.
Advanced preparation comes quite handy here. If you are the leader, draft a list of discussion points, be ready to address any questions, and exercise some assertiveness when someone tries to hijack the conversion.
Having a pre-defined script will make it easier to overcome our anxieties. Admittedly, asking questions will put us in the spotlight—but in the right way, where we, once again, will have an opportunity to draw from our introvert strengths of reasoning, analytical thinking and shrewd decision-making.
• Get Excited—We may be reluctant to admit it, but we all have a certain degree of vanity. When we speak, especially in a small group, people usually pay attention.
No matter how horrifying the idea may be, it’s possible to enjoy the Broadway-type of moment when our quiet powers become more visible, as it may also present a great opportunity to earn us the respect and recognition many of us deserve in our extrovert-dominant world.
The trick is to not let the inner hurricane of negative thinking and anxiety (“What if they are secretly laughing at me? Do I sound reliable enough? Do I project enough confidence? Do I have something between my teeth?” etc.) self-escalate to a point that it tints our credibility.
One way to reign in those rebellious butterflies in our stomach is to reframe our anxiety, as Prof. Alison Wood Brooks of Harvard University tells us. Instead of trying to calm down ahead of stressful and high-visibility events, we should feel excited. Adopting an “opportunity mind-set” (vs a threat mind-set), can improve our performance. It’s really simple too—it entails some straightforward self-talk (“I’m excited”) or encouraging messages (“Get excited”).
Therefore, it appears that trying to cool down—a strategy we’ve been prescribed for years—may not be the “cool thing” to do after all, when it comes to controlling our anxiety.
• Finally, even if things don’t work out the way we anticipate, we shouldn’t beat ourselves up too hard. Rather, embrace the mantra by Scarlett O’Hare from “Gone with the Wind:” “After all, tomorrow is another day.”
No matter what, we are still the heroes of our life stories. Some recent discoveries in social psychology reveal that we can choose to edit these stories and to craft more meaningful and purposeful messages.
It’s up to us to decide how to build the setbacks, the failures and the unfavorable experiences into our life narratives—as “learning” and “experience-gathering” episodes, or as markers of our inability to win over our anxiety and to have successful careers. Some re-framing, or “story prompting,” has been shown to produce some rather incredible outcomes.
Because ultimately, our stories are not just tales we tell ourselves and believe about our personalities. They are our personalities. What we assume about ourselves, will eventually guide our behavior. And who we elect to become depends largely on the scripts we ourselves let to be written in the stories.
To again address the question I posited in the beginning—are we really predestined career-wise (and personally too) if we are introverted and are shy too? Of course not. Sometimes, we just need a bit of time to become comfortable with new people, tasks or situations. Other times, we may have simply been missing the proper tools and aids that can enable us to move forward and succeed.
But we are not to be bound by the society’s stereotypes for success. Even if we believe in the invariability of our innate personality traits, we can still opt to become more courageous and demand to have our voice heard.
It may be scary at first—true, it may feel uncomfortable for a while, but in retrospect—it would have been worth it.
The famous poem by Erin Hanson eloquently sums it up:
“There is freedom waiting for you,
On the breezes of the sky,
And you ask “What if I fall?”
Oh but my darling,
What if you fly?”
Evelyn Marinoff is a Canadian, currently living in Dublin, Ireland. She is a social introvert, a mother, an MBA, a passionate reader and a writer in the making. She holds a degree in Finance and Marketing, but spends her free time reading, writing and researching new and intriguing ideas in psychology, leadership, well-being and self-improvement. On her blog mind-chatters.com, she writes daily tips and pieces on self-enhancement. You can also find her on Twitter at @Evelyn_Marinoff.