In the past two days, we’ve heard a lot about the Virginia Tech shooting, and about the gun man in particular. We’ve seen his video “manifesto,” read his plays, and even his mental health evaluation (PDF). Most of all, we’ve heard him described as a “troubled loner” over and over again. This description of him as an eccentric loner is pretty typical.
He often spoke in a whisper, if at all, refused to open up to teachers and classmates, and kept himself locked behind a facade of a hat, sunglasses and silence.
… Paul Kim, a senior English major, said Cho was so withdrawn on campus that he did not know “we had a Korean person who was in the English department and was male until I met him in class.”
“He never spoke a word,” Kim said. “Even when the professor asked questions, he never spoke. He constantly looked physically and emotionally down, like he was depressed. I had a strong feeling to talk to him on the first day of class, but I didn’t get to talk to him because he sat right beside the door, and as soon as class was over, he left.”
For Kim, one detail stood out. The classroom was rectangular. The class was split in half, with one half facing the other. “I always sat directly across, looking directly at him,” Kim said. “He never looked up.”
Cho was clearly a loner, and definitely troubled. But after hearing those two words together so often in the last couple of days, I feel the need to point out that “troubled” and “loner” are overlapping sets. Not all troubled persons are loners and not all loners are troubled. Most of us are just fine, thank you.
And i think “introvert” is the preferred term, speaking as someone who’s always tested as an INFP. (The “I” is for “introvert.) Jonathan Rauch probably described us best in his “Caring for Your Introvert” essay. (Rauch’s article was surprisingly popular, and became the most emailed article at The Atlantic Monthly.)
DO YOU KNOW someone who needs hours alone every day? Who loves quiet conversations about feelings or ideas, and can give a dynamite presentation to a big audience, but seems awkward in groups and maladroit at small talk? Who has to be dragged to parties and then needs the rest of the day to recuperate? Who growls or scowls or grunts or winces when accosted with pleasantries by people who are just trying to be nice?
If so, do you tell this person he is “too serious,” or ask if he is okay? Regard him as aloof, arrogant, rude? Redouble your efforts to draw him out?
If you answered yes to these questions, chances are that you have an introvert on your hands—and that you aren’t caring for him properly.
That’s probably because we live in a society that top heavy with extroverts, favors extroversion, and thus sets it up as the standard for “normal.”
Extroverts have little or no grasp of introversion. They assume that company, especially their own, is always welcome. They cannot imagine why someone would need to be alone; indeed, they often take umbrage at the suggestion. As often as I have tried to explain the matter to extroverts, I have never sensed that any of them really understood.
… With their endless appetite for talk and attention, extroverts also dominate social life, so they tend to set expectations. In our extrovertist society, being outgoing is considered normal and therefore desirable, a mark of happiness, confidence, leadership. Extroverts are seen as bighearted, vibrant, warm, empathic. “People person” is a compliment. Introverts are described with words like “guarded,” “loner,” “reserved,” “taciturn,” “self-contained,” “private”—narrow, ungenerous words, words that suggest emotional parsimony and smallness of personality.
So, as Rauch points out, we constantly get questions like “Are you alright?” and “What’s the matter?” Nothing, actually. It’s just that, as Rauch points out, we process information differently. Me? I process things internally. If you ask for my opinion on something new to me, I’ll probably say “I’ll have to think about that and get back to you.” Then’ll go off somewhere and think about it. (But I’m an introvert with ADD, so I may get lost in thought and forget to get back to you.) I do better in meetings where I know the agenda ahead of time and have time to think about what’s being discussed. (But, again, as an introvert with ADD any meeting longer than half an hour is going test my limits. And I might leave early, even though I’m still sitting in my chair.)
Dealing with people who process externally is excruciating. In a previous job, I worked with an executive director who was an extrovert in the extreme. He would often call impromptu meetings (annoying habit no. 1) with me and my (also introverted) boss to discuss some project or another. Only, there wasn’t really an agenda for these meetings. He processed externally, and needed people to be in the room with him while he thought out loud (annoying habit no.2). Occasionally he would stop and ask us what we thought (annoying habit no. 3). Of course we didn’t know because we’d been listening to him think, and hadn’t had time to think ourselves.
I wish I’d had this list then, which is kind of a self-defense for introverts.
Introverts have to cope with a world that is set up against them. The amount of emotional abuse suffered by introverts in childhood is inestimable. Let’s look at the Top Ten ways to recover from this abuse and move on. You can win just the way you are!
Assert yourself as a legitimate personality type. There are two legitimate personality types: extroverts and introverts.
Correct people when they refer to introverts as neurotics. Introverts are not neurotics. They are introverts.
Correct people when they refer to introverts as prone to mental illness. Introverts are no more prone to mental illness than others. When extroverts are under stress, they overeat, smoke, drink and become violent. When introverts are under stress, they withdraw. This does not make them mentally ill.
Correct people when they assert that introverts are anti-social. Introverts are not anti-social. They are drained by other people and must limit their time in company, but they are friendly and loving people.
Correct people when they assert that introverts have nothing to say. On the contrary, introverts won’t speak unless they have something important to say!
Put a proper value on your ability to be a good listener. Good listening skills are invaluable in all areas of business and industry.
Do not apologize for time spent alone. Explain to critical “others” that introverts need to spend at least half their time alone for good mental and emotional health. Then assert, if necessary, that introverts are a legitimate personality type.
Introverts are not losers. Take pride that you are in the company of such introverts, past and present, as Albert Einstein, Steven Spielberg, Queen Elizabeth II, Charles Darwin, Mahatma Gandhi, Michael Jordan and Bruce Lee.
Stand up for introverted children who are being misunderstood in your presence. This is one of the most healing things you can possibly do for yourself as it will heal your own inner child.
Don’t let pushy extroverts interrupt you while you’re reading a good book. Explain politely that you can’t talk right now, you’re reading a book.
I bout the list above would have helped Cho Seung Hui much. He may have had some serious mental problems. Again, being a “loner” and being “troubled” are two different things, and are not synonymous. Most of us are not troubled. At best, we just get slightly irritated when we can’t have time alone, when someone wants to have a conversation while we’re in the middle of a good book, and when people think there’s something wrong with us as result.
But don’t worry. The worst we’ll so, is give an exasperated sigh, and then get up and go find somewhere quiet.