Ever since we had to take the Meyers-Briggs in 7th grade, I’ve known that I was an introvert: “Those who prefer introversion expend energy through action: they prefer to reflect, then act, then reflect again. To rebuild their energy, introverts need quiet time alone, away from activity.”
I had this idea that introversion was related to autism somehow, that introverts are more involved with their own thoughts rather than thinking about other people. Lately I’ve realized that my introversion is driven by quite the opposite problem: I model people almost all the time. It gets overwhelming, and that’s why I need to be alone sometimes.
I remember being in high school and my school bus driver telling me why things didn’t work out with her first husband. We were stopped at a traffic light, and she pointed to the driver of the car next to us. “He was the kind of person who would care what that person in that car thinks of him,” she said. I thought, I care what that person in that car thinks of us. It must be nice not to care. She must feel so free.
I get embarrassed easily. I have to be pretty good friends with you before I will turn on a radio around you, because you might not like the station I choose, or you might think the volume is up too high. After two years of living with my in-laws and exactly zero negative feedback from them, I am still scared to turn on music near them. If I do so, I will spend the entire time analyzing what they must be thinking of it.
Even with people I trust very much, modeling them gets exhausting if I have to do it all the time. When I lived in a studio apartment with Jeff, I was almost never alone. At times it got so overwhelming that I was hiding in closets or under the blankets just to be away from his eyes. (This is a good way to make your partner upset and sad.) It’s not even that I had any reason to think he was judging me badly. Most of the time it was fine. I just couldn’t ever fully shut off my awareness that I was on view, and when I was feeling inadequate it was unbearable to not be alone.
But modeling other people’s minds isn’t just something I do out of anxiety. It’s also something I do for fun.
I do like being around people, and people are often surprised to hear that I’m an introvert. I like it as long as I’m coming off well. I like people looking at me as long as I’m pretty sure that they like what they see. If I’m in control and things are going well, I like having an audience. That’s why I have a blog.
I’ve had imaginary friends for a very long time. I used to pretend that the people were actually in my mind, seeing and hearing everything I saw and heard. We could telepathically discuss everything that was happening. Sometimes they were famous people: the first one I remember was Elizabeth II. I remember explaining light bulbs to George Washington. For a while there was a Soviet girl and her younger brother. (They couldn’t actually speak to me because they only spoke Russian. I did all the talking.)
These days, my imaginary friends are people I actually know. As I go through the day, I pretend they’re there with me (not literally inside my head, but walking next to me). I think of clever things to say to them. We talk about things that are happening. I imagine what they would say back. Usually this is all silent, but sometimes I talk to them out loud. It looks like I’m talking to myself, but I’m actually talking to someone who’s not there.
The imaginary friends are only there when there aren’t real people around. If there’s a real person present I’m busy modeling them and don’t bother modeling imaginary people.
Imaginary friends are not scary like real people are. They never disapprove of me. They are interested in everything I find interesting. There are no miscommunications. They’re an outlet for showing and teaching. I get to show them my world and tell them what I think about it.
This is why being alone is relaxing: modeling an imaginary person is much less stressful than modeling a real (and thus unpredictable) person. And sometimes I’m not modeling anyone and I really am alone, and that’s nice too.
Being around young children and animals is mentally relaxing in the same way that being alone is. I know they don’t care what I look like or whether I come off as clever. I like being with young kids because I get to show them the world and not worry about whether they’re judging me.
…So. This mental model feels very normal to me, but when I lay it out like that it sounds very strange. I have no idea how common it is. Does this sound familiar to anyone out there?