Usually when I hear this phrase someone is trying to talk me out of being anxious about something. I’m sure they mean well. It’s supposed to be reassuring. Maybe they mean it as a promise that I’ll find acceptance and enjoy myself if I just stop thinking too much about things. But when someone says, “Just relax, have fun, and be yourself” what I hear is, “Be the person I want you to be and have fun doing it.”
What if my real self simply can’t relax in that situation? Or “myself” doesn’t have fun with activities like the one you’re trying to talk me into? In that case, I assume that you’ll either judge me for failing at such a simple instruction or you’ll feel bad that I haven’t enjoyed myself. So instead of actually being myself when I hear this, I want to try to be whatever version of myself I think you expect in response to what you said.
To Chameleon or Not To Chameleon
INFJs interact with the outer world using a function called Extroverted Feeling. Personality Hacker calls this mental process Harmony because it’s concerned with creating and maintaining harmonious relationships between people. It’s often (but not always) something that INFJs are tempted to skip developing because it’s more comfortable for us to stay in our introverted side with Intuition and Thinking.
When you pair a Harmony process that isn’t very well developed with anxiety (not all INFJs have anxiety, but I do), you end up with the sort of situation I described above. You try to “chameleon” into what other people want desperately trying to keep things in a comfortable state of non-confrontation. Read more →
One of the big things that introverts want people to know is that “introversion is not the same as shyness.” And it isn’t — just because someone is introverted doesn’t mean they are shy, and there are plenty of shy extroverts as well (Susan Cain has an article about this). People tend to assume shyness is the same thing as introversion, but that’s just not true. Introversion refers to a preference for how someone gathers energy — they are energized by alone time rather than by being around groups of people. Shyness is fear.
But how is it that we become shy? If it’s not inborn, then we must learn it at some point, usually quite early in our lives. You might see an outgoing child become shy, but it’s rare that a socially confident adult suddenly develops traits of shyness. So what happens to turn introverted children shy?
Confusing “Shy” and “Introverted”
The confusion between “shy” and “introverted” has a long history. Jung, whose work the Myers-Briggs test is based on, wrote that “the introverted attitude includes a tendency to be shy.” While extroverts can be shy (and it might actually be more difficult for them since shyness conflicts with their need to be energized by other people), shyness is more likely in introverts. A certain level of shyness might simply be part of the introverted temperament, but more extreme shyness and social anxiety is not an unavoidable part of introversion.
In his article “Are You Motivated by Your Fear or Your Preference?” Andy Mort says that understanding why introverts are believed to be shy and how that belief impacts society is important. Since introversion is so often confused for shyness, introverted children are often told that they are shy by well-meaning adults who think they need to “fix things.”
When I believed I was shy I adopted that label and acted shy; I feared certain social interactions because I didn’t want my ‘shyness’ to be picked up on, and so often withdrew. Shyness as an identity was reinforced by virtue of the fact that I believed my introverted tendencies were in fact me being shy. And the more I fought them by trying to be more extraverted, the more I withdrew (and more shy I believed I was) because I was using so much social energy. – Andy Mort
Rather than recognizing introverted children and teaching them how to be stable, confident introverts, we tell them they’re shy and try to turn them into extroverts. Someone once said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid” (this quote is often attributed to Einstein, but I can’t find out if that’s accurate). Similarly, when we judge introverted children by their ability to be extroverts, we send them the message that there is something wrong with them, and we label that something shyness.
It’s obvious that a solution to this problem has to include a flexibility that allows for people to actually be individuals. It’s one of the great ironies of today’s society that we’re obsessed with individualism, but only if it fits neatly within a certain standard. This is one of the many reasons parents choose to homeschool — to tailor the learning experience to each child’s needs.
One of the most common arguments leveled against homeschooling is that it creates shy, socially awkward children. In reality, homeschoolers are no more likely to be shy than public schooled children. In her book Introvert Power, Laurie Helgoe suggests that homeschooling is actually the best way for introverted children to learn, at least until school reforms like the ones Susan Cain discusses in this interview can be implemented.
For an introverted child, homeschooling offers a chance for them to learn in their preferred environment — alone or in small groups of people they know well. Since they’re not stressed by the constant over-stimulation and energy drain of being around large groups, they’ll have more social energy available when they do interact with other children, which will help them develop stronger social skills and more confidence in social situations.
These social situations could be church gatherings, homeschool co-ops, field trips, play dates — pretty much any social activity with other children and with older or younger people. Since parents spend so much time with homeschooled children, they’ll usually know them well enough to tell when the child should be encouraged to get outside their comfort zone and make friends, and when to back-off and give them “introvert time.”