Welcome to Spectatrix

The Magazine is a relatively new iPhone/iPad only publication that, in its first six months, has already garnered a large readership, along with stellar reviews. I am very excited to say that I have an essay appearing in its latest issue, which came out today. “Mechanically Attached” tells the story of the unlikely love story between my husband, a bona fide geek, and me, a history and literature buff, through the lens of our visits to the Musée Mécanique in San Francisco.

If you’re a long-time Spectatrix reader, I hope you’ll consider checking it out. If you’re coming to Spectatrix because you followed a link from The Magazine, welcome! Please feel free to take a look around. Things are a bit dusty, but I hope to clear out the cobwebs and put a new coat of paint on the place soon.

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Starting Over

Hello again! It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Um, what can I say? Bad blogger. I’m ashamed to say it’s been over two years since I’ve made any sort of changes to Spectatrix. It’s true I’ve had a few other things to occupy me—like raising a toddler and transitioning from expat life in France back to expat life in the US—but it’s not like I haven’t been doing other writing in the meantime. I have, lots of it. Just none of it online. I’ve written the first draft of a novel, many short stories, and an essay. In true introvert fashion, I’ve been working on things that take time and much private thought before they can be shown to the world.

And now that I am mostly ready to take my work public again, I am reassessing how best to use my time. I have so enjoyed exploring the introvert experience, but it’s not all of who I am. I’m ready to talk about other things. I still believe it’s important and necessary to educate the uninitiated about the experience and the benefits of being an introvert, but I feel like I’ve had my say.

I don’t know yet what form this blog will eventually take, but I hope you will consider sticking around for what comes next. I have so enjoyed our conversations in the past, and look forward to having more in the future.

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Culture Clash

A few months ago my husband forwarded a Psychology Today article to me that does an excellent job of summarizing the modern introvert’s dilemma: whether one should adapt oneself to the prevailing culture’s penchant for loud and fast interaction, or stay true to one’s preferred mode of being. Either way, the introvert’s happiness level is likely to take a hit.

But that’s not always a problem for introverts, argues the author of the article, psychologist Laurie Helgoe. In fact, she says, introverts have less of a need for happiness to function well, and may even find it distracting when attempting various difficult tasks. That indifference to happiness may itself cause more unhappiness for the introvert, who is now even more at odds with the culture that values feeling good above all else. So what is an introvert to do in the face of this seeming contradiction?

A good place to start is with self-understanding, and Helgoe ably characterizes what makes an introvert different from an extrovert, and why those differences matter. She also reminds introverts (counting herself among them) that not all cultures hold the same values, citing Finland and East Asia as places whose cultural norms are more in line with introvert tendencies.

Thus armed with this information, introverts may be better able to recognize and question social mores that run counter to their best instincts. And instead of feeling like a fish out of water, introverts may realize that they prefer the air.

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The Benefits of Solitude

Despite its silly name and its author’s knee-jerk bias against the unsociable, the recent article The power of lonely from the Boston Globe manages to provide a decent rundown of current research about solitude and its benefits. Among the gems in the article is a quote from Professor Christopher Long, who as a graduate student conducted a study on behalf of the US Forest Service. “Aloneness doesn’t have to be bad…There’s all this research on solitary confinement and sensory deprivation and astronauts and people in Antarctica — and we wanted to say, look, it’s not just about loneliness!”

Also interesting to me was the finding from a study done at Harvard that we may remember things more clearly when we think we are experiencing them alone. Looking to explain this phenomenon, researcher Bethany Burum gives two possible scenarios: one, that we may slack off when we think someone else is doing the same work we are, or two, that the presence of someone else inhibits us from concentrating enough to form higher quality memories. I find this second possibility very intriguing, and also Burum’s assessment that “People tend to engage quite automatically with thinking about the minds of other people…We’re multitasking when we’re with other people in a way that we’re not when we just have an experience by ourselves.”

As an introvert, I don’t need to be sold on the benefits of solitude, but it was helpful to read about current thinking on the subject, and to imagine a day when people are exhorted to be more introverted, for their own mental well-being.

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The Visible Woman

When I was a kid, I used to think that there were times when I was invisible to others, when I was so wrapped up in my own imagination, so focused on inward daydreams, that the external world didn’t matter. Of course I wasn’t invisible, just oblivious, but it was a pleasant illusion.

It was pleasant because I don’t enjoy being the center of attention, and would rather be the observer than the observed. Of course there are moments when it’s nice to be recognized for some accomplishment or on a special occasion, but for the most part, I prefer to blend into the background.

It’s easy to accomplish this in a big city like Paris; anonymity is thrust upon you, whether you want it or not. And Parisians in particular like to maintain that impersonal façade, rejecting my sociable smiles when I forget that friendliness will get me nowhere. However, after living here for more than three years, I think I’ve finally found the chink in this anti-social armor, one I wouldn’t have found without the help of my son.

It all started during the last months of my pregnancy, as I found it harder and harder to navigate my way through daily life. All of a sudden, my growing belly became a source of fascination, and attention, and I reaped the benefits. Cashiers waved me to the front of lines, strangers gave up their seats on the Métro, and waitresses gave me extra-courteous service, smiling at me like we shared some special secret. Who were these people? Where had they been for the past two years?

As much as I truly enjoyed the pampering, I did find it disconcerting to be the recipient of such overt attention. Grown accustomed to strangers’ scowls, I now found it strange to be smiled at; I’d thoroughly absorbed the Parisian suspicion of friendliness, and it was hard to shake. I wasn’t used to seeing someone’s public mask slip so quickly, and it astonished me. It reminded me of the time I witnessed a smartly dressed madame on the bus helping a stranger’s child blow his nose—judging by her stern expression the minute before, she seemed the least likely person to make such a helpful gesture.

But I now knew the key to the phenomenon I was witnessing: I discovered that children (and by extension, pregnant women) are exempted from the code of anonymity that seems to underlie Parisian public life. And this has been proven time and again now that my little one is on the outside.

Every time I go out in public with my son, it is impossible for stony-faced Parisians to survive the onslaught of his charm. On the Métro he stares them down until they dissolve into fits of baby talk and goofy grins. Before he was born, I wondered if he would be an introvert like his father and me, but for now it seems he can’t get enough of the attention of strangers. It’s put me in a funny position; I’m suddenly forced into more social interactions than ever before because of my son’s sociability, but I’m also more invisible next to his overwhelming cuteness. Plus ça change, I guess!

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Son of Spectatrix

Over the past few months I’ve been taking an unintentional hiatus from posting here, but I’ve had a really good excuse! As I mentioned in an earlier post I was expecting my first child in June, and in fact he decided to arrive earlier than that, making his appearance on May 20th. My time since then has been a blur of late-night feedings and endless diaper changes, but the fog of newborn chaos is slowly lifting, and I hope to be posting here more often as the weeks go on.

Although I haven’t been writing anything here, I’ve definitely been formulating my own opinions about what life looks like for an introverted parent. Look for those observations to appear in future posts, but for now, I’m thrilled to introduce Soren Thomas Kissell to the Spectatrix community!

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More on Sensitivity

On the CNN Web site today there was another article about the study that came out recently regarding sensory perception sensitivity (yesterday I wrote about a similar article that appeared on the Livescience Web site). It mentioned a lot of the same information I had seen in the previous article, but included one new detail that surprised me. I had assumed that since those people found to possess the SPS trait exhibited many classic introverted behaviors, the two groups were almost one and the same. Not so, according to the researchers, who claim that about 30 percent of what they call “highly sensitive people” are actually extroverts.

The article also provided a link to a test that can help you determine whether you are prone to SPS. I scored almost embarrassingly high on the test, but my husband, who is also an introvert, scored well below me on the sensitivity scale (does that sound judgmental?). This fits with the idea that introversion and high sensitivity don’t completely overlap.

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Commenting Issues

Just wanted to let you know that there were some problems with the commenting feature on the site, but that they have now been fixed. If you’ve tried to leave a comment recently and it hasn’t worked, please try again. And even if you didn’t, I’d still love to hear from you!

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Studying Sensitivity

A reader just sent me a link to a great article on the Livescience Web site. Although I find it annoying that the writer conflates shyness and introversion (one of my pet peeves), I found the main content of the article to be very thought-provoking. It describes a new study looking at the incidence of a genetic disposition to something called sensory perception sensitivity (SPS), which reportedly affects about 20 percent of the population.

Hallmarks of SPS include increased sensitivity to noise, crowds, caffeine, and a tendency to startle more easily. Also, “Individuals with this highly sensitive trait prefer to take longer to make decisions, are more conscientious, need more time to themselves in order to reflect, and are more easily bored with small talk…” While this sounds like the classic description of introversion, the researchers go further in their analysis, by looking at the underlying source of this behavior. They conclude that the increased sensitivity of those exhibiting SPS is the result of a preference to pay closer attention to one’s environment and experiences, a trait that could have evolutionary advantages in certain situations, in contrast to a “go-getter” attitude.

As I read the article, I found myself nodding a lot, and having little epiphanies about my own tendencies. Based on the description of SPS, I would definitely place myself in the subset of the population affected by it, and I appreciated that the researchers seemed to look at it in a positive light, instead of viewing it as a weakness. What do you think? Are you prone to SPS?

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Promoting Self-Promotion

Today I ran across an interesting blog on the Psychology Today Web site called Self-Promotion for Introverts. I’m eager to explore this blog in-depth, since to me, “self-promotion” and “introvert” are usually mutually exclusive terms. For the moment, I thought I would point you in the direction of one of blogger Nancy Ancowitz’s recent posts that deals with confronting the myths about what it means to be an introvert. I got a chuckle out of it and thought Spectatrix readers would enjoy it too.

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A Short Break

Now that I’ve got the blog up and running again, I don’t want to disappear without an explanation. I’ll be traveling for the next few weeks, so there won’t be any new posts during that time. I should be back to a regular posting schedule by the end of February. Thanks for your understanding!

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Shunning the Spotlight

A week ago, revered author J.D. Salinger died at the age of 91. Salinger’s passing brought his life and work back into the public spotlight, which was a place he worked hard to avoid for most of his life. Known as much for his reclusive nature as for his most famous novel, “The Catcher in the Rye,” Salinger once wrote: “It is my rather subversive opinion that a writer’s feelings of anonymity-obscurity are the second most valuable property on loan to him during his working years.”

Coincidentally, this week also saw the public reemergence of another spotlight-shunning writer/artist. Bill Watterson, creator of the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, gave an interview to the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper, thought to be the first he’s given since 1989. Watterson ended his work on Calvin and Hobbes in 1995, and since then has resisted pressure from his fans to revive the beloved comic strip. In the interview, Watterson seems incredibly down-to-earth about his success, and unwilling to remain stuck in the glory days of the past.

I don’t know the whole story behind why these men choose/chose to guard their privacy so fiercely. But these days, when the pursuit of fame for its own sake has become so widespread, I find it really refreshing to be reminded that there are creative people out there who are more interested in their work than in basking in the public spotlight.

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Future Introvert?

Today was a big day in the Spectatrix household. My husband and I found out that the baby I’m having in June will be a boy! This new knowledge brought up a whole host of emotions as well as questions — now that we know a bit more about this growing person, what other kinds of things will we learn about him in the future? Just who will this new person be?

One of the big questions we have is whether or not our child will take after us in temperament. Since we’re both introverts, we assume that he will also be an introvert, because of genetics and because of the environment we will raise him in. But I don’t know if this is a safe assumption; I’m sure there are examples out there of introverts raising an extrovert and vice versa.

In some ways it would be easier if he were an introvert because we would understand his perspective more readily. On the other hand, he might have an easier time of it if he were extroverted because of the societal bias against introversion. I’m sure both would have their challenges and benefits, and I hope that we could help him graciously navigate the world in whatever way works best for him.

What are your experiences, both as parents and as children?

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Loner Lore

As I’ve written about in previous posts, I think the term “loner” is too often used to describe behavior that falls outside the normal range of introvert experience. Instead of a negative term that denotes a dangerously isolated individual, I think “loner” should be reclaimed for those who simply enjoy spending time alone.

Because of this, I was heartened to find an article on the Psychology Today Web site with the promising title “Field Guide to the Loner: The Real Insiders.” Presenting anecdotes of people who genuinely find time alone to be healing and beneficial, the author draws a distinction between “the loner-by-preference” and “the enforced loner.” She further notes that there is compelling psychological evidence that introverts have “…increased sensitivity to all kinds of emotional interactions and sensory cues, which may mean that they find pleasure where others do not,” which can be positive but can also lead to overstimulation in social settings.

If you’re interested in reading the full article, go here.

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The Four Temperaments

In a recent comment on the post Austen’s Introvert, a reader mentioned having seen a reference to eight types of introversion. I was curious to know more about this, and in the course of my online searching, ran across the Web site for the Keirsey Temperament Sorter. Looking over the site, I realized that the eight types of introversion might refer to the eight Myers-Briggs profiles that include the introvert strand (ISTP, ISTJ, INTJ, INFJ, ISFP, ISFJ, INTP, and INFP).

The Keirsey system does use these profiles, but organizes them into four larger categories or temperaments (which include both introverted and extroverted types): Artisan, Guardian, Rational, Idealist. Looking at how my Myers-Briggs type (INFP) was characterized under this framework (as an Idealist temperament), I found that it very accurately described my own perception of my “type.” And it was thought-provoking to see myself as more akin to certain “E” types (ENFJ and ENFP), than to the other “I” types. I was also pleased to learn that Isabel Myers, the co-creator of the Myers-Briggs test, was a fellow INFP.

I wasn’t previously familiar with the work of Dr. David Keirsey, or with his books Please Understand Me and Please Understand Me II, but my interest has definitely been piqued. It’s a reminder that there are many helpful means out there to increase self-understanding, and that there’s always more to learn.

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