Playing, Introverts, The Highly Sensitive, and Bodies

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about play. I don’t play very much. I write, I do trivia games sometimes, I crossword, and I watch TV. But I don’t play. I’ve never played sports (I just work out), I’ve never played video games. I only recently started playing board and RP games. From the moment I learned how to read as a kid, it was my chosen form of entertainment. I’d spend hours and hours in the summer holed up in my room curled around a book, ignoring the outside world.

Oh sure sometimes I’d play with my beanie babies or make up stories with my friends, but I wasn’t very good at doing anything like that myself. I was already creating involved to do lists by the age of 12. I never simply explored.

There’s a lot of evidence that play is really good for human beings. It’s how we learn things, it’s one of the ways we become comfortable with our bodies and our environments, it makes us more creative and better at problem solving, and it often creates social connections that go a long way towards making us more comfortable with people more quickly.

Basically, play is great. It makes us happier, better connected, smarter, and better workers.

In concert with thinking about play, I’ve been reading a lot about introverts and highly sensitive people lately. I am a pretty classic introvert, and I am definitely what’s called a highly sensitive person. For those who aren’t familiar with that term, it refers to someone who reacts to physical, emotional, and social stimuli more strongly than others. That means on a physiological level, not simply in the behavior they have in response.

These characteristics tend to lead a person to want to control their environment. You’re more likely to seek out calm environments, dark spaces, less people, intellectual and internal stimuli rather than outside interests. And I pretty well fit those descriptions. When I did seek outside stimuli, I did so in very structured ways: I joined clubs and classes and activities because they made sense and had a clear structure and order to them that I could rely on.

Exploring things has always been scary to me. New foods, new sounds, new places are highly overwhelming because I just feel a lot. Unfortunately, that’s made play, especially individual, explorational play, really hard for me. I didn’t do a lot of playing in the dirt or wandering around on my own or poking at things when I was little, and I still prefer things to be in a clear order rather than just jumping in and messing around with something new. I can’t color or do arts because there’s no clear end point. I can’t just listen to music, I have to be doing something else with a point. I have a really hard time with these things.

So: I’m introverted and highly sensitive, which means I’m not much good at explorative play. I’ve managed to do ok when it comes to creativity and connection through some hard work with my therapist. But what’s still giving me serious trouble is my relationship with my body. I have serious difficulties seeing my body as part of myself, something necessary and innate, something that is me rather than just an annoying extra feature that I’d rather get rid of.

Theory: play helps us understand our own bodies. It helps us develop the senses that locate where the parts of our bodies are, it helps us understand the limitations and abilities of our bodies and respect what they can and can’t do for us. In many anecdotes about bold kids who play often and without fear, I hear that they grow up to be people who are pretty at home with their physical presence and not afraid of being hurt.

The more you play, the more you realize that a body is part of being human. It lets you learn and interact. Kids who don’t play, but instead read or work or practice an instrument, or whatever, don’t learn how to just exist with their body and be ok with it. They need something external to help them along. There are lots of people who don’t play enough anymore. Humans pretty naturally play throughout their whole lives, unlike many other animals. But we keep forgetting to do that, which may be leading to some disconnects from our bodies.

It seems highly likely to me that kids who are introverted or highly sensitive might need a little more effort on the part of their parents to give them space to play. They might need quieter spaces with less color and less stimulation. Maybe they need to play with one other person instead of lots, and be allowed to take the lead in their play. Maybe they need a yard that’s fenced in so they know what to expect. Maybe as adults, we introverts and sensitives need to make these kinds of spaces for ourselves.

Let’s try an experiment: I’m going to play more this week. I’m going to climb, I’m going to play in the rain, I’m going to roll around with my kitten and doodle and get messy in the kitchen. I’m going to buy a ball or some nerf swords and see what I can do with them. Play will be my task. One thing that I’ve found works incredibly well for me when it’s warm is to go somewhere I can climb or run or swim with a friend and a camera, and just go on a photo adventure. What works for you?

How To Train Your Introvert

Yesterday was the first day of my Pre-Service Orientation for AmeriCorps VISTA. This training basically takes all the VISTAs from a particular region (whose projects and locations vary widely) and dumps them in a hotel together for 3 days, then asks them to discuss, team-build, and network through their training. Most of us won’t ever see each other again after this week. We’ve all been asked to stay overnight at the hotel, even if we live close enough to drive, and have been assigned a random roommate. As an introvert, this is somewhat like hell for me. Because I’m so uncomfortable, I’m sure I’m not getting as much out of this training as I could be, and in the spirit of wanting to help others around me make trainings and things not only more pleasurable but also more effective, here are some ideas about how to make your large group events effective for both introverts and extroverts.

So first and foremost it’s important to be flexible. This means that you could work in times that an individual can be alone and recharge their introvert batteries, or it means being able to accept multiple styles of listening and learning, or it means accepting that not everyone will participate in every activity. Each of these things is ok. Oftentimes trainings like to pack a lot in, and one of the things they pack in is people. Breaks tend to be short. This means there isn’t enough time for people to disperse, and there isn’t enough space to be alone. You can go a little stir crazy. People who are really introverted cannot handle a full eight hours talking and sitting in close proximity with others, particularly strangers. Trust me: we get cranky and unhappy. Incorporating longer breaks into the day, or even just having more space available for introvert hideaways makes a big difference (note to anyone who happens to design conference centers: nooks and crannies are the best).

In addition to this, having a flexible policy about little things like bathroom and water breaks so that people can bow out briefly is awesome. This means that individuals can manage their own need for space.

Now not all of these things can be done at all times: sometimes you have a lot to get done, or no extra space. What to do then? Well being flexible about how buddy/buddy everyone has to get can be good. Letting people doodle or fidget is a good way to get out that anxiety. And if none of that works? If you absolutely need socializing for what you’re about to do? I can’t speak for all introverts, but I know I’m far more willing to put up with the discomfort and exhaustion of it if I have a reason. Telling us why we’re being asked to socialize and what we’ll get out of it makes a big difference. Asking us to introduce ourselves to a room of people we’ll never meet again sounds to us like a sadist has our name on some sort of horrible list. Telling us we’re practicing a particular skill (like public speaking) or that these people may provide specific kinds of support for us later in our time makes us far more willing to put the effort in and to really want to develop relationships. To this end, forcing socialization, team-building, or group games because you think everybody likes it is uncool. Don’t force people to get to know each other unless they want to. Make the social events optional. It will be ok. Everyone will get by.

Finally, allow for a variety of methods of participation. Talking can be really overrated for some people. One of the best conferences I ever attended, and the one in which I participated the most heavily was one at which I almost never actually spoke aloud to others. Instead, there was a tweetwall, and I actively participated through my phone, asking questions, responding to others, and simply adding my thoughts. I got a great deal of information, felt challenged, and truly felt engaged. Providing alternative options that allow for writing, drawing, tweeting, or whatever else floats your boat gets everyone more content and engagement in the long run.

So please, trainers, Con organizers, businesses, and other people trying to get large groups of people together, keep these suggestions in mind to make people like me feel much better about our experiences.

Hi! I’m Olivia. I’m Afraid Of People

I spent a lot of this morning trying to explain to a friend what it’s like to be an introvert and have some social anxiety. It was a little frustrating, but I think helpful for me to clarify what it was that I liked and disliked about social interactions. However I think that many times extroverts tend to think that everyone wants to be social more, and that everyone feels the same benefits of being social that they do, especially because when I mention that I have a hard time socializing, people often try to give me advice about what to do differently or about how to change my behaviors to get more friends and be happier.


So first of all, that’s major things #1 to not say to an introvert. It’s also important not to assume that they have the same goals in socializing as you do. Many introverts are probably already aware that people have a variety of different goals when they try to socialize, because the predominant social experience is not necessarily friendly towards introverts and so they’re learned from experience that other people approach social interactions differently from the way they do. I’ve seen lots of lists of what it’s like to be an introvert or how to interact with an introvert, but I don’t think I’ve really ever seen an in-depth first person perspective on what it’s like to have social anxiety, be awkward, and have difficulty socializing. I’d like to try to put it into words so that those people that I’m friends with, and those people who want to be friend with me (or other introverts) can have some conception of what it’s like and perhaps not give suggestions that sound terrifying and horrible to us.


It’s been said before many, many times but it bears repeating: for introverts or those who are a bit socially awkward, we need time to recharge our batteries. Constant socializing sounds like a nightmare to us. People take energy. Now I didn’t think this required more explanation than that, but it might. WHY do people take energy? Well when you’re around other people you have to be spending a lot of your brain power trying to make sure you’re following proper social conventions, not stepping on any toes, censoring yourself appropriately, and adjusting how you behave to whoever you’re around. Some people are very good at doing this naturally with no thought. For those of us who aren’t, it’s exhausting and really fairly stressful.


In addition, for myself and probably for other introverts, social experiences can be anxiety provoking. I tend to take responsibility for all the happenings in my relationships. If something goes wrong, I think that it is my fault. This means that when I’m trying to talk to people (particularly people I don’t know well) I continually feel like I’m screwing up, making mistakes, and making myself look like a fool. Add in to this the fact that I’m kind of nerdy, a little weird (even odd looking: I have a buzz cut and only one ear pierced as well as a fairly odd sense of fashion), very intense about subjects I care about, very bad at small talk, and fairly intellectual, and I spend most of my basic social interactions feeling like a freak.


Another element of being somewhat socially anxious is that I have very different aims in socializing than a lot of people do. I often don’t just want to shoot the breeze with people. I am an extremely intellectual person, and in general I want relationships that allow for extreme emotional openness and good conversations. This is really off-putting to a lot of people. It significantly limits the number of people that I actually enjoy socializing with, and limits the types of interactions that I enjoy. This is REALLY different from a lot of other people. While many people might enjoy getting a few beers with a group of friends and just chatting, that sounds relatively horrible to me unless I know these people fairly well. When I’m just starting to get to know people, I want to be in a quiet and calm environment with something else going on so that conversation is not the only focus. I want there to be someone that I know very well around so that I feel like I have something to fall back on. Traditional avenues of socializing are not often open to me, and so I have to work doubly hard to find places that I actually want to be.


My interests are also not common. Trying to find someone you can engage in a conversation about the philosophy of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is not easy. Many times I have to feign interest in what others are talking about despite really not giving a rip. This is not very fun, I only do it to be polite or to try to invest in relationships that I care about. I do try to be interested in things that my friends are interested in, but that’s not easy either. And so overall, I often like being on my own a lot better. I get to set my own activities, think and write about the things that I like, be in control of my own schedule and setting, I don’t have to try to anticipate someone else’s needs or wants or figure out any social rules or expectations, and I don’t have to make sure I’m continually pulling myself out of my own head. I like having control over my own schedule and my own actions, and this becomes significantly harder with others around. Yes, I get lonely. Yes I like to see people. But oftentimes the negatives of socializing outweigh the potential benefits. Often I’d rather be lonely, at least until I get to know people well.


None of this means that I don’t want to get to know you. None of this means I don’t want to see you. It means that it’s hard and it’s scary and it’s difficult and I am not always good at fighting against those things. It means that if you do a little more of the work on the front end of a relationship to get to know me, you’ll probably get a lot of bang for your buck. And it also means that when you try to tell me to adjust how I socialize by just brushing off bad interactions or by talking to more people or by seeking out people with similar interests, you’re telling me things I’ve either already tried, or things that are nearly impossible for me due to anxiety. It has taken me years of practicing skills to get to the point where I can have a proper conversation with someone I don’t know well. Telling me that if I simply try harder or adjust my attitude or smile more things would be easier is ignoring all of the hard work that I’ve already put in and ignores the needs that I have of my social interactions.


When I mention that I’m feeling lonely or having a hard time, there are great actions that you can take. You can offer to hang out with me one on one (if I know you well). You can offer to organize a small-ish gather of people I already know. You can just listen. You can text me or contact me online, where I feel more comfortable. You can ask if anything’s on my mind (because likely something is). You can suggest that we do something comforting and chill, like going to the humane society to play with animals, or taking a walk around the conservatory, or if you’re far away then google hangout. But if you’re friends with an introvert, the best advice I can give to you is to listen. We all have our reasons for shying away from people, and they’re all probably a little different. We all need different things, different amounts of space, different types of care. Ask us what we need. Ask us to hang out. Listen. I want to be your friend, but I might be a little more high maintenance sometimes. In return, you get a whole lot of thoughts and a whole lot of care, as well as a shit ton of loyalty. See the lovely lady in the featured pic? We took that picture 4 years ago. Since then I went to college and got a new job and dated a bunch of people, and she’s still my bestie and now we live together. I’ve known her for 15+ years. I like to keep my friends around 🙂

Activism Online and In Person

So this weekend at SkepTech (a conference about skepticism and technology), I was on a panel that addressed some of the differences between real world and online activism. I LOVED being on this panel, I thought I had some great co-panelists and I always love to speak in public about things that I love. I thought we got to some pretty interesting points about the fact that the internet and in flesh activism have different uses, different reasons, different motivations. But there were a couple things that we never got to touch on that I’d like to explore a bit here.


So one of the first things that I don’t think we touched on much is self-care. We talked a fair amount about how all sorts of things can be activism: it can be blogging or being open and out or being willing to talk and answer questions or it can be tabling…but one thing we didn’t really mention is something that as someone involved in mental illness I think is really really important. Taking care of yourself can be a radical action. If you are oppressed, or if you are struggling, or if you are marginalized, then getting through each day, staying healthy, staying as relatively happy as possible is activism. JT Eberhard mentioned that having fun can be an amazing form of activism for atheists because a stereotype of us is that we’re unfulfilled. This goes the same for taking care of yourself. Atheists who are well-adjusted and flourishing are the best advertising we can have.


And this goes for all sorts of oppressed groups as well: when society tells you that you don’t deserve space or you don’t deserve to exist or your existence is wrong and evil and horrible, you cultivating your existence, your space, and your joy is radical. There’s a fantastic Audre Lorde quote about this: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Many of us feel like we need to put our mental health or physical health to the side in order to do our activism. We feel that because this cause is important to us it might be more important than taking time for ourselves, or that we should feel guilty for not doing enough, or that we should always push ourselves harder. If we can reframe this instead to the idea that self-care is part of activism and that it’s simply one element of activism that we have to balance with all out other concerns (taking care of those in the movement, engaging with new people, opposing problems), we can be much more effective activists. We will have more energy and more strength when we do external activist work.


Another important piece of this panel was about managing online vs in person activism. One element of this that I forgot to address in the panel (oops) is that as an introvert, I am extremely picky about who I socialize with. Often, if I go to a group and there’s someone who rubs me the wrong way or who insults me for my major or who I feel I have to educate about racial and gender issues, I probably won’t go back. Now I could go through the effort of figuring out how to get along with this person, but I’m trying to work on my self-care activism and so I just won’t right now. Online I get a lot more control over who I interact with. I can turn off my computer if I want. I can block people. No one cares enough about me to email me yet, so I can pretty well decide who I want to talk to by choosing who to friend or follow or read. That’s really important for me. That gives me the space to stop those triggering and upsetting conversations when they are too much for me. That lets me set my boundaries on any given day where I need them to be. If you want to be a part of a group, all the good people automatically come with all of the less pleasant people.


While for some people exposure to all sorts of people is what draws them to in person activism, others of us want more protection and might prefer online activism. Online activism also gives us access to probably the widest variety of opinions, if we choose to seek them out. It is the best tool for educating yourself as an activist and as a human being simply because you can read about and learn about so many different human experiences.


Another interesting part of this dichotomy is that I think it’s drawn far too sharply. At this event, for example, the hashtag was projected in the room so that everyone could see what people were tweeting about the event. I don’t think this technology got used to its full potential. A lot of people were simply tweeting the hashtag with summing up the information that was being presented. I preferred to use it to interact with what was going on, to ask questions, to make rebuttals. I think if more people used it in BOTH of these ways, it can bring together in person and online activism in a really interesting way by making the in person experience more interactive and by allowing others who are not there in person to see some of the event. Beyond that, I also feel it gives those of us who might be a bit more introverted a way to jump into some of the in person activities that were taking place. I think that integrating technology into in person events is a wonderful way to bridge the gap and give us some of the benefits of both.


And the final point that I was interested in is kids. I sort of think that children are natural activists. When they get upset about something they want to do something about it: they’re still idealistic enough to think they can change the world. But even more than that, kids haven’t internalized oppressions the way adults have (young kids primarily, this applies less and less the older a kid gets). As JT said in the panel, everything that we do that is NOT oppression or is behaving in a way that doesn’t conform to oppression/gender roles/racial roles/etc is activism. Kids do this ALL THE TIME. We have to teach our kids hatred and how to oppress each other. Not explicitly of course, but we give them lessons through our own behavior. I think we start out with a generation that doesn’t oppress because they haven’t learned it. If we can hold on to some of that state of simply NEVER learning oppression, we could make huge differences in our future. Because every time someone acts in a way that challenges a gender role, it is activism. While we don’t necessarily feel the impacts of it when kids do it (primarily because of some stupid ageist bullshit), we should recognize that often we start out naturally as activists.


I’m not 100% sure about this theory, but I think it could have merits. Thoughts in the comments?