I grew up in an Asian family, where one believes in fate. Born at a certain time, day, month, year, preferably “Year of the dragon” – you’ll sail towards the golden sea, without hard work. I was not born under such lucky stars – and hence embraced American style motivational thinking with open arms. You can be what you put your heart too. Is this true?
As a Myers Briggs Type Indicator facilitator and career coach, I am now inclined that nature, nurture and “will” or adaptation through self awareness can help us modify our behaviors.
In “Quiet, the power of Introverts in a World that can’t stop Talking” (Ch 5), author Susan Cain, interviewed Dr Carl Schwartz, Director of the Developmental Neuroimaging and Psychopathology Research Lab, using fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) machines if introverts and extroverts behave differently. Specifically, through measuring the activity of the amygdala – in shaping the personalities of introverts and extroverts.
In an experiment using a slideshow projecting a crowded room of strangers or some familiar faces, Schwartz found that the amydalae of high reactives (introverts) reacted more to the photos of strangers than low reactives (extroverts). Using a longitudinal study, found that the footprint of a high or low reactive temperament never disappeared in adulthood (what Carl Jung assumed all these while). Susan Cain calls this the “rubber band theory” of personality. “We are like rubber bands at rest. We are elastic and can stretch ourselves, but only so much.” Nature and nurture. Bill Gates is never going to be Bill Clinton.
What’s being processed in the Introvert’s brain in a cocktail party?
1. When we greet a stranger in a party, the amygdala (the ancient part of the brain), goes into overdrive.
2. For those relatively skilled in social situations, the neofrontal cortex kicks in to tell you to calm down, and what to do next – shake hands, smile. But conditioning and learning only suppresses the activity of the amygdala, not erase the fear.
3. During times of stress, unwarranted fears came go haywire, – “when the cortex has other things to do than soothe an excitable amygdala”. => Solitude and time for meditation works for both introverts and extroverts as you don’t want your amygdala to spin out of control on you.
What should we do:
To conquer fear of public speaking, small talk with strangers etc.
1. Desensitise yourself (and your amygdala) in small doses, over and over again – in a safe environment.
Reassuring. Something I’ve known intuitively. Don’t just jump into the deep end. Bad advice. As Japanese say, “Kaizen” or small improvements daily is better. A case in point was when I learnt to ride a bicycle “in one hour” in my forties at the harassment of my husband. Instead of buying a beautifully crafted bicycle meant for racers as my first bike, so that it can still be used 3 years later and not out-grow it, as he put it, I bought a safe one which I would put my feet on the ground “safely”, to minimise my fear of falling. Also, I took to “Youtube” and watched many, many bicycle training videos to desensitise myself.
A “one hour miracle”, was actually hours of practice soothing my amygdala which cannot tell the difference between real practice and what the eye sees.
2. Find your sweet spot.
Once you discover your preferences, organise your life around “optimal levels of arousal“, what Susan Cain calls “sweet spots”. If you’re happily reading your book in a quiet place, and after 30 mins find yourself re-reading a sentence 5 times, you’re understimulated. Call a friend, go out for tea. Now you’re back into your sweet-spot. But if your extroverted friend who needs a higher level of stimulation, persuades you to follow her to a party after this tea, you may find yourself having to make small talk with strangers, and soon, find yourself “overstimulated“.
What next? Pair off with someone for in-depth conversation, or go back to your book. Understanding your sweet spot, can increase satisfaction in every area of your life and more.
Ask: How much time does your work require you to behave out of your sweet spot? Too much time in a research lab, and not enough time interacting with people? Or too much time socialising and schmoozing and not enough time to research in your cubicle.
3. Find out what’s meaningful for you
Can we act out of character? How then do famous strong introverts speak in public effectively? Susan Cain introduces us to the Free Traits theory, created by Professor Brian Little, former Havard University psychology lecturer. “According to the Free Traits theory, we are able to act out of character in the service of core personal projects. ” Introverts can behave like extroverts to accomplish work/causes they regard as important, people/ projects they value highly.
To thine own self be true. – Shakespeare
How to identify core personal projects?
4. Pay attention to your actions
Can you fake it till you make it? Yes, to a certain extent according to studies by research psychologist, Richard Lippa comparing introverts who pretend and act like extroverts, with actual extroverts. Some psuedo-extroverts are surprisingly convincing.
Pay attention to how your face and body arrange themselves when you’re feeling confident and adopt the same position when it comes time to fake it. Studies have shown that behavior can lead to emotions. Smiling makes you feel stronger and happier and frowning makes you feel angry.
There is a limit to the control of self-presentation – beware of behavioral leakage. When you act out of character for a project you don’t care about, your discomfort can come across strongly and detected by the other party, sometimes as “freudian slips”.
Professor Little advises, find as many restorative niches as possible in your daily life, recommended by “The Introvert Advantage” – a quick read, practical guide. Surprisingly for a sedentary person like myself, going for a walk in the park, or jogging in the gym is a restorative process. After a day of lecturing, I recharge with a 20 min treadmill time, then off to a dinner with my husband’s colleagues and then supper with his friends.
While some of the recommendations are not new, it has given credibility that I am not abnormal, and allowed me to negotiate with my husband, an extrovert, who wants me to go everywhere. Professor Little calls it “Free Trait Agreement”,
Read more about this inspiring book, Quiet by Susan Cain.
There are more nuggets in this book not covered by my blog. Watch Susan Cain’s TED introduction, but she’s too modest in promoting her book.