By Rachel Lincoln
There is a popular personality assessment called “Strengths Finder”, which gives you a list of your top five strengths. The number one strength on my assessment was “WOO” (Winning Others Over), which essentially means I am an extrovert, a person who needs people. I have taken the assessment four times, and each time, WOO appeared as my top strength. I loved it. I wore it around like a medal. WOO was my prized possession, my favorite quality, the perfect label. This awareness has helped me understand myself better, knowing I do best when my day is spent around others.
Imagine my surprise when, four years after my initial assessment, I took it again only to discover my beloved WOO had moved from being my top strength, to—gasp!—my second. I must admit I had a bit of an identity crisis. I related to WOO, I loved WOO, I felt comfortable in WOO.
This identity crisis has followed me into the current chapter of my life. Circumstances have brought me from a full-time career to a part-time job. I went from every-hour-of-my-day-is-packed to a no-alarm-set, too-much-time-on-my-hands kind of lifestyle. I work mainly from home and sometimes in coffee shops. I eat lunch by myself most days. It shocked my system and has been hard adjustment for me. Once the denial and depression subsided, I realized the only way out of this was through it. I found that being forced to be alone for 75% of my day was not only survivable, it came with some lessons. These three lessons have helped me connect not only closer to myself, but also to others.
- Labels can become safe places to hide behind
I not only became accustomed to my WOO label, I formed my identity around it. I loved associating myself with The Extroverts. I would panic when I saw free time in my schedule, so I would fill it up immediately. People comfort me, keep me going, and keep me happy. But what I have begun to realize is that I so frequently associated being Extroverted with being Me. When I was not around people I felt part of me was missing. In some ways, this self-awareness is healthy. I know after a long day I need to find a friend to process my thoughts with. Nevertheless, alone time shouldn’t plague anyone with fear.
In my recent months of plentiful alone time, I have realized I am not as scary as I once thought. I had grown so comfortable living inside the extroverted box; I forgot there is a whole world outside. Labels give us structure, comfort and even conversation topics, but they should not be parameters for how to live life, at least not forever. To live some seasons as an introvert does not mean you are denying your identity, it means you can embrace the way your identity fits into different labels.
- Not everyone who is alone is lonely
My WOO-ness often gave me a gift for spotting people who could use a friend. This radical empathy is something I am quite fond of, as it has positively fueled many of my passions and character traits. However, it also trained me to spot the Lonely Introverts as I travelled through public places and oftentimes, I tried to “save” them. Sitting by yourself at a coffee shop? I will strike up conversation about your purse or the Wifi password. Sitting by yourself on an airplane? We will absolutely talk about the book you are reading and if you’re traveling for business or pleasure.
But what I have come to find is that not everyone who dines alone or wanders a park by themselves is actually lonely. There is a stark difference between being alone and being lonely. While there are times where I feel lonely, there are also plenty of times where I am quite content to read on the patio with an iced tea and not be disturbed. I have chosen to learn more about introverts and why they prefer to sit alone. This new understanding has taught me to respect each individual’s space.
- Knowing yourself starts with spending time with yourself; spending time with yourself results in liking yourself
Someone once told me, “In the silence of solitude, one finds the purest of self—which can be the most terrifying thing in the world.” As I reflect on those times of my life where I steered clear of solitude, I realize how often I felt fear, anxiety, and panic when approached with my own company. Within minutes of being home alone, I was crippled with boredom and discontentment. Car rides lasting longer than 20 minutes caused physical stress. I did not know how to be alone. I always brushed this off, when deep inside I was actually kind of scared of myself.
This last chapter of my life has thrust me into a huge amount of soul-searching, filling my mind with questions like, “Who am I?” or “What on earth do I want to do?” In order to find the answers to these questions, I had to actually spend time with myself. As it turns out, I am not that bad. In fact, I am actually kind of pleasant. I am quirky, insightful, observant, and witty. I have cool interests and funny stories. Not only has being alone helped me discover myself; it has helped me like myself. At 27 years old, it is nice to finally be able to say that out loud.
We often grow so comfortable with labels we forget what it means to be a human first. Whether we are introverted or, extroverted, we are each an evolving individual with many layers. Understanding what it means to be each in different stages of life will allow us to experience the world with a deeper appreciation for yourself and the unique ways others choose to live their lives.
Are you an extrovert living like an introvert? What lessons have you learned from this?
Photo: Jim Pennucci / Flickr