The Introvert’s Dilemma

“Open your hands,
if you want to be held.”
—Rumi, “A Community of the Spirit”

Words by Carla Padvoiskis
Illustrations by Katy Mitchell


Every star I was born under echoes back the obvious truth of my interpersonal disposition as it has been revealed by my quarter century of conscious life. I am, undoubtedly, an introvert. Personality typing tools and frameworks often observe that each element of identity has the potential to manifest dynamically within a range of healthy and unhealthy extremes, thus affecting the individual in question in their ability to gracefully, and graciously, exchange and commune with others around them. Introversion sparks a specific dilemma in the introverted; for it is time alone, and a significant amount of physical, mental, and emotional distance from others, that grants me the capacity to examine and practice empathy towards those in my life.

In times of low conflict, I am the commandant of my energy requirements. I am the queen of my autonomy. I accept that no one can know my needs unless I enter into an endeavor of communication to describe them. And so, I am motivated to nurture the space in which I can best access this knowledge. It takes the cultivation of a venue – both a physical place of comfort, and an emotionally open and curious space within my inner world – to function at my highest emotional and communicative capacity. The desire to be a present and contributive member in my greater environment informs the value I place on the process that allows me to enter into the arena of exchanging and receiving my truths and those of others.

Stress challenges my ability to nurture the reflective requirements of my self care regimen and depreciate the energy I have for practicing empathy and acceptance. Of course, I can never escape the presence of environmental conditions beyond the scope of my individual control: an overcast sky, a floor that needs sweeping, a loud phone conversation occurring one treadmill over... These basic realities of my day-to-day experience take time and effort to resolve, however minuscule. My most trusted approach to achieving resolution combines the practice of self-validation of my reactive emotions and of self-reassurance of my faith in the notion that I will benefit, consciously or otherwise, from living in a shared environment where I am subject to that which I cannot control.

Conflict, for the purposes of this reflection, carries an impact that differentiates itself from that of basic stress in its severity and irreconcilability. It transcends the power of my internal dialogue. Attempts at resolution mimic the inevitable fate of an elastic band bound to return to its slack state; for the energy spent examining conflict is continuously absorbed back into its essentially insolvable nature. This quality lives in the fact that conflict is weighted with implications concerning issues that resound beyond the intimate boundary of myself and my individual emotional relationship to the world around me. The vexation of conflict permeates my heart, my core, by undermining the rights and needs of people or living systems I feel strongly about or identify as being a part of.

In line with the quintessential qualities of the introvert, I am prone to melancholy and to isolation. And, in the face of conflict, the introvert’s dilemma compounds upon itself. It is when the inner system through which I gain my intellectual and emotional energy fails that I am apt to succumb to the unproductivity of hopelessness and loneliness. And the inescapable nature of conflict renders my sacred process fruitless. In the interest of honoring my values and emotions I experience a sense of necessity in engaging with the resolution of that which threatens them. But, my attempts to reckon such overwhelming strife drains me of my intellectual and emotional energy. Despair – an opportunistic and trickster of an emotion, in my experience – easily steps in to the fill the void where my groundedness could have been.

And despair is a prolific weed. It thrives in the environment where my sentient capabilities starve. In its success it forms a canopy, shading from above and strangling from below, consistently blocking the native growth from the sources of their nourishment. I am the plant, who in better circumstances is naturally equipped with the tools it needs to transform that around it into food, and in times of crises I need a hand to weed back the invasive force. But the crisis itself, the conflict at hand, inevitability strips me of the energy I require to practice the empathy through which I typically access the external world where intervention lies. The anecdote I recognize I may need – an experience of connectedness or of community – is exactly the thing I systematically take space from in order to build myself a sense of groundedness.

The challenge then, is to participate despite, and in the face of, the hopelessness. For, when I am stripped of the self-possession that allows me to ask for what I need, the only option I am left with is to take a chance on the potential that what I need is, indeed, laying in wait for that which I cannot anticipate. To conjure motivation from this risk is not so different from the self-practice of inducing acceptance through the same conviction that benefits me in times of lower conflict – the belief that I will receive something progressive from my involvement in an environment which I cannot fully control.

What I have found is that this involvement need not be spectacular to yield an opportunity for connectedness. Even to exist at my most basic level of functioning is enough energy output to receive energy in return. There is the possibility for coalescence in the mundane and uninspired interactions of my days. The only requirement is that my participation be honest, for it is honesty and genuineness that creates the space for community to sprout. At a time when I am prone to feeling overwhelmed by the ways in which political and social institutions are eroding equal access to basic rights and liberties, I am discovering that the practice of the values I treasure is to invite others to meet me and to share in the exchange of those values.

I am learning to hold onto and to carry a faith in radical honesty. As someone who constitutionally abhors small talk and who experiences discomfort in speaking unnecessarily, I am nothing if not surprised in discovering the powerful effect that fleeting yet genuine interaction has on repairing my ability to cultivate my inner balancedness, and I am inspired and humbled by being the recipient of such honesty from others. The motherly clerk at the art store who advised, “try [to] find some sunshine in your life.” The young lady behind me at the copy store who told me, “Good luck with your art. I hope it moves people and changes lives.” The stock person at the Trader Joe’s who remembers I am a printmaker and asks me how my art is coming along... These interactions lift me and bring me to tears because, though they are not enough to endow me with energy, they are exactly what I need to feel connected enough to then motivate myself to nourish my needs. There is some magic present there that I feel I must revere. I am humbled by the notion that I need only to overcome my loneliness enough to leave my house and I might be blessed with hearing the words I did not even know I wanted to hear.

And despite my introverted tendencies, I want to put in the effort to give that majestic gift of honesty back. I mask my shyness at the gym and with the customers whom I serve by asking the familiar faces around me, “Will you tell me your name so that I can say hi to you next time I see you?” I betray my sacred sense of privacy when the cashier at the grocery store scriptedly asks me if I have any fun plans for my evening, and I predict that I will, “Eat this entire heart of celery on my drive home, and then light candles and listen to lots of sad records while hanging out by myself.” Maybe it’s just my projection, but I feel a softness, a warmth, a sense of goodness and lightness in perceiving that some of the sterile facade of customer service has melted.

I try to avoid over thinking the confusing aspect of how this new found social grace of mine appears to compromise such a significant and thoroughly considered part of my personality. Rather, I aim to focus on the potential of these moments as creative acts that open space for bite-sized, yet essential, moments of community. My need for quiet, solitary introspection continues to be staggering in comparison to my need for direct social engagement with others. Incorporating radical honesty into my social practices, however, maximizes the inevitable interactions that I do have. My answer to the hollow, sinking, feeling that conflict seeks to inoculate me with is to see righteousness in respecting and honoring those around me as dynamic, living, emotional systems no matter how mundane the circumstances of the moment in which we interact may be. And the hope, perhaps, is that normalizing this undertaking and continuously weaving it into one’s day-to-day life will contribute to the foundation on which a critical mass of mobilized community may be rooted.