The Quiet Ones: With holiday season coming up, some introverts get antsy

The Quiet Ones: With holiday season coming up, some introverts get antsy

November 14th, 2014 by Karen Nazor Hill in Life Entertainment

When 1 isn't the loneliest number.

When 1 isn't the loneliest number.

Illustration by Thinkstock photo

Phyllis Williams doesn't shy away from parties, and she loves nothing more than showing up for a sporting event.

So it may comes as a surprise to people who know her that Williams considers herself an introvert.

"I dread planned social gatherings; impromptu things are best for me so I don't have time to dread them," says Williams, of Soddy-Daisy. "I love people but am uncomfortable in social settings that aren't centered around a common activity, like an outdoor sport."

Thanks to the success of Susan Cain's 2012 best-selling nonfiction book, "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking," more people are speaking out about being introverts. Among the most well-known introverts are Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, J.K. Rowling, Eleanor Roosevelt, Steven Spielberg and Rosa Parks.

Williams, a baby boomer who declines to give her age, also notes that she is becoming even more introverted as she ages. "I was much more outgoing in my youth, though I've always been the studious bookworm and perceived as introverted."

Like many of the famous introverts, Williams has learned to live comfortably in her own skin. She, in fact, has a secret that enables her to interact easily in social events -- a camera. Williams is an amateur photographer.

"Being the photographer at gatherings lets me interact with people without feeling obliged to chat. I love that," she says.

With the holiday season rapidly approaching, Williams may be using the protection of her camera for more events than usual. For true introverts, week after week of social gatherings this time of year can leave them feeling drained. Introverts actually can be very social and enjoy the holiday party scene, but after awhile they'll probably need alone time to recharge from what Cain calls "emotional labor."

"I'm not anti-social, just introverted," Williams explains.

Although there is no set definition for exact traits that make introverts, in general, they tend to enjoy spending time by themselves, finding pleasure in quiet, solitary activities. Extroverts, in comparison, draw energy from being boisterous and engaged among a group of people.

"For many introverts, participation in social groups or sports groups may prove to be quite daunting," says Stephanie Rains, a Hamilton County Department of Education school psychologist. "Introverts generally prefer solitude. They often require alone time and may get irritable when around others for extended amounts of time."

Introversion is not the same as agoraphobia, which is a medical diagnosis to describe people with a fear of being in situations where they might feel trapped, become extremely anxious and embarrass themselves. To avoid such situations, some agoraphobics feel safer inside their own home, not venturing out except when absolutely necessary.

And introverts are not always the same people who suffer from panic attacks when out in public, nor are they always unusually shy.

"Although some may identify as being shy, being an introvert does not always mean the person is a shy individual," Rains says.

Surviving the holidays

Sophia Dembling, author of "The Introvert's Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World," offers these tips to introverts for the upcoming holiday season.

At parties

* The bathroom break: Step into the bathroom and close the door. The bathroom is a quiet place to relax your overstimulated brain.

* The bookshelf back-turn: Turn your back on the room to study your host's library. The hubbub behind you can fade away.

* The busy body: Be a kitchen elf. Find glasses, clean counters, wash dishes. You'll meet people anyway because, as we all know, folks gravitate toward the kitchen at most parties.

* The getaway: Just leave. Don't let others talk you out of it. Being cheerful. Wave, say goodbye. Then go.

At family gatherings

* Fitness escape: Take a pair of good walking shoes. Lace them up, head outside, burn off an hour.

* Hiding in plain sight: Go shopping, then lose yourself from your family in the mall or in a shop. Movies are even better. Two hours of either watching the film or being alone in your head.

* The pseudo-sacrifice: Volunteer to grocery shop or run to the store for last-minute items.

Like Williams, Kathie Fulgham says she has "spent a lifetime dealing with being an introvert," and she had to do it while being raised by an extrovert -- her mother, June Scobee Rodgers.

"She never meets a stranger and makes friends so easily," Fulgham says. "Every person she meets is an opportunity for connection and friendship. As a child, I can remember telling her before an outing that I didn't want us to make any new friends that day."

Fulgham says her father, the late Dick Scobee, commander of the ill-fated Challenger space shuttle, was also an introvert, but because he achieved celebrity status as an astronaut, he learned to navigate the social world.

"When I was around 20, one of Mom's friends, another astronaut wife, recognized my struggles and gave me some very useful advice," Fulgham says. "She said that when I walk into a room, look for the people standing or sitting alone. Focus on starting a conversation with them; ask them questions. People like to talk about themselves. They will be so grateful to have someone to talk to that conversation will come easy."

Before long, other people will be drawn into the conversation, she says.

"Then you excuse yourself and move to the next wallflower. She said this trick would keep my mind off myself and my awkwardness because I'd be focused on other people and making them feel more comfortable. It worked, and I still use it today," she says.

Bill, a Chattanooga man who prefers to not be identified by his real name, says he overcame his introverted tendencies as a child by surrounding himself with people with whom he shares a common interest, particularly books. Today, though, he says he's also very comfortable in social settings when talking about his grandchildren.

Still, his quiet demeanor can be misunderstood as being shy and introverted. Instead, he says: "Listening is more my interest."

dealing with it

Introverts aren't always easily identifiable, either. Some compensate by being exceptionally outgoing.

In 2009, two professors at the University of New Mexico -- anthropology professor Gil Greengross and psychology professor Geoffrey F. Miller -- surveyed a group of 31 professional stand-up comics, nine amateur comedians, 10 comedy writers and 400 students and found that the comedians were more introverted than the other participants.

"The public perceives comedians as ostentatious and flashy. Their persona on stage is often mistakenly seen interchangeably with their real personality, and the jokes they tell about their lives are considered by many to have a grain of truth in them," they write in the study. "However, the results of this study suggest that the opposite is true. Perhaps comedians use their performance to disguise who they are in their daily life. Comedians may portray someone they want to be, or perhaps their act is a way to defy the constraints imposed on their everyday events and interactions with others."

In interviews, comedians such as Mike Myers, Steve Martin, Woody Allen and the late Robin Williams all described themselves as introverts.

Rains says she believes being an introvert is a combination of genetics, individual characteristics and environmental factors. And, while being an introvert is hard for adults, it can be even more stressful for children and adolescents, she says.

"For some introverts, being in a social situation can sometimes be crippling, no matter the age," Rains says. "But with children, especially teens/college-age students, this can be an even more stressful situation because of all the social events that are a natural part of going to school. ... Most of these things are not optional for children or adolescents, who therefore do not have the option of avoiding these instances."

While it's unlikely that a young person will seek counseling for being an introvert, they can be helped, she says.

"Generally, they are not likely to come to you for help. Awareness is key in these instances," she says. "It is very important for the parent to know and understand their child in order to determine the difference between the natural traits of an introvert and the actions of someone who is depressed. Knowledge is key in this instance."

And, while it's not uncommon for introverts to experience depression, she says, "being an introvert does not automatically mean the person is depressed or is even shy. Often, they chose to be this way; it is how they are most comfortable as well as productive."

Those who know an introvert, be it family or friend, should realize that, when they're being solitary, it's not always because something is wrong or needs to be fixed; sometimes it's just the way they are, and it's something that others must learn to handle, she says.

"Introverts often want others to understand their viewpoint and, once there is a mutual understanding, they are more likely to open up to you," Rains says. "(They) only aim to be understood and accepted like everyone else, they may just voice it differently, or not at all, in some instances. "

In general, she advises that you don't try to "cure" an introvert by forcing them to attend parties or events where they're uncomfortable so they'll get used to it. Still, especially for parents with introverted children, there's a fine line between letting them be who they are and letting them hang back because they just don't want to try anything new.

"Children are establishing personal boundaries and, although being shy is a personal trait, it is critical for parents to urge them to push their boundaries, which is often necessary for personal growth," she says.

For folks who identify themselves as introverts, Rains offers the following advice.

"I would urge them to first start putting themselves out there with those they are most familiar with -- family, friends, co-workers, etc. Once you are able to be more open with those who know and accept you, it will be much easier to embrace the outside world," she says.

"Putting yourself out there can be daunting even for those who consider themselves to be outgoing. Naturally as humans we may experience fear of rejection, judgment or just the unknown. For those really aiming to change their shyness, joining a gym or social group may be helpful and provide the environment for one to come out of their shell."

Contact Karen Nazor Hill at or 423-757-6396.