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?
Several of the details are different for me — but yes, this is definitely a familiar mode of thinking.
“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.”
A lot of this post resonated but perhaps these 2 sentences the most. It’s true, I often do not go out with my extrovert of a boyfriend, but when I do I make sure I look well presentable, bring the proper food to the party. (I don’t like drinking beyond my limits and I never liked drugs because I hated the thought of losing that control in public. Other people seeing me drunk? What if I do something wrong or perhaps act in some way that’s not as acceptable?) But at the same time, I love to dance and have almost no pre-stage dancing jitters even during competitions and it’s mainly because I’m in control and I know what I supposed to do and I have confidence in my ability to do it.
I remember when I was younger and less, I don’t know, socially apt I used to talk to these imaginary friends/real people out loud. My family truly worried that it’d prevent me from developing socially and actively tried to ‘kill’ them off. My response was simply to retreat-hide in the bathtub and whisper to myself instead. I’d never admit it to them that I still talk to those people but sometimes I want to confront them and tell them that it’s not abnormal, it’s not a weakness…it’s a strength in many ways.
Yes! that’s a lot like why I don’t like getting tipsy. It feels vulnerable, and there are hardly any people I want to feel that vulnerable with. And when I’m around some of them, we’re usually in a group mixed with people I don’t know well.
I’m sorry your family reacted that way. I also remember the bathtub being a safe place to talk to myself/imaginary people.
It sounds pretty familiar to me, though I occasionally feel like I land on both sides of the introvert/extrovert spectrum. I think we all have one point at which other people are exhausting, but another point at which we start to feel lonely, and we spend our lives learning how to keep the needle in between the two.
Actually, not at all familiar! In many ways I seem to be your opposite. I enjoy drinking around people, especially people I don’t know well, because it helps me let my guard down. And when I feel inadequate I become lonely and needy, and feel much worse if I’m alone.
This is interesting because I’m a bit shy and fairly quiet, and until a few years ago I thought of myself as an introvert. I’m not though– reading things like this written by real introverts, and talking with my introverted friends, has convinced me of that. I’m pretty sure being bullied as a child taught me to withdraw from people, and I’ve had to learn what a social being I am.
Anyway, thanks for writing this! It’s fun visiting the inside of another kind of brain.
I really vibe with your stuff on young children because they don’t know how an adult is “supposed” to act so anything you do is just new information on another way to be.