A few months into my new ministry, I was having lunch with a friend who was telling me about Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. She is a fellow priest, and I think I was probably having a good moan about how tired I was and how difficult I was finding the transition into my curacy. It wasn’t just the newness of everything that I was struggling with. I was deeply exhausted in a way I never had been before. I had lost weight. My memory was appallingly poor. I couldn’t focus. I was having panic attacks for the first time in years.
She recommended Cain’s book.
It should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that I am an introvert. In all the times I have ever taken Myers-Briggs tests, I have never once ticked a single box in the extrovert category.
I am not shy, though I used to be as a young girl. I will quite happily (though not without nerves!) preach or preside in front of 150-200 people, but ask me to speak off the cuff in front of half a dozen people and I will freeze. I find one-to-one pastoral encounters far easier than coffee time after church. In meetings prefer to listen first to other people’s ideas and assess them than to immediately put forward my own views. Given a choice between a social gathering and time on my own, I will always – always – choose time on my own. Contemplative prayer feels like prayer; an evangelical praise service feels like an assault.
These are things I’ve always known about myself, and in the work and study that I have chosen, I’ve been able to live pretty solidly within my comfort zone.
In ministry? Not so much.
Until I read Cain’s book, I quite frankly thought I was going to be an abysmal failure at ministry because so much of what had come before – in my childhood, in my years at university, in my training – was language of deficiency, as if being an introvert was a weakness. I was told I was too sensitive and needed to grow a thicker skin or else I would get nowhere in life. I was advised to spend more time with people and work with more groups in order to become a better team player and stronger leader. I was encouraged to fake being an extrovert because if I did, I gradually would become one.
Following this advice has in the past made me ill, both physically and mentally.
But page after page of Quiet held revelations.
It’s obvious that introverts and extroverts need different levels of stimulation. But it’s not that introverts like lower levels of stimulation; they actually become overstimulated more quickly than extroverts because they are more sensitive to sensory stimuli. Crowds of people, intense emotion, lots of activity can all cause overstimulation. So when I read that overstimulation interferes with attention and short-term memory, I realised why I often can’t recall a single conversation I have after church, or why I struggle to speak extemporaneously in certain situations.
Throughout the selection process, I hated talking about leadership because in my mind, I had equated leadership with loud, bossy assertiveness, the model promoted by universities and businesses throughout the western world, a model which made me tremble in fear of having to emulate. I had no idea until I read Quiet that being more interested in others’ ideas than in dominating a situation could be a leadership style. But it is. And it can be quite effective at boosting team morale and motivation because the members of the team feel their contributions are valued.
Cain also acknowledges, however, that introverts often play at being extroverts, sometimes because they have to and sometimes because they see that it is for a greater good. But there is a crucial difference, she writes, between self-monitoring and self-negation. While self-monitoring is adapting behaviour to suit the social demands of a situation, something many of us do to varying degrees, self-negation is the feeling that one’s true self is inadequate for the task required. One of the ways introverts can avoid the self-monitoring slipping into self-negation is by taking the time out they need to remind themselves of who they really are.
And therein lies the wisdom of the book for me. It’s as if Quiet has given me permission both to be myself and to be kind to myself. It was like having a mirror held up to me and being told, ‘This is who you are. This is why you are the way you are. And who you are is good.’ I still don’t always get it right. I still have to live out of my comfort zone. A lot. I still slip into self-negation mode too often. But I am much more conscious of the effect ministry has on me – both positively and negatively – and how best to care for myself in the midst of its stresses and joys. And I am now much more aware of the many ways that being an introvert brings with it certain gifts which make me good at what I do.