A Little Too Much Character Building

Hannah Dale Thompson has lived both sides of the attractiveness divide, and cops to behaving much as her tormentors did, once she had a taste of the power of prettiness. Her article is far-reaching, and delves more specifically into how women and girls deal with each other, among and between social castes. But this portion leaped out at me as universal for those of us who could not cross a minimum peer-acceptability threshold in our younger days:

Being unattractive in your youth forces you to develop positive personality traits. That’s why comedians are not sexy. Relying on something other than appearance for attention breeds a larger-than-life personality. It breeds a confidence that is more than superficial. It breeds humor, and a social awareness and empathy that, I think, can only be developed from the outside. I am more charismatic, confident, interesting, and funny because I was an ugly sixteen-year-old. I am slightly less superficial and marginally more open-minded. I can stand up for myself. Three days after the best first date I have ever been on, my half-drunk suitor called to tell me I have more moxie than anyone else he’s ever met. I am proud of all of these things; people should take pride in overcoming obstacles and developing better personality traits. Even if the obstacles involve bushy eyebrows and the personality bonus leads to self-diagnosed histrionic personality disorder.

I think about this a lot – I almost certainly would not be the person I am today if I had not gone through the years and years of marginalization and reviling. But I’m also not so sure that’s a good thing. Yes, it made me more sensitive to others in different out-groups, it forced me to quickly develop a sense of comedy, and it inculcated in me an appreciation for less shallow aspects of culture and the people in my life. Would those things have happened anyway? Unclear. But with those positive traits, I also got to bring along a lot of anxiety, trauma, and a paralyzing lack of a sense of self that hobbles me to this day.

And I didn’t get to hop over to the other side, as it were, that Thompson describes. I had my situation improve in college, and nothing in life is ever really like middle and high school. But the damage was done, and I never “blossomed.” At best, I maneuvered among the choking weeds to live to see additional springs. If anything, at least, I hope I can say this about myself: That the garbage I endured was not required in order for me not to be an asshole today.

I also think about this phenomenon in relation to my kids: I want them to have happy, socially satisfying childhoods, but I also don’t want them to face zero challenges, to never have to examine themselves critically or overcome disappointments. But there’s such thing as too much character building. One can only take so much abuse before the character you are trying to build begins attacking itself. I will watch closely for this.

You Are a Wonderful Person, But Now Please Shush

Following my previous post on introversion, the delightful Emily Hauser directed my attention to a piece by Jonathan Rauch from 2003 that not only acknowledges the difficulty of being introverted, but also advises extroverts on how to help the introverts they love.

First off, he makes a refreshing clarification: we’re not, by virtue of our aversion to social situations, dicks.

Introverts are not necessarily shy. … Rather, introverts are people who find other people tiring. . . . after an hour or two of being socially “on,” we introverts need to turn off and recharge. My own formula is roughly two hours alone for every hour of socializing. This isn’t antisocial. It isn’t a sign of depression. It does not call for medication. For introverts, to be alone with our thoughts is as restorative as sleeping, as nourishing as eating.

When it’s put like this, it doesn’t sound so bad, does it? I mean, hey, extroverts, you like eating and sleeping, right? Well guess what.

But of course, the extrovert in question would have to take our word for it, that this is simply how we get by. And, well, they often just can’t.

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.

Same here, and that very much includes those closest to me, who love me most. At best, I can manage to squeeze from them a kind of resigned acceptance, a humoring, with a loving dusting of benefit-of-the-doubt. ‘This is just what Paul is like, and if I want to know and be with Paul, I suppose there’s no changing this.’

There is, of course, always the expectation that, despite my feelings, I will play along with the extroverts. They are the standard. When in Rome, etc. Rauch gets this, noting that it is the extroverts who get to be the ones to put in place social norms–and how could it be otherwise? Being primarily those doing the talking–showing up, as it were–the idea of extroversion as a self-evident virtue naturally ascends and remains firmly fixed.

And as for we introverts? Whether or not we play along, we must lead our lives of quiet desperation, the extroverts all the while blissfully ignorant:

The worst of it is that extroverts have no idea of the torment they put us through. Sometimes, as we gasp for air amid the fog of their 98-percent-content-free talk, we wonder if extroverts even bother to listen to themselves. Still, we endure stoically, because the etiquette books—written, no doubt, by extroverts—regard declining to banter as rude and gaps in conversation as awkward. We can only dream that someday, when our condition is more widely understood, when perhaps an Introverts’ Rights movement has blossomed and borne fruit, it will not be impolite to say “I’m an introvert. You are a wonderful person and I like you. But now please shush.”

And not only would uttering such a sentence be a social felony, but the simple act of non- or half-hearted social participation itself is a misdemeanor, or, at best, a symptom of some horribly unpleasant (and slightly disfiguring) condition.

But think again of the analogy to eating and sleeping. Personal interaction is the food and slumber of the extrovert. Imagine someone you knew, and even loved, told you that, well, they actually don’t like to eat or sleep, and actually try to do as little of them as possible. And if they must eat or sleep, they actually need to recover from it. Yeah, you’d think that was a bit odd. You certainly wouldn’t feel inclined to rewire the world or rejigger your own life to accommodate them.

So as much as I want articles like Rauch’s to encourage the extroverts who dominate our world to better understand and appreciate their quieter associations, it’s also helped me understand why extroverts, like my wife, for example, can’t quite wrap their heads around why we are the way we are. It’s unfair that extroverts got to write the social rules to begin with, but it’s not like we tried to stop them, and it’s nobody’s fault now.

So anyway, what can the conscientious extrovert do to be humane to their introverted loved one?

First, recognize that it’s not a choice. It’s not a lifestyle. It’s an orientation.

Second, when you see an introvert lost in thought, don’t say “What’s the matter?” or “Are you all right?”

Third, don’t say anything else, either.


Interestingly, Emily, who directed me to this article, noted that it turned a lightbulb on for her about her own son, 4 years old at the time. The fact that she realized this when her boy was so young is remarkable to me, for I don’t think my introversion would have been at all apparent to anyone, myself included, at that age. Indeed, I am told countless stories of my brazen openness to interaction as a toddler and young child, my constant efforts to win attention (which still exists, but not socially). Mostly what I recall from those years is a lot of positive reinforcement for who I was and how I behaved. It was not until he age of 10, sixth grade, when my family moved to a new area, that my life became very, very dark socially, with a constant strain of torment from my peers, when I had no choice but to retreat for fear of a kind of personal annihilation.

But, I suppose, too, I began to notice a slight difference between myself and others a little before then. Even in the idyllic part of my childhood, before our move, I recall inclinations toward the indoors over the outdoors, and quieter, more imaginative, and less populated activities and games over mad childhood scrambles or sports. Now that I think of it, I think I did at least begin to prefer being alone.

So perhaps I was already primed toward introversion, but I also have to assume that the barrage of negative reinforcement in middle school and onward, they daily flood of fight-or-flight chemicals in the bloodstream of a meek, thoughtful, generally sweet little boy, vaulted me well into all-out social aversion, where I remain encamped today.

I denied it for years, for decades. It was an illness to overcome, I thought, a fault in my personality to be corrected.

I don’t quite feel that way anymore. I am, if not proudly, at least affirmatively, an introvert. And if nothing else, I’m out.

For Mother and Father, In Equal Measure

Patrick Stewart magnificently describes his efforts in combatting (and his childhood experience of witnessing) violence against women. Watch the whole thing, and then read on for some thoughts.

Perhaps most moving to me is his discovery of what had moved his father to be violent toward his mother: PTSD brought on by his time in World War II. It is this revelation that brings him to a new milestone in his own campaign for the cause, wherein he gives his time both to Refuge, a nonprofit that provides safe houses to women, and Combat Stress, a group that works with those suffering from PTSD:

So, I work for Refuge for my mother, and I work for Combat Stress for my father, in equal measure.

As I have written here before, I suffer from PTSD myself, not from combat of course, but from the combination of a violent assault near my home when I lived in Washington, DC, and many years of relentless mockery and bullying from my middle and high school years. Obviously, the scenarios are starkly different, because my experience had almost nothing to do with any expectation that I be the aggressor, as it is for soldiers. But it does cause me to behave in ways that I would not otherwise, taking over my rational brain and my empathy when a threat is detected. It makes me understand how trauma can cause a person to act in such a way that they themselves might not recognize. It does not excuse it by any means, but it helps to explain it, and provides a point of potential repair so that it stops.

And one more note: I found myself watching Stewart’s body language, and it told its own story. Note how early in his answer, he hugs himself, tightly. This is classic defensiveness — as an actor, I’m well aware of the unconscious tendency for folks feeling insecure in front of an audience to brace or hug themselves to provide a bit of armor from imaginary danger. For Patrick Freaking Stewart to do that tells you something about how raw this issue is for him. Later, of course, he opens up very wide, his arms far out, exposing his face and chest, telling me he there finds his ground, finds his purpose, and it carries him to a courageous state. He is no longer defending, he is affirmatively acting. Not theatrically, but acting as in doing something.

(Hat tip to Kylie for the video.)