Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Longing for the asterisk free life

I grew up being told, “You can be whatever you want to be when you grow up.”

I’m sure you heard it, too. It’s still being inflicted on new children.

It’s a noble-ish thought and the intentions of the tellers are good.

Still, I always had a nagging suspicion this really wasn’t the whole truth. Particularly when it came to me and my life.

Add to this that my growing up was very centered on church.

Okay, some of you are already quick-drawing with your criticisms and slams. And I’m going to add one of my own. But, let’s be nice and intelligent here: Churches have their issues, but not everything about Christianity is bad. In fact, when the peripheral baggage that isn’t really central to faith is unloaded, most of what’s left that is truly Christian is good. But, let’s set that whole discussion aside for now.

Moving on.

Back to my life and church.

There, I was often confronted with the well-known Pauline bumper-sticker exhortation found in Philippians 4:13, as stated in the King James, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.”

I was always annoyed by this verse. First, “which” should be “who” as Christ is a person not a thing. And second, well…

Really? ALL things? As in everything all things?

Connect this high holy concept to society’s version of becoming WHATEVER you want to be really piles on the pressure and squeezes out more than a skosh of skepticism.

Especially for an introvert.

Not quite everything

The truth about Paul’s quote is that he does not mean “everything as in all things” the way so many try to apply it. Within the context of the surrounding verses, it’s clear he’s really saying that, as a Christian living in crisis, being imprisoned, facing torture, not always having a warm meal or a soft bed – basically, while enduring all manner of hardships for his faith – he can endure it all, but only “in the strength of the Lord.”

This verse gets mis-preached a lot.

As any sane student of Scripture knows, context is king. And here, the context unmasks any misapplication that might lead one to believe they have access to some superhero formula that can magically transform them into something they are not, that God did not design them to be, or that He did not intend.

For example, this passage doesn’t mean that an introvert can be transformed into an extrovert. Well, not permanently anyway.

Because my own experience did not align with how this verse was often preached, and it seemed that things I thought I might like to do weren’t within my reach for some obscure reason, I felt there must be something wrong with me. More on this later.

Discovering personality type

A little older and on my own in jobs set in the exciting world of business, work teams, discontinuous change, and the like, I began encountering workshops on temperament and personality.

At first, I wasn’t too keen on what seemed like mumbo-jumbo. In college, I was somewhat abused by a misuse of the MMPI, a test I loathe to this day. So my shields were up, so to speak.

But these at-work experiences were far different from that. The tools and profiles presented actually made some sense and were helpful. For the most part.

It was through encountering DiSC, Myers-Briggs, and the like, that I discovered I was an introvert. But that I also had “A-type” leanings and could more or less adapt my personality style to fit situations. And I was gifted in several areas.

But I was an introvert.

I was assured by the facilitators that there was nothing wrong with being an introvert. That this could be “overcome.”

Sigh.

In other words, I could do “all” things as an introvert, only with some exceptions. It was like having an asterisk attached to my life: “ You can do anything! *See footnote for exclusions to your expectations.”

The universe might positively love you!

I’m not a fan of all those cutesy quotes about being positive and “true to yourself” and “trust the universe so all your dreams will come true.”

You know the ones I mean, I’m sure.

They’re all over Facebook and Tumblr and still sneak into our email inboxes from time to time.

Sometimes they’re attributed to someone famous. Often they’ve been generated by motivational gurus or scraped out of books on how to be successful in sales and life. They're frequently marred by poor logic,  flawed thinking, and bad philosophy.

They’re often very Rah! Rah!, upbeat, and dripping with “positivity.”

Why don’t I warm to these lovely, sappy, syrupy sentiments?

Because of the asterisk.

I am what I am

Let’s go back to that old chestnut I opened with and how I, an introvert, tend to see it:
“You can be whatever you want to be when you grow up!” *

* As long as you’re more outgoing, personable, articulate, quick to speak up in meetings, love to go out and network…and act more like a bubbly extrovert.

In other words, to succeed in anything, I have to be pretty much everything I’m not, personality-wise.

This is the same as saying, “Be true to who you are (*) unless you’re an introvert and then you need to be more like you’re not and then when you’re more outgoing just maybe the universe will let some of your dreams come true! Yay!”

In fact, being introverted is viewed by many as being stand-offish, critical, closed, shy, slow-witted, suspicious, anti-social, and the list of negatives goes on and on.

Even within the faith community this can come across as being “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14), but, as an introvert, not made exactly right. You know, one handful of mud short of being a complete person.

As I’ve written before, growing up in a Pentecostal environment had distinct challenges (click here to read). Some of these challenges occur even in non-Pentecostal settings as we’re supposed to be “bold” in the Lord, and bold is usually defined as “extroverted.”

Can you see me now?

I’m reading The Introvert Advantage by Marti Laney, and I came across this line: “The introverted person feels unseen.”

Yep. That ‘bout sums it up.

On the next page, she writes, “Growing up being compared to extroverts can be very damaging.”

Duh!

The damage doesn’t end with the end of childhood, either.

Extrovert adults can be hard on their introvert colleagues, usually without knowing it, and sometimes willfully not caring.

Why? Because in the thinking of our culture extroverts rule and introverts need to “grow a pair.” And you, dear extrovert reader, don’t tell me you’ve never thought this. In fact you’re probably thinking it right now.

My colleague, my naysayer

Most of my business career has been lived out being a “communications professional.” Let’s use CP for short.

We CPers are supposed to be sensitive to personality style differences because introverts and extroverts don’t hear the same way; they each respond to different kinds of communication. In fact, most CPers, in my experience, are themselves introverts. But not all.

Just a couple of years ago, as I was discussing the fact that I was an introvert with a CP colleague, explaining that while I can get up in front of people, it’s tough for me, she stunned me.

Her “sensitive” response? She said bluntly, with a look and tone of dismissive admonishment, “It’s okay to be an introvert, but you shouldn’t be telling people you are. Just act like you aren’t.”

Again, sigh.

So, even now, as an adult, a “seasoned" professional, someone who’s been around the block a time or two, I still long for that asterisk free life.

A lament is not a whine

If you’re an extrovert, you probably stopped reading about a thousand or so words back.

But I hope you’re still with me. Even if you may be thinking something along the lines of, “What a whiny cry baby!”

Which, if that’s the case, you are affirming my sense that extroverts, unless they really try, don’t get introverts at all. And possibly don't really want to.

But, let me clue you in to something: We do get you. And that gives us a quiet advantage.

Here are a three other things to keep in mind when it comes to introverts.
  • We are the 50%+. Roughly half of the population consists of introverts. By some accountings, it’s closer to 51%. We’re here and you should want to get along with us just as we want to get along with you. It’ll go better for all of us if you recognize that we’re simply different and neither personality style is better than the other. You have your weaknesses and strengths just as we do.
     
  • You need us. Introverts are differently visioned than extroverts. By that I mean we see things extroverts often miss. You will run full speed ahead making everything around you seem a blur. We sit still and zoom in on the details you’re ignoring and can point out pitfalls and opportunities you are blind to. Listen to us and perhaps you’ll not crash into that wall you're headed for.
      
  • Discrimination is always bad. You already know better than being prejudiced against an ethnic group, preferring a man over a woman for a position, or slighting someone because of their religion or race. Well, putting down or pushing aside introverts is just as wrong.
     
When you think of your introvert colleagues, employees, relatives, and friends, drop the asterisks!:
“Bill’s a great guy (*) but he’s just too quiet; it’s just a little weird.”

“Jill’s got real potential (*) but she doesn’t speak up in meetings.”

“We like Sam’s resume (*) but he’s just not that upbeat.”

“Sally does great work (*) but she always declines speaking in front of groups.”

“Allen seems friendly one-on-one (*) but he stands off in larger groups.”

“Mary is a sweet girl (*) but she’s always got her nose in a book.”

“Jack would make a great leader (*) but he needs to be more outgoing.”

In all the descriptions above, everything that comes after the (*) should not negate what’s stated before the (*). Letting the asterisk stand devalues people who just happen to be talented introverts.

There’s gold in them thar introverts! Finding the gold requires digging, not dismissing.

Besides, one day, the introvert you set aside may become the introvert you end up working for. After all, CEOs of some of the most successful organizations are introverts.

So, yes, while we all may have the potential to become whatever we want, our choices will be guided by who we are, which will also shape how we do what we become. Introverts will lead, but will do so more quietly.

And how God created each of us is equally okay, neither personality style is more complete than the other.

Extroverts, please note, we introverts are many and we have you surrounded! But we’ll be far more gentle with and accepting of you than you tend to be with us. That’s just our nature.

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As an extrovert, does any of this make sense to you? As an introvert, can you relate? As either, do you agree, disagree, don'tcare? Sound off below in the comments section! (Note: If you don't see a comment box, click in the "Comments" or "No comments" link.)
Here are two excellent resources to help you understand introverts (and extroverts) better:

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