Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Quiet Ones

This journey of self discovery is a long process. And I feel like I might have gotten a late start, after 20 years of living according to everyone else's rules. Or maybe that is how everyone feels when they reach their 40's. Maybe we need to reach a certain age before we are comfortable asking the questions, let alone accepting the answers.

Whether I am experiencing a midlife crisis, or travelling along the path towards enlightenment, I have been savoring every step of the way. Whenever I think I am beginning to come to some level of understanding of myself, I seem to uncover yet another layer.

I never used to be much of a reader, but these last few years I have come to appreciate the power of transformation that comes through books. When I think of the books that have changed my life in the most profound way, a short list comes to mind:

Codependent No More by Melanie Beattie
The Spontaneous Fulfillment of Desire by Deepak Chopra
Perfect Health by Deepak Chopra  
The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo
Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

Each book reached out to me at exactly the time in my life that I needed to read it. And each book expanded my perspective in a way that I still carry with me today. It feels like I am connecting together all of the pieces of the puzzle to form a more complete picture of myself. And I am continually fascinated by this process.

A few months ago, I finished reading another book called Quiet by Susan Cain. Quiet is a book about introverts. It is a really thorough and well-researched book that helps define what it means to be an introvert trapped in a society that favors extroverts. It was a very detailed book. Sometimes I got lost in all of the details. But there were a few underlying messages that really resonated with me.

First of all, I am an introvert. This is something that many people might not guess about me. Especially people who knew me when I was working in corporate America, before I got sick. To a casual observer, I looked like I was a typical high achiever. A team player. A problem solver. A manager of people and projects. A leader. Management material.

What they didn't see, and what it took me years to realize, is that everything I had to do for those jobs was operating completely against my natural introvert tendencies. Going to meetings, making presentations, having to work in teams and group settings, coming up with quick decisions and solutions on the fly, dealing with chaos and uncertainty, and the list goes on and on.

I was suffering so much at that time, but I always thought it was because there was something wrong with me. I thought that I was weak or that I just couldn't handle it. Reading the book and learning about being an introvert helped me to see that there is nothing wrong with me. I'm just not wired like the other people I was working with, or like my managers and leaders expected me to be.

Introverts need quiet time. We need space to think and create. We tend to have a very rich inner world. We don't like crowds or loud people. Introverts are capable of making presentations and doing all of the things I did at my corporate jobs, but it totally depletes our energy and we need lots of time to recuperate afterwards. The more I delved into this book, the more I recognized aspects of myself. And a lot of other people I know. 

In the book Quiet, she goes on to explain that there is another group of introverts who are called highly reactive people. Not all introverts are high reactives. But some of us are. As I read the information about highly reactive people, once again, I started to see myself. High reactives are sensitive to light, sounds and smells. We are hyper aware of our surroundings and react accordingly with fear, anticipation or anxiety. We can't watch violent movies or TV shows because they impact us too strongly. Our systems can easily become overloaded when there is too much stimulation.

Being highly reactive is not a personality trait. It is physiological condition that has been proven to exist in a lot of medical research. Our amygdalas, the small almond-shaped region of the brain that deals with emotions, are overly active, even hyperactive. High reactives are usually that way from infancy. As highly reactive children age, they often grow up to be adults with anxiety or depression. I grew up to be an adult with anxiety.

The early research on high reactives has evolved into a modern field of study around what is now referred to as the "highly sensitive" person. Not only am I an introvert, but I am also a highly sensitive person. Reading this book helped me see that corporate America, with its mandatory team building exercises and open cubicles, is not designed for introverts and it is certainly not designed for highly sensitive people like me. It is no wonder that I felt overwhelmed and emotionally drained the entire time I worked in that environment.

I remember when I worked at my consulting job, I would sit locked in my small office all day on conference calls, with people e-mailing me and instant messaging me at the same time to try and talk to me about what was happening on the conference call. There was always some major conflict or crisis. It was awful. I used to tell people that being at work felt like someone was blaring a siren in my ear all day and when I walked out the door each night it would finally stop.

During my entire career I was in the exact wrong place based on my personality type and my physical high reactive tendencies. And even though I knew that it felt wrong, I thought that it was all my fault. As it turns out, it wasn't me at all. It was the situation.

Luckily, I did finally get out of there and make the changes I needed to in order to live a more healthy and balanced life. Back then, I didn't have Susan Cain's book to guide me. I just had my health issues and a strong sense of self preservation to help me find my way.

It feels so good to look back on that time with the knowledge I have gained these past few years and understand why none of that worked for me. Why it was never going to work. I was trying to function in an environment that was getting progressively more stressful, which was depleting my energy at a faster rate. And the more hours I worked, the less downtime I had to recover. That was a recipe for disaster.

Now I am living a much more peaceful life. And it makes me wish the same for all of the other introverts I know. Every introvert doesn't need to quit their job in order to find peace and balance. There are many ways to adjust a situation to meet your needs, especially if you have a reasonable boss or a progressive Human Resources Department that understands what introverts need to be successful at work.

But even if you don't have those things, you can still be aware of what you need, whether it is taking a walk in the middle of the work day or wearing headphones at your desk to cancel out the noise. I wish I would have known all of this sooner. It could have saved me at least 10 or 15 years of misery at my corporate jobs. If any of this resonates with you, I hope you will pick up a copy of the book Quiet and let's keep the conversation going.

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