On “Being Seen,” as an Introvert

I love the idea of a new school year. It’s a chance to see everyone who we do our work for, and it means that all the preparation and planning we’ve done over the summer will finally be executed. But, as with previous years, I’m having a lot of trouble finding joy in the execution.

As I write this, I am recovering from the second day of a new semester. This time yesterday, I shared the following tweet before sliding gleefully into my pajamas:

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Some may have read this as me having had a bad day. Not true. It was a great day welcoming back students new and old, conflicts I anticipated as being acrimonious were actually pleasant and well-reasoned, and I received appreciation for good work from colleagues and students alike.

Others may have read this as a sort of exhaustion that put me right to sleep. Also not quite true. Aside from a brief “eye rest,” I went to bed at the normal time. This exhaustion wasn’t the same sleepiness that comes from waking up too early, but the kind of fatigue that comes from having the life drained out of you. And by the way, this isn’t Victorian-era “I’ll get the vapors if I have to talk to you” tired. This is blinding headaches, muscle pain…beyond tired into painful.

I counted on the spreadsheet that our commuter registration system pulls- 154. In six hours, I spoke to over 150 students. 25 students an hour. That’s roughly one every two minutes. For each one, I had to serve their needs, while also answering questions, troubleshooting worries, and encouraging patiences when lines got too long or questions didn’t have easy answers. Add to that fact that ticketed events, another area I oversee, will kick off next week, and…well…Urkel gets it.

Just looked at that math again. Makes my head hurt just thinking about it. IMAGE CREDIT: ReplyGif

In all of those maneuvers, I realized what it is that’s taking so much out of me: there is an element of performance embedded in each of these encounters, a feeling of being seen. As I get older and learn more about myself, I’m realizing how difficult that is for me. It’s hard to be seen, and it’s even harder to be seen when you don’t necessarily like or want to be seen. It’s a complicated emotion to understand- can you be recognized for good work, without being noticed and set apart from others? Can you do a job on the front lines when you serve as a gatekeeper? And does it make sense to want to have an awesome Halloween costume, but still feel uncomfortable when people comment that they love it?

(As an aside, I hope it does make sense…as this is my dilemma every. single. year.)

One of my favorite lines from Sophia Dembling’s The Introvert’s Way addresses an element of this dichotomy: “I accept attention, sometimes I invite it, but I don’t compete for it.” For me, a great example of this aversion to attention is in the start of my book chapter about recognition and rewards for introverts in the forthcoming Light it Up, as I sought to hide on a bus from a horde of college students singing happy birthday to me:

Did you know that a (nearly) full-sized adult can fit under the seat of a school bus?

I learned this from experience on August 23rd, 2006.

I wasn’t hiding from danger, or embarrassment, or from bullying or teasing. I was hiding from a chorus, sing-screaming “The Birthday Song” at the top of their lungs. I was further startled and shaken by a head poking down next to mine, my friend Sami, to make sure I heard every word.

This isn’t the first time that such recognition brought my insides to the brink of curdling. As it happens, it generally involves being sung to on my birthday. But I’ve also learned in the years since that this reaction to being pushed into the center of attention, is by no means uncommon for introverts. While many care deeply about being appreciated by the people around them, few will revel in the opportunity for that appreciation to be shown in a public forum.

In The I’s Have It, there is a section about what happens when introverts are pushed past their threshold of stimulation- this can happen from anything that saps you of energy- social interaction, yes, but also temperature, volume, emotion, or even hunger/hanger. A mentor and contributor termed it the “introvert hangover,” and in its most severe cases, it can be painful (including the symptoms I descrived before). Another one of the factors that can contribute to the overconsumption that causes a hangover? Being “on” for too long, as being seen may sometimes require.

Now, if we accept that being seen is okay sometimes, but not others, then the question remains…when is it okay?

Speaking for myself: I’m okay taking the stage for myself, when it’s a means to share my ideas.

This is how I reconcile my acceptance, even excitement, with public speaking in support of ideas I care about. It energizes me to talk to students and staff members about topics like creativity, humor, and energy. These are topics I know well, and I am galvanized by a trust given to me to address these topics with competency and my own personal style. I’m okay being seen in these instances, because it provides a means to elevate ideas I see as important. As you may imagine, being present in my office six hours a day to sell a student a locker or distribute a sticker doesn’t fill me with the same inspirational energy.

With all of that said, now what? What to do to balance the need to be effective, with an aversion to feeling “seen”?

Acknowledge that this is who you are, where you are, and how you operate. A few years back, I went through a week of orientation, believing I had an ear infection. I found out that first weekend that I didn’t have an ear infection, I just had clenched my teeth for five straight days. As my jaw relaxed, my ears stopped hurting.

Pay close attention to how you respond to certain scenarios. You’ll come to realize what scenarios are testing you, and which ones actually give you energy. Further, accept that there are times of year, tasks, and environments that will challenge you. This is a great example. My whole year doesn’t look like this first six weeks will, and that makes this crush of activity harder to work through. Todd Henry puts its beautifully in his most recent release Louder than Words:

On occasion, growth requires a sprint. While your slow, steady, deliberate progress will be enough to get you moving in the right direction, you also have to be prepared for those moments when the work will demand everything you have for a season. This is not (necessarily) unhealthy if it’s part of a natural rhythm, or ebb and flow, of your work […] Sprint when necessary, but if you are being intentional and deliberate, your work should require occasional sprints, not an all-out footrace.

Once you’ve acknowledged the sprint, build in walk breaks. Anytime that your task outpaces your ability to do it, time to slow down is necessary. For introverts, that may mean finding small moments to recharge as best you can. I do this by setting hours where I’m available- and setting hours when I am not. This can mean taking full lunch breaks, away from your desk; dedicating time to work on other tasks so this sprint doesn’t leave you gasping for air in other races; and ensuring that your downtime and out-of-office time is truly yours.

As you seek to raise your energy levels, I urge you: don’t isolate yourself. While I was unable to meet up with a friend that was in town, I was willing to spend time with friends who know me well, ones for whom time spent is energizing. As I’ve said so many times before, introversion isn’t an aversion to people; its an aversion to situations that pull energy away. But I have friends that recharge me too. Alternating this “charger time” between friends, and solo time, keeps me vibrant and interesting 🙂

And lastly, ask for help. Many hands make light work, I’m finding- and while small schools don’t always have too many additional free hands, you’d be surprised who will lift a finger when you ask. I’ve managed some of the feelings of overwhelm by dedicating to student employees and our administrative staff. By doing that, I can ensure that the students I do see get the best version of me possible. It takes less of a toll on me physically and mentally, and ensures that the many other hats I wear can sit on a head that’s upright, not one slumped over from exhaustion. As I write this, we have several more weeks of Welcome to make it through- but I’m hopeful that the Amma who needs to take center stage this season will be able to do so with a smile.

What other tips do you have for managing that feeling of being seen?

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