October 18, 2016

Why Every Introvert Needs To Understand The Difference Between Boundaries And Walls

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Why does stock photography frequently depict an introvert as hiding behind something? They show us with bags over our heads, peeking out from behind curtains or doors, or covering our eyes and turning our faces away.

These images play to the stereotype that introverts prefer not to be seen or heard, or that we’re timid, nervous types.

As with most stereotypes, there’s at least a grain of truth. But that truth is far afield from what most people assume.

I was recently in New York City and had the opportunity to spend an afternoon alone at the Museum of Modern Art. To my delight, photography was permitted. So I set about visiting my must-see pieces, iPhone at the ready. It was amazing!

But at some point, I realized that I was spending more time trying to get a good picture (and wishing people would get out of my way!) than I was looking at the actual work of art. So I set an intention to stop putting the phone in between me and the masterpieces and focus on being fully present – to the art, to the people around me, and to the entire experience.

How does this connect to introverts hiding? We think that the stereotypical image of introverts hiding is about withdrawing, being anti-social, or being shy. But I think if there’s any truth in it, it’s more about the need for introverts to create boundaries in order to protect their energy. We might “hide” in order to put a bit of energetic distance between ourselves and the environment. It could keep us from being overwhelmed by giving us something to focus on (I think that was part of my iPhone fixation at the museum, in addition to just wanting to remember which pieces really grabbed me). This might look like taking on the role of photographer at the party, being engrossed with our phones while we wait in line, or even taking furious notes at the team meeting.

These activities serve a dual purpose: they give us a useful task while keeping us from draining too much energy. But what I learned at the museum is that if we’re not thoughtful about it, the task becomes less of a boundary and more of a wall. It doesn’t protect us; it cuts us off.

It is possible to establish boundaries without erecting walls. Boundaries allow people to feel your presence more, without requiring you to expend a lot of energy. Walls isolate us and prevent us from experiencing the social interaction that even introverts need in regular (albeit small) doses.

It might sound simplistic, but I’m convinced it’s a matter of mindset more than trying to do something differently. You can still use your phone, take notes, or wear your headphones. Use them as a way to anchor yourself. Every once in a while, look up, make eye contact, smile, ask a question or engage in a moment of small talk (which is sometimes painful, I know! Try accepting it for what it is – small – and release expectations that it has to be anything more). Be aware of your surroundings. Put down the device, take off the headphones, look around, and connect with your environment. Then go back to your anchor, using it as a tool rather than a barrier.

The next time you find yourself in a social or public situation, notice: are you using your camera, phone, notepad, or other device to “hide” or disconnect from others? Or are you using it to create a role for yourself that facilitates engagement or balances your energy? For instance, taking photos makes it easy to mingle, or being the scribe shows participation without being put on the spot.

I won’t deny it: sometimes, we will jump into a task that seems like a socially acceptable way to “hide,” and that’s okay. The point is to be conscious of our choice, and know which choice will serve us best in the moment. TC mark

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