Go Beyond

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Introversion, Extroversion, and Sensitivity

I've been wanting to write this post for a while now. Just finished watching The Last Station (2009), a film about Leo Tolstoy.

While I tend to abhor any notion of communism and abolishment of private property, the movie was actually quite a bit more complicated and interesting than that. It painted a man whose life didn't quite match the ideals he wrote down. Some around him loved him for who he was. Some around him loved him for what he wrote and cared less for the man himself. Some were dogmatic, some were more relative. All in all, I highly recommend the movie.

Anyway, back to your usual programming.

It was relatively recently that I learned to consider demeanor largely as an innate trait. Something you're mostly born with that affects you for the rest of your life. I don't mean to write anything suggesting that people are bound by fate to their actions, that they have no free will. But, there is a lot to the physical side of the brain that affects the mind.

And why for the first 25 years of my life I barely considered this, I have no idea.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking

Susan Cain wrote a book under that title and published it in 2012. A friend of mine suggested I read it and explained the concept to me. Even just the concept was deeply interesting.

The book actually led me to a girlfriend I had. It was our first topic for discussion. She also taught me a lot about introversion and myself.

Introversion and Extroversion

This is a huge, huge topic that should not be glossed over. So I think you should buy the aforementioned book, read it, and get back to here. Although if you do that, this might not be so relevant.

Anyway, what if your response to stimuli was something mostly set at birth? Different people react different ways to noises. Different people have different behaviors in fight or flight scenarios. And while so much of this is certainly how one was raised, one's decisions, etc, the depth of the chemical response in their brains is not particularly under their control.

What it seems is that some people will have a notably stronger chemical response in their brain for a different stimuli. Let's say you hear thunder for the first time. Loud, sharp sound. Generally always causing some kind of anxiety and fear, at least until you train your brain that it's normal, but the chemical response peaks are completely different between people. Imagine walking around, seeing life like a VHS tape. Grainy, poor quality. You can see everything that's going on and react to it, but it doesn't normally make you feel much, at least visually.

If your vision was like a grossly colorful 4K display, everything is so immersive that you feel every bit of what comes at you. The bright lights, the dark tunnels. And if you couple that with good sound, you have quite the effect.

So what would happen if Bob and John were identical but Bob's brain dumped twice the chemicals for any given stimuli as John? Loud noises would probably startle him. Generally speaking, he would need a lot less stimuli to regulate his dopamine levels to the same level as John's. He wouldn't have to talk to everyone and do every last thing to feel normal. The details of more mundane things would cause more of a reaction in his brain, draw his attention, and he'd focus on those things. John would need to seek out bigger highs to feel "normal," and be less afraid of things. He'd also feel less happiness from the little things.

That was the single paragraph diluted summary of introversion of extroversion I have to offer you. It's a pretty huge, albeit straight forward concept.

My own experience

I'm a pretty confident person and am mostly in touch with my emotions. I had an interesting childhood, but not a traumatic one. I feel like what I'm trying to describe may convey the best through personal stories, so I will share some with you.

I've always had a horrible, horrible flinch. I wasn't beaten as a kid or anything like that. In time I think the only explanation I understand is that my flinch is innate. My brain, at birth, was optimized to err on the side of caution. It took me a lot to work myself up into motorcycling and I was even slow to get into driving. And despite those interests, I approach them knowing and feeling my limits. I am very cautious and constantly aware of dangers on the road. I accept them and they do bother me, but they are there. I don't have any of that "daredevil" instinct. Some sense of adventure, sure. Some occasional recklessness, absolutely. But by and large, I am cautious by nature.

I didn't have safety hammered into my head as a child. Just common sense. My own evaluation of risk is my own as far as I can tell. It's just how I'm wired. It takes a lot for me to jump off a cliff into the water. I think because of the chemistry in my brain, it takes me more determination than it does most people, at least who have had similar life experiences.

Now these aren't really personal stories, are they? I should get to those.

I'm not sure if I should identify anyone by name without their permission, so I'll call the aforementioned ex Alice. There's another ex I'll introduce you to, we'll call her Irina. I know stories about exes may seem strange, but anyone you've dated hopefully has played a huge role in your life and your understanding of yourself. Alice and Irina both did for me.

When I was 20, I dated Irina. Irina was (and still is) an adventurer, vagabond, extraordinaire. She's always wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail and has finished some part of it. She's road tripped for months living out of a car with a recent friend. She's very unafraid to take things on.

Especially at the time, I was more of a homebody. I liked Irina's sense of adventure, but it was so much more than my own. She was so bold about everything that it tended to wear me out. Her voice was less gentle than many as well. I enjoyed spending time with her, but it drained me. I felt like I could never relax around her. The Flying Squirrels making constant noise, the animals, always talking. One of my biggest mistakes at the time was thinking that my emotions were somehow facts. I took the stress I felt around Irina as being an issue with me and her getting along. I thought something was wrong because I didn't feel at ease.

That's certainly an oversimplification, but it's focusing on the element that I'd like to here. I was very immature back then (and maybe still now), selfish, and certainly didn't understand all of what was going on.

Irina had/has two younger brothers and noise didn't bother her. Infact, little really did. I am an only child and am used to the quiet and calm.

Now let's jump to Alice. I finished reading Quiet while with her and it helped me understand myself and her tremendously.

Alice is a surprising person. A lot of fairly minor things can stress her immensely. At the same time, if she's focused she can work through just about anything. Alice stayed with my at my land for a while. She hadn't even camped since she was a kid, yet she was a real trooper. Coming from more of a comfortable life, she adjusted to having showers at truck stops in a period of a couple of days. Cooking meals on a camp stove on my truck's tailgate in the wind. She was incredibly unphased by it.

In Quiet, Susan Cain talks about the lemon test. One of the ways you can gauge likely how sensitive (and spoiler, thus introverted) someone is, is by giving them lemon juice. I did this with Alice once. Her lips puckered up unlike anything else. This wasn't something she learned as a behavior. Her expression was her body/brain's response to the extreme sourness of the lemon. An average person will pucker, but not like her.

I have a deep voice and tend to talk louder than average. This drove Alice crazy sometimes. I would talk normally and sometimes it was just too much for her to handle. She would be on edge unless I whispered at times. Alice thought about every last thing over and over. She was always in her head, focused on all sorts of facets of ideas and experiences in her life.

Another aspect to sensitivity/introversion is focus. Introverts tend to have an uncanny ability to focus. Now they may appear to apply that focus selectively, but it is there. Alice has that focus. She graduated Cum Laude in a field that she didn't even like. Sometimes she was upset that she didn't get the next higher honor than that (which I can't remember). Ability to focus can be a blessing and a curse. Alice could focus so intently that she'd block almost everything out. For better or worse, I can relate to that entirely. I have that trait as well. From 13 to 18 years old, I spent about 40 hours a week learning Linux. No one told me to do this, I just did it. I thought it was important. It was fairly obsessive and could be unhealthy at times. It did pay off in ways, but with that kind of focus it's really easy to forget about the other things that need your attention.

In the moments that Alice focused on me, I felt like no one on Earth understood me better. She has an emotional range far, far beyond most. It is beautiful and it is horrible at times. But it's deep and real, somehow like the essense of just being a human. Again, blessing and a curse.

What I had with Irina largely happened to Alice and I, except in the reverse. I'm introverted, but Alice is far more introverted yet. Irina's voice caused a stress response in me at times. My voice caused stress in Alice. I wore out Alice just like Irina wore me out, not even trying, in day to day life.

The truth is that there was nothing wrong with how Irina talked. Noise just makes me feel stressed. There's nothing wrong with noise inherently, it's just my brain's chemical response to it. Just because someone stresses you doesn't mean they aren't good for you on the whole (though I'm not saying innate compatibility shouldn't be considered). And being able to understand that someone cares about you even when you aren't always comfortable around them is huge. For me when things were good between us, Alice was so comfortable for me to be around. She's quiet and soft spoken. I didn't feel a particular need to relax because I was relaxed. She was calming by nature for me. And yet I think I was stressful for her by nature. It's not that I ever wanted to stress her, it's just how it was.

Things that don't add up

Not all of this is straight forward and I don't claim to know it all. Alice is comfortable in big cities. She isn't afraid of crowds. Yet for me, both bother me even when I don't want them to. Alice can handle the TV on in the background but I find it far too distracting to function. And I don't think Irina isn't a sensitive person, just maybe less so or perhaps a big part of it was how she grew up. Alice has a sister and had a brother, yet is far more shy than myself.

Other sensitive people

I've gotten a bit better about identifying particularly sensitive people. Some hide it well, others do not.

Tolstoy from The Last Station was a clear introvert. His wife, usually called the Countess, was much more high strung. They understood eachother beautifully, but their demeanors drove them apart if they let it.

I have friends who are fairly sensitive. My Dad is particularly sensitive. It's not to say extroverts are insensitive, far from it. But with some you can tell that they feel enough it's easy to overload them under the right conditions.

One of my takeaways from sensitivity is that you can do a lot with that sensitivity and as a person. But, it's harder to wire your mind to balance life effectively. Whereas less sensitive types seem to normalize more easily. You can do really, really well with a lot of work and understanding from others, but without that it can be easy to get stuck in your head and feel like you don't belong.

Wrapping up

Thinking of all the times with Irina that having the radio on bothered me makes a lot more sense. It's not that I hate the radio or all music. There's just only so much stress stimuli I can comfortably handle. I think it's less stress less than most people, unfortunately. The only way I can cope with the stress is to understand and accept it as I can. Even then, there are limits. I just wish that I had understood more about myself and that my own stress wasn't always someone else's fault. It's just how I am and I need to learn to regulate myself in other ways. And I don't feel it much of the time, either. But if I'm low on sleep, I have emotional stressors, and then I hear the traffic over and over, it gets to me. When I'm happy and focused I can go through a heck of a lot. But in a bad state I feel every little thing.

I hope in time this helps you understand yourself and others a bit more. There's a place for every demeanor. Sometimes the bold and less sensitive types carry civilization forward. Sometimes it's the more cautious and sensitive types. The bold might be the ones hunting the buffalo. The cautious and sensitive are the ones more prudent to avoid plague and ration when needed. Both mindsets are helpful in the right environments and both should learn from eachother.

I think a lot of people just feel misunderstood. If their demeanor is different than yours and you don't understand their demeanor, how will they ever feel understood? I do think introverted and sensitive types tend to err more liberal and conservative types not. It is a shame when conservatives don't understand the different demeanor of their liberal friends and vice versa. It's needless alienation. Someone with a liberal mindset might otherwise agree with conserative principles, but feel emotionally starved by conservative types. And conservative types may think liberals are too impractical without acknowledging their emotional concerns. This text isn't at all meant to be a conservative vs liberal debate, rather an understanding of differences.

Thanks for reading.