On Being An Introvert

The problem with placing people into broad categories is just that. It is conceptually easy to attach a label to someone, or even yourself, and allow that label to define. Often a group category has enough merit to grant this deception to occur, but it is limiting to define anything or anyone based on criteria of 5 to 10 facts.

Categorizing a person, or group of people can also have a very dark side. Negative connotations have been assigned to groups for millennia, typically in an us versus them mindset. In the land of the free, there have always been different rules for different people. Gender, race, sexual orientation, immigration status, weight, religion; these are just a few of the categories where it has been acceptable practice to attack and denigrate individuals who are different. Dear reader, it can be easy to place someone in a box, and define who they are based on that box. Remember, a box is just a container, and containers can hold many different things.

I have placed myself into categories many times. One group that I have identified with is the introvert group. Indeed, I can check off many of the canned introvert characteristics. However, I’m am more than a list of 5 to 10 elements. You can put me in a box, but to know who I really am you need to look inside that box.

I have always been comfortable being in my head.

I can get distracted easily by noise and other abrasive stimulation You may find me sitting in a dark room thinking. Thinking seems to energize me, and the process itself seems to serve as its own end. I have come up with a number of good ideas thinking, but the majority of that effort is simply done for the pleasure of the activity.

I don’t want to impose on you.

I’m not sure if this characteristic is part of my introversion, or if it reflects a childhood where I felt that I was more of a burden than a blessing. I almost always let people come to me. This is not out of conceit, rather the opposite. I would never want to take up someone’s time. When someone engages with me I am more certain that they want to make the connection. Are there exceptions to this rule? There have been very few, and I believe that those exceptions were the result of forces outside myself.

I am a loyal and true friend.

I have many acquaintances, but only a select group of deep connections. I have never needed to be the most popular kid on the block. To be clear, I have avoided such aspirations as they would compromise my integrity. With that said, when I make a friendship it will often last for decades. Ed note: I was tempted to use the phrase, “for life” in the last sentence, but that phrase would assume that I could foretell the future, a capability that I have not acquired. A great advantage of having a select group of connections is that you have more time and energy to devote to enriching those relationships. I am sure that this latter fact is one of the reasons that my friendships tend to be meaningful and tend to last.

I don’t mind small talk.

I like having light conversations, but I often have to recharge after attending a large group activity, like a party or conference. While many extroverts gain energy from many contacts, I lose energy. I recharge by getting back into my head, either by thinking or doing a solitary activity.

I think best when I am alone.

There are exceptions to this rule, and I have had many brainstorming sessions where new ideas and concepts grew with the help of others. In addition, there is a very select group of individuals who I love to think with. I feel so close to them that our thoughts seem to connect in a subconscious flow where the creation process is more akin to a Vulcan mind meld. Even with those individuals there are times when it is best for me to think alone. This is especially the case with technical problems, as I have found that I can process such exercises more quickly if I can direct all of my energy to the topic, and also allow myself to make mistakes as I acquire the solution.

I really like people.

You may want to categorize introverts as antisocial. If so, this does not apply to me. I love connecting with people, and I find them endlessly captivating. I like the fact that we are a varied species with a wide variety of interests. I’m am always learning from others. Important facts to trivial information, it is all interesting to me. I feel that it is a great privilege when someone trusts me enough to share a part of their life with me.

I like public speaking and have no fear of talking to a group of 100.

People have told me that I am a natural teacher, and it excites me when I can expose someone to a new idea or concept and have them jump on board. Giving a lecture, or teaching one-to-one has always been pleasurable.

I am never bored.

One of the benefits of being comfortable in your head is that you don’t need a lot of external activity to feel content. Thinking, taking a bike ride, walking in the woods, taking pictures, figuring out the problem of the day, these are just a few of the many activities that keep me company.

I have a child’s heart.

Small, common things make me happy. A beautiful day, a sincere hug, a new adventure. I’m not sure why my decades of existence hasn’t calloused me to such things, but I often view life with the excitement of an eight-year-old on Christmas morning. I get immense joy from simple things. I’m happy to vacation in Paris, but I’m also happy riding a bike along the lakefront.

Since I tend to be quiet I sometimes am afraid that I will easily be forgotten.

I went to the funeral of a relative who was very extroverted and popular in his community. The condolence line was so long that it extended out of the building. It is likely that hundreds of people offered their sympathy to my cousin, who was his wife. I sometimes wonder who will come to my funeral. I sometimes wonder if my presence will just fade into the ether once I am no longer providing a service to others. I believe that this fact drives me to attempt to be a positive force, no matter how small. We are all just grains of sand on an immense beach. With that said, this grain of sand wants to stop erosion, not contribute to it.

I need to constantly create and constantly learn.

I get joy from acquiring any knowledge. I get joy from taking any knowledge and turning it into something. A thought, a lecture, a photography, a video, a blog. The creation process itself is as exciting as any acknowledgment that I may gain from the end result.

Dear reader, I am more complex than the few paragraphs above. But I hope they define me outside a canned checklist found on Facebook or in “Psychology Today.” I wrote this piece with the hope that you would look beyond any person’s categorization. When I have made efforts to do so I have almost universally found that I have more in common with them than I have differences.

Today my goal is to celebrate who I am.
Today my goal is to celebrate who you are.

Even in a large group I often live in my head


The Walk

I didn’t go to the gym today, I walked.
It was cold, rainy, and gusty, I walked.
The umbrella snapped in the wind, I walked.
My ears were frozen, I walked.
I walked and I thought.
I thought about my day ahead and walked.
I thought about my close connections and walked.
I thought about my walk and walked.
How grateful I am to be able to walk.
How grateful I am to have wonderful people in my life.
How grateful I am to live in this beautiful city.
How grateful I am.

Walking downtown in the rain.

The Garage

It didn’t happen overnight. It didn’t happen last month or even last year. But, it happened. Slowly, like creeping urban decay, until it became overwhelming. I had lost the battle, I had lost my garage.

I have never been one of those spotless garage people. Those individuals with a gardening implement or two neatly hung on a wall. The ones with the epoxied floors, and painted rafters. That was never me.

But once I did have a functional garage, a usable space that could house cars. That was decades ago. Before marriage, before kids, before swimming noodles, before sleds, before junk.

I coped with the garage by no longer thinking of it as a place for cars, instead, it became a storage shed. A shed that would get organized about once a year. The organization was a paltry event, I pushed things around the floor, and swept the dead leaves out to the curb.

The lack of order bothered my friend Tom, who is a bit more OCD than I am. “Wouldn’t it be nice if you could park a car in here?” He would say. Tom approached me on this topic with two irrefusable offers. The use of his personal dumpster, and the gift of his construction knowledge.

The project started a month ago by getting rid of two old and rotting dresser. They went from housing clothing to holding junk long ago. Into the traveling dumpster they went, so decayed that they fell apart on removal.

A week ago Tom had completed a demolition of a customer’s bathroom. His traveling dumpster revisited, as it had some extra dumpster room. More junk was thrown away.

Off to the curb went useful things for the garbage pickers. Old framed pictures, small electrics, a kerosene heater purchased in 1999 on the Y2K advice of a prominent engineer who was my patient at the time. But there was so much more stuff.

Tom offered to help build some shelves for me. Not the flimsy ones that I could probably assemble myself, but sturdy ones strong enough to hold a man standing on them (we actually tested this). Easter Saturday started with the buzz of power tools emerging from my garage.

Enter my wonderful teenage kids, who offered only a little resistance when I asked for their help. Will, overtired from late adventures with his friends. Grace, trying to finish up some homework so she could go to a party with hers. Despite their personal needs, they gave me their time.

I truthfully asked for only 40 minutes of effort. That effort actually stretched to over 2.5 hours.

Both kids questioned every item. “Dad, do you really need this? When was the last time you used it?”

Piles started to form. Items decayed by the garage’s unheated dampness. Useless parts that could no longer be paired with their mates. Outright garbage, saved for no apparent reason. These items went into the garbage pile.

There was also a lot of good, but useless stuff. An outdoor TV antenna, duplicate camping gear, a kerosene lamp, and so on. These items created a huge pile. That pile soon to be transported to the curb on Monday garbage night. Hopefully, to the garbage pickers delight.

Dirty and dusty work that caused my skin to itch, and my nose to run. My kids never complained, they just helped. I was proud of them.

We eventually reached a point where there was no more floor space. The piles had overtaken it. I said one last time, “I think we have done enough for today.” Gracie chimed in, “It will be easier to continue once all of this mess is taken out, and we have more floor space to work with.” My wise Gracie, who always seem to know the right thing to say.

At this moment the garage looks worse than ever. The below picture was carefully angled to only show the new shelving unit. Despite the mess, I know an order is near, perhaps in another weekend or two.

I am very happy with the idea of having a clean garage. However, I am happier with having kind and wonderful people in my life. Cleaning and organizing the garage seemed as impossible as climbing Mount Everest to me. It was easier to shuffle things around and sweep the floor than to really dig in, throw stuff out, and make the garage functional again.

The garage made me think of my life. How often do I allow business as usual, simply because I believe that it would take too much work for me to change? How often is my present life less functional because of old trash from the past? How often do I rely only on myself, when it would be so much easier if I shared my burden with someone else? I have people in my life who care about me, but their efforts only count if I let them in. My garage helpers are giving me a functional garage. A practical offering of help. An offering that I am most grateful to have.

When I have a rough patch in my life I can feel unlovable and unworthy. Sometimes the help that I get from people who care about me doesn’t fix anything. That help simply lets me know that I’m worthy of love, concern, and attention. It lets me know that I am still valued despite my problems, flaws, and imperfections. For me, that is the most powerful and valued help of all. When I truly connect with others, the impossible becomes possible. Our combined strength is not additive, instead, it grows exponentially.

Today, gratitude is my goal.- Happy Easter from Dr. Mike

The shelves that Tom and I built. So strong that a man can stand on them.

The Home Show

“Do you want to do it, it will be fun,” Tom said. Without thinking I said, “Sure.” It was 5 AM on a Saturday morning, and I was sitting on the long bench that served as a chair for Tom’s massive office desk. It is not unusual for me to hang out with my friend Tom early in the morning. However, what I had agreed to was both unusual and unorthodox.

Without thinking, I had committed to helping man a booth at two home shows with my general contractor friend. Clearly, a new experience for a physician of 30 years. I thought my new role would be interesting, but my main reasons for doing the shows was to hang out with and be supportive of Tom.

As the shows approached there was planning to be done. Tom did most of it, but I contributed my ideas as well. A slide show had to be prepared, a banner made, and display ideas had to be pondered. Before we knew it the shows were upon us.

Tom had done most of the booth’s set up on the prior Fridays, but there was still some work to be completed. I spend a lot of time with Tom, and so I have gained a limited working knowledge of home products and remodeling procedures. Not enough to actually do anything, but at least enough to capture a potential customer, and then hand that customer off to Tom. “What will you say if one of your patients sees you here,” Tom asked pensively. The implication was that I was working below my station. “I’ll tell them I’m helping a friend,” I said, unconcerned.

Dear readers, by now you know that I’m an introvert. Where others gain energy from crowds and random social interactions, I become quiet and exhausted. However, successful introverts have a powerful secret weapon, we can temporarily don the persona of an extrovert when needed. The price we pay is post-event exhaustion, but after many years of execution, I’m pretty good at putting on the cloak of sociability.

I’m one of those people who enjoys learning for the sake of learning and experiencing new things for the sake of experiencing them. I learned a lot from my four days manning a home remodeling booth.

There were so many presenters. In some ways, we were in competition with each other. In some ways, we were allies with each other. We were we all in it together, but we all wanted the same business.

The lady across the way was running a booth for a different home remodeling company. She was having a great deal of difficulty getting a slideshow up and running. I offered my services, which were met with a little surprise. Ten minutes later her company’s remodels were flashing on her booths TV screen. “I owe you,” she said. “No, you don’t,” I replied.

There was the guy who drove up from St. Louis to sell his “miracle” pain relieving pads. He engaged Tom and me in an effortless pleasant conversation for about 5 minutes before he asked if he could use our AC connection to charge some of his devices. His conversational motives now clear, we let him use our AC anyway.

Next to us was a pleasant Hispanic family of three who were hawking timeshares. Home shows are their livelihood. They work 3 days a week procuring leads that can later be converted to sales by another team. They live in a neighborhood in Chicago with a high crime rate. “It is OK,” the daughter said. “I don’t leave the house much, and if we hear anything we turn on our police scanner.” A silent shudder ran through me.

There was the guy selling prefab bath enclosures. He had brought along “booth bait” in the form of three pretty girls dressed in plastic hardhats and open flannel shirts.

Down the way was the gutter leaf protection guy. He was decked out with a flag pin, a Christian cross, and a US Marine ball cap. If you were patriotic, a vet, or a Christian, he had an instant “in” with you.

Asking any of them about their products instantly turned them into sales mode, and a well-rehearsed pitch would effortlessly gush forth.

You may think that these folks were despicable, carnival style hawkers, but you would be wrong. They were mostly nice people, trying to make a living as best as they could. They were hard working and tried to do their job to the best of their ability. “We get $2 a lead, you can make good money,” one person told me. In my mind, I calculated how much I got paid for a single psychiatric evaluation and felt guilty.

Some of the exhibitors knew each other from previous shows. They would chat and mingle with each other in a way akin to family members reconnecting at a wedding or funeral.

I felt comfortable with them. They seemed to believe in their products. They seemed to feel that they were doing a service, which in turn gave their jobs meaning.

Then there were the attendees, and a wide and varied group were they. Old, young, lonely, angry, friendly. Straight couples, gay couples, families, random wandering kids.

It seemed like some of the people who attended were there for no apparent reason. They didn’t want to interact or look, they just wandered around. Others seemed lonely and grateful to hear any pitch just for the sake of having a conversation with another human being.

I work with patients every day, and in many ways, I also sell. However, I sell a method to think differently, or perhaps a medication treatment. People come to me, and they pay a hefty price at that. Most patients are at least a little receptive to my ideas, otherwise they wouldn’t be sitting across from me.

The attendees at the show were different. Some were suspicious, some condescending, others more willing to listen. Initially, it felt very awkward to even consider approaching a person with a pitch, but after a couple of hours of booth time, I became more comfortable with the idea.

I was helping my friend, who I believe in. Tom did several remodeling jobs for me before we became friends, and I genuinely believe in his character, quality of workmanship, and high standards. Now, as very close friends, my high opinion of him has only grown.

Once I adopted the above mindset I moved from awkward salesman to someone who had something to offer. Just as I believe in the work that I do in my professional job, I believe in the quality of the work done by Tom and his company.

There was a price to pay for being “on” for two weekends in a row; I was pretty useless for any other activity during my off hours during those four days.

What was the outcome of our efforts? Pretty good for two “show newbies.” Tom and I work well together, and it was no different at the home shows. As I write this he already has gone on a number of show acquired business calls, and many of them look promising.

I am proud that I could help my friend, and I’m happy that I exposed myself to an experience that I would never have imagined having a few years ago. You can be a doctor and still push your comfort level envelope every now and then.

Today my goal is to embrace new experiences with the wonderment of a child, and the maturity of an old salty psychiatrist.