A few years ago I agreed to serve as the chair of a committee despite my usual reservations about assuming leadership roles. For me, being a leader has always been a double-edged sword; I enjoy the challenge, but it takes a lot of energy for me to be available and engaged in a group process. So, while I found chairing the committee to be very worthwhile, it was a struggle for me at times to feel comfortable in that leadership role. One source of stress was the distance between the high expectations I set for myself and what I was truly capable of accomplishing with the time I had to offer, and the other was simply rallying the necessary attention and energy to appear confident and competent during meetings (I don’t think I always succeeded).
At the end of my term as chair, the other members of the committee gave me a lovely present: personal notes describing what they most appreciated about my leadership and my contributions in general. As an introvert, I don’t always do well with public acknowledgment because I usually feel a little too exposed (see: birthday parties), but this time I was really touched by their efforts. Later on at home, when I sat down to read their notes, I was quite shocked by what I read. Along with other attributes that I did recognize in myself (if I do say so myself), almost to a person they praised me for my calmness. What? Calmness was the last word I would use to describe my state of being. Didn’t they see that I was a hopeless neurotic, worrying over every last detail, and struggling to keep my cool? Apparently not. For some baffling reason, despite my inner turmoil and stress, I managed to project an aura of unflappability. What was going on?
I found a brilliant explanation of this phenomenon in an article by Henry Thompson, titled The Illusion of Calmness in Introverts. Dr. Thompson describes it this way:
As a result of their energy being focused inwardly, introverts tend to be more reserved and less expressive—in general—than people with a preference for extraversion. This makes getting to know the “real” person more difficult. They have just as much cognitive action going on, it’s just on the inside. Introverts are similar to a duck sitting on a pond. To the observer, it looks as if the duck is just sitting there, and the wind—or something—is moving it across the water. A look just beneath the surface reveals that the duck’s little feet are paddling like crazy—you just don’t see it from above. Introverts, like ducks, give the appearance of calmness.
I find this all very fascinating, and yet irksome; it can be painful to realize you are not conscious of how others perceive you. I’m sure this has led to problems I’ve had in the past, especially in work situations, where I’ve assumed that my level of frustration and stress was obvious to others. Thompson gives an example of a manager who “…continued to increase the workload of an employee (an introvert) until ‘he exploded.’ She had no idea of the level of stress he was under. His behavior had seemed almost the same in the stressed and non-stressed state.” Yikes! This seems like a major problem that introverts (and their extroverted co-workers) need to find an answer to.
Another factor compounding the problem is that introverts are often loath to ask for help when they need it, and dislike exposing their innermost thoughts and feelings to anyone other than their closest confidantes. I think solving this communication problem is definitely a two-way street; it would be extremely helpful if there was greater understanding on the part of the extroverts involved, but as introverts, we also need to find clearer ways of expressing our frustrations.