Monday, 13 August 2012

Solitude and company

You know those irritating statements which begin "There are two sorts of people....."?  I never believe them. There are all sorts of people and people are more complex than any sort of labelling can convey, particularly the kind of labelling that sets one description against another: you are either an x or  y.

Take the long recognised distinction in personality testing between introvert and extrovert.  I can accept that some people take their energy from interaction with other people while others find it from within but I know plenty of people, including me, who do both.  Whenever I do the Myers Briggs type tests which look at introversion, extroversion, thinking styles and ways of interacting with people and problems, I am always an extrovert.  I see that in myself quite clearly in that if I have too little engagement with people I begin to have less and less motivation to do things.  I feel myself become grey and blurry round the edges.  Leave me with no interaction with others for too long and I begin to drift and melt like mist, losing all my dynamism and energy.  But equally, if I don't have some time to myself, completely to myself, I start to feel like Munch's Scream.


It is as if I am trying to live with the radio on too loud or trying to solve a complicated problem while someone chatters in my ear about their neighbours' bunions and the price of bread.  I just begin to feel overwhelmed.  It is very much to do with noise.  At some point the swell of the noise of other people rises too high for me to think and the only way in which I will be restored to easy calm is by a snatch of time by myself.

That was one of the reasons I found having very young children hard.  They never go away!  You snatch your moments of quiet when they are asleep but I still remember opening the door into a silent house when the older one had gone to playgroup and the younger one was for the first time being looked after by a friend for a couple of hours.  It was the first time I had been totally alone for about three years.  I had all sorts of things I needed to do which were impossible with the children around but for half an hour of that empty time I just sat in the silent house with a book, not really reading, watching the dust motes swirling in the sunlight pouring through the window, and felt my whole self become calm as sunlight on water.



I realise looking back on my life that I have arranged things so that the need for people and the need for silence were both met.  When my children went to school and I was back at work I always kept a couple of hours a week when I had the house to myself.  Ostensibly this was for practical housework reasons but quietly clearing my head was always as important as vacuuming the carpet.  For my mind to settle it is necessary not to be doing anything.  Walking or doing anything satisfying and repetitive like weeding or kneading bread will get me there as well after a while but the quickest way to calm for me is silence, solitude and doing nothing at all.

When I was working away I got this balance between people and no people automatically.  The days were full of action and interaction, noise and clamour and the evenings were solitary.  They could be just a bit too solitary but the weekends were full of people again and this time it was the company of those that I loved.  That worked quite well for a quite a long time but gradually the amount of being away from my family and the amount of energy which I was pouring into my work started to make me feel that my life was out of kilter.

When I left my busy job I had to make active effort to ensure that I had enough of the energising company of  other people.  The silence and the solitude came naturally every day in bucketloads when Ian drove off to work and the house settled quietly around me.  I had to make a choice to get down off the hill if I wanted company.  It didn't need to be a lot but it did need to happen: yoga classes or Welsh lessons, a coffee with a friend, a shopping trip.  I found that I am quite flexible.  I can be happy with quite a lot of company if I get my periods of solitude.  I can manage quite a lot of time by myself if I get my shots of conversation and laughter.  What I struggle with is not having both.

Is that introvert or extrovert?  Are there two sorts of people?  How does it work for you?

33 comments:

  1. You were writing my story, Elizabeth.
    I recommend the book Quiet - The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, by Susan Cain. I'll bring it with me.

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    1. Sounds very interesting. Would love to read it.

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    2. Susan Cain has a TED talk which was fascinating. I prefer quiet, but without some people contact I lose touch with reality.

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  2. Myers Briggs has me down as an INFJ, which is actually a pretty accurate description of me. I am far more introverted that most people realise.

    I think there are more than just two types - and Myers Briggs shows this anyway, by diving both introverts and extroverts into smaller subsets by looking at other attributes they may have. I think this is closer to how things are - there are all sorts and we touch each other in different places.

    As for solitude, I spend much too much time on my own. It's not always solitude I have sought either, often, its an inability to make contact with people despite the huge desire to join in, or be included.

    I have no answers though.



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    1. I agree that we are all sorts and tounh each other in different places. When I was younger in particular I had a number of friends who were all friends with me but who had very little in common with each other. I think I was using different bits of myself in the relationships. Perhaps a good thing to have the range? I don't know.

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  3. Elizabeth, some years ago, I participated in Myers Briggs testing at a managers meeting. It was an interesting exercise, but I also felt that many of the either/or choices of the test had me wavering, and so many of the results found me rather near the dividing line. Overall though, my recollection was that I was declared an extrovert.

    Well, I agree with all that you say about being in company and in solitude. Both can be nourishing. Gosh...how I would like to be able to meet you and Pondside in person. That would be marvelous company indeed!

    xo

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    1. I too was near the dividing line. That is probably part of it. If you have to choose you will come down on one side or the other. Left to yourself you might not choose the label.

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  4. I'm an INFJ too. I've found Myers Briggs to be an incredibly useful tool for making sense of life and especially in relation to those I rub up against. As Zoe says, the other preferences give it a richness and complexity that a simple differentiation between extraversion and introversion doesn't offer. I think most people as they mature strike more of a balance between their different needs for company and solitude - you seem to have it well in hand. As you say, it's when we have less opportunity to choose our arrangements for ourselves that things can get tricky. Vive la difference!

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    1. I did find Myers Briggs useful at work. I agree that the differences as you get older either begin to moderate, or sometimes become more accentuated so that you become a caricature of yourself!

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  5. I can relate to what you've written. I think the Myers Briggs "results" are meant to be interpreted on a continuum for the four components. I'm an INFP and do need to be involved with others regularly as well (thinking of the "I" part); it's the same for me with the "P" vs. "J". For many things, I'm more in my comfort zone being in "P-mode", but definitely need to be more "J" when it comes to making some decisions and at certain points... And yes, I agree that getting the proper balance is the key.

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  6. I feel as if I've just read my twin's thoughts! You've summed up exactly how I feel! I don't do well 'in captivity' and get very withdrawn if I don't get the space that I need to recharge my batteries.

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    1. Yes I recognise that. If you can't have the physical space you need to retreat in your head!

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  7. Another beautifully crafted post, thank you.

    You just wrote my story too, especially the third paragraph.

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    1. Thank you. I wonder how many young mothers feel that way?

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  8. According to my star sign I should be an extrovert, and most people think that I am. But underneath there is a very shy sometimes unsure person who basically enjoys her own company but needs a bit of interaction now and then. Too much company, and I run screaming though.

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  9. Yup! Another person here who needs personal space but also can't exist without company. I yaw between one and the other. I am a different person between one and the other. Maybe we are all like this. Where I do agree in spades is over the matter of labels. Why do we feel the need to stick a label on people? Why do we need to define others by a label - or what they do, which is another sort of label. This is more of a British or American trait. So and So works in computers - as opposed to So and so likes sitting in the sun reading novels.

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    1. I think you are right about labelling being more of an American and British trait. Perhaps we think it helps us make sense of the world. I do identify with being a "different person between one and the other". That's me too.

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  10. This is me! I absolutely MUST have some time completely to myself each and every day. Of course, sometimes that's impossible to come by, but at least then I try to escape into a book. For the last 8-10 years of his career, many people were appalled when they heard that my husband and I worked/lived in different cities, seeing each other only at weekend (and only every 2nd or 3rd weekend for the years he worked in Ottawa). But although there were some downsides, I generally revelled in having the house to myself each evening when I came home from work -- and adjusting to his retirement has been, well, an adjustment. Luckily, he's not a needy guy and he gets what I need, so we find ways for me to retreat when I need to without anyone's feelings being hurt.
    Interestingly, most of my colleagues are a mix of introvert and extrovert, in that most of us enjoy being lecturer and facilitator in the classroom and yet we like to shut our office doors and hunker down when we're reading/researching. I very much agree with you that it's rarely an either/or issue.

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    1. My husband and I lived apart in the week too and that worked fine for us. Now I enjoy having more of his company but he is very good at letting me retreat without seeming remotely bothered by it! I suspect that is quite unusual.

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  11. I'm not good with people. However hard I try (or however much I don't - it doesn't matter which) I tend to get it wrong. My shoe size is about fifty-six when it comes to putting my foot in it - which happens bewilderingly often and always by surprise. I'm better off on my own - with books, a laptop and a radio. But I also know I need people not to be with. When my family is around me, I reckon they take too much space, make too much noise, make too many demands. But if I didn't know they will be coming home in an hour I'd get ill, really ill. My head would hurt. I'd start being sick. I'd panic. I'd wonder where I am in the world. I'd think myself nothing. Fortunately, it's not often I have to be in crowds or be sociable. I can manage either with gusto for about five minutes; pretend to be happy for about half an hour. That's it. After that, I run away. What a write up! (It's true though!)

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    1. But if you know that this is the way it works for you, you can perhaps organise things so that you drop into something and leave while you still feel comfortable. That seems fair enough to me!

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  12. Oh, PS. I meant to say about children - have just read 'Night Waking' by Sarah Moss. You might like it too.

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  13. I very much need both. And also struggled with the noise and chaos of young children. Even now I have difficulty if there is loud music on plus people talking, TVs etc. I don't need much quiet but without just a little bit things go pear shaped!

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    1. That is just me! Even background or particularly loud conversation makes me uncomfortable. Glad I am not the only one!

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  14. Myers Briggs always showed me as almost two people - the work personality was sociable and team-oriented, while the home one was remarkably different, quiet, solitary, thoughtful - and now I'm happy to be just the homey type! But then again, I do seem to have got to know the entire village in the year I've been here, making even the shortest walk up the road a conversation marathon....

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    1. I love the idea of your getting to know the entire village!

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  15. I am never quite sure which is the greatest delight - seeing people or the pleasure of being alone afterwards.

    They go together. The time afterwards is the time to digest, enjoy having had the contact. And enjoy the silence. And, for me, to feel the relief of the reduction of anxiety that I feel with everyone to a greater or lesser extent.

    It is certainly one reason amongst so many why I didn't want to have children.

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    1. They do go together and I share that feeling that both are a delight. If you asked me to choose one over the other I would struggle. If you gave me one and wouldn't let me have the other I wouldn't be able to function!

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  16. I am an introvert, who also enjoys company - sort of the opposite of your myers briggs profile. Mine in INTJ.

    Introversion / extroversion refers to the way we perceive and relate to the world rather than whether we are quiet or loud. When I have an issue to resolve, my first instinct is to take it 'inward' and reflect carefully. My old boss ( a clear extrovert) would immediately call the whole team together, sharing ideas, feeding off others. And yet in some situations I would be more outgoing than him.

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    1. I appreciate the business about how we relate and perceive. I have the extrovert score I assume because I would take an issue outward rather than inward although without the solitary time I become very frazzled.

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  17. I agree that there are many types of people, but all those types can be divided into two groups: Actors and Extras. Everyone's Actors / Extras list is unique, but if you think about every person you know, it doesn't take a second to know if they're an Actor or an Extra in the movie of your life.

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