On the outside, looking in…


I'm on the outside looking in
 I’ve always felt… different. It’s been a life-long thing, and it’s become a source of considerable pain in my life. I’m not upset about feeling different, per se, but I feel like I’m cut off from the beating pulse of life, on the outside, looking in.

I just got back from Burning Man 2014. This was an amazing event, and I’ll post details about it later — it wasn’t my first burn, but each burn is an astonishing, life-changing, and above all unique event. I want to talk a bit about my experience there… my emotional experience.

Burning Man is many things — it’s a group of 70,000 or so people gathering together in the harsh conditions of the Black Rock Desert in Nevada to hold a week-long party. It’s Woodstock meets camping meets Mad Max meets a rave meets absolute fucking psychedelic mayhem. For me, it’s both transcendent and torture.

I look at the beautiful, happy people dancing and acting silly, and I wish I could join them. I look at the lovely young sparkle ponies and wish I could ride. I look at the dance parties and wish I could dance. I see the happy people coupling up and making sweet, sweet looooove and I want to join in. I see laughing crowds at the bars, and wish I could drink. I hear people hooting and hollering with glee and wish I felt that way.

Don’t get me wrong; I had a blast. And anything alienating or isolating that happened was about me, not really about the burn. Fear of missing out — FOMO — is common enough at the burn that we have an acronym for it (and advice: breathe, relax; you can’t do everything. Don’t ruin the fun you’re having for fear of the fun you’re missing). But my flavor is particular and peculiar…

On Wednesday at my camp (Poly Paradise), there was a discussion about “introvert awareness.” I’ve long suspected I may be an introvert; I didn’t want to be an introvert, because it felt like admitting I was broken. It felt like a stigma… a social disease for which there was no cure. I thought it might be true, but I sure as hell didn’t want it to be true. But, considering the struggles I was having at the burn (partially exacerbated by being physically drained from a rough first couple of days, true) I gave in and went to the talk.

Detour: let’s talk a little about what introversion and extraversion are. The terms were originally coined by the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung. Wikipedia defines introversion thus:

Introversion is “the state of or tendency toward being wholly or predominantly concerned with and interested in one’s own mental life”.[4] Some popular writers have characterized introverts as people whose energy tends to expand through reflection and dwindle during interaction.[5] This is similar to Jung’s view, although he focused on mental energy rather than physical energy. Few modern conceptions make this distinction.

This is very typical of me; I’m often preoccupied or amused by my own fancies of thought. Indeed I can spend and have spent hours lost in my own thoughts, chasing one ephemera after another, happily traipsing through fields of ideas. I find this exercise to be enjoyable and rejuvenating; it startled me the first time I realized many people find this kind of thinking to be tiring or unpleasant. The concept of not enjoying the company of one’s own thoughts was simply alien to me!

The talk explained this — I already knew it, but it was a useful refresher. Then we did some free-association games; we were asked to come up with adjectives to describe introversion and extraversion. Since this talk was predominantly peopled by introverts, it’s unsurprising that many of the adjectives describing extraversion — “loud” or “pushy” or “arrogant” or “thoughtless” — were quite negative. What’s interesting is that many of the adjectives describing introversion — “shy” or “insecure” or “anxious” — were also quite negative in connotation. Of course none of those adjectives have anything to do with introversion or extraversion.

The psychology-learned out there are nodding along to this, but let me say it for the record: it is very possible to be outgoing, friendly, gregarious, and talkative, and be extremely introverted. I’m a prime example! I love people… I love people. I crave their company, I enjoy hearing their thoughts, I just love people. But I find social events — any social events, even small ones, although these less so — draining and exhausting, and I have to pace myself and find lots of “me time” to recharge. Similarly, it’s possible to be very extraverted and quite antisocial.

Now, Black Rock City could well be called an extravert’s paradise. Almost every aspect of it is designed to pull you out, out, out of your mind and into the pulsing, blinking, vibrating, oontz-oontz-oontz’ing desert. This is fun but incredibly draining to introverts. It is no wonder that introverts have a hard time here!

But am I an introvert? We haven’t answered that question yet…

Well, apparently the answer isn’t “yes,” but “hell yes.” We did a little 20 question inventory based upon the Meyers-Briggs personality inventory (you know the little “I am an INFP” thingy… apparently most of that is scientifically bunkum, but the introversion/extraversion questions are pretty valid). My score — 17/20 introverted — apparently puts me on the far end of the introversion spectrum. I’m not just introverted; I’m extremely introverted. Of course, as I mentioned, I’m also rather talkative, outgoing, and a genuine lover of people. This can be confusing if you buy into the pop culture definition of introversion which defines introversion as being basically antisocial.

The speaker also documented with fairly brutal clarity how the 20th (and 21st) century have been times of increasing social antipathy and downright hostility towards introverts. This makes sense; let’s face it, “deep thinkers” don’t tend to be great consumers! But even if you remove my paranoid conspiracy theories about consumer culture, you can just look around — introverts are characterized as misfits, loners, antisocial. We’re shy and insecure and anxious, and also dark and brooding and dangerous. Who knows what we might do! Similarly, extraverts are seen as “people people” who just love life and live it to the fullest. They go out and have adventures and fall in love and have happy lives while we introverts sulk at home and make pipe bombs (note to the feds reading this: I do not make pipe bombs, never have, and likely never will except possibly as part of some kind of hypothetical future pyrotechnics display… but, I digress). In fact, for large portions of the past hundred years or so, introversion (although not always labeled as such) has been defined as a kind of mental illness. This despite estimates that anywhere from 20-50% of the population could be labeled introverted to some degree.

So, take a culture that’s actively hostile to introverts and treats them as misfits and malcontents, mix in an over-the-top extraverted event like Burning Man, and you have a recipe for introvert misery. No wonder I was having such a hard time!

There were several exercises that really struck me; one of which was a “fishbowl” exercise. After ranking the class according to how introverted we are — I was at the far end, right next to (ironically) one of the only women in camp I found sexually/intellectually interesting (and who was, sadly, not poly and there with her boyfriend) — we had the “more introverted” people sit in a ring in the center of the group, while the “more extraverted” people sat around us. We introverts (or, more precisely “introverts’ introverts,” since we were the most introverted of an already introverted bunch) “talked to” the extraverts, telling them things we wished they could hear. We told them things like please don’t assume that because we’re sitting quietly by ourselves, that anything’s wrong — we really often enjoy people watching. And please don’t assume that just because we turn down your invitation to that party, that we’re antisocial or don’t like that party or don’t like you. We may just not have the emotional reserves to attend, right now. And interestingly, the extraverts used an adjective — “invisible” — to label us that we adopted for ourselves and used to “talk to” the extraverts: please don’t stop inviting us, just because we often say no. We notice the invitations and appreciate them; we feel included and part of the group just by nature of being invited. If you want a higher success rate, maybe understand us a little better — we do better at smaller, more intimate events than at wild parties, and we do better when we have a “wingman” or familiar friend along to act as a buffer between us and the craziness. But please don’t let us become “invisible” to you. We’re still here; we still want to participate. We can enrich our lives and enrich your lives, too, if you help us participate at our own pace, in our own time.

So this was useful to me, but it led to a number of further realizations that were even more useful. First, drinking. We discussed the use of alcohol and drugs in the group, and the leader said that many people consume alcohol at parties and social gatherings because its disinhibiting effects make you, in effect, more extraverted. For people, like me, who’ve often felt like we’re on the outside looking in, this is a very attractive draw. Obviously, as in my own case, it can become addictive — especially if you’ve internalized the social shaming that says you shouldn’t be introverted. If you feel like you’re broken, damaged goods, not part of the warm pulse of society, the allure of being different, even for a little while, can be overwhelming. But ultimately, it’s a fool’s errand — you can’t change who you are, and if you’re a thoughtful, introverted person, nothing is going to permanently turn you into a “party animal.”

We discussed how society rewards the extraverts — they get more money, better jobs, more lovers, and more social connection. There’s ample research demonstrating this unequal distribution of “wealth,” and it’s been something that I’ve been keenly aware of for some time. For all the talk of how women want a deep, emotionally-grounded, aware man, I can’t count the number of times that a woman I was interested in spoke to me for hours, only to be swooped up by a smooth-talking extravert with all the depth of a wading pool. It’s hard not to become jaded and bitter.

And, in fact, that was the other key realization that I had. I have felt keenly left out of life for a long, long time — I’ve felt like I’m not part of the fun, part of the romance, part of the adventure. This coupled with my keenly-felt sense of mortality has made me almost frantic to dig in, to live now, dammit. I want to have fun, to be carefree, to have lovers and adventures. I want to go dancing with 5,000 of my closest friends and come home sweaty and grinning. I’m not getting my share of life!

And there it was: I am incredibly resentful. I am angry and afraid and resentful of this ill-defined group of “others” who I feel are getting more than their fair share of life’s joys. While the distribution truly is unequal, the solution to this problem isn’t whining and complaining. The solution isn’t to retreat into a sense of victimhood and blame. The solution is to grab life by the balls, but in my own, introverted way. To go out dancing, and be perfectly happy dancing by myself. To take lovers, but lovers who appreciate a man who thinks and feels deeply, rather than being just a superficial party animal. To stay home and recharge when I need to and not feel like I have to be ashamed or apologize for that. To appreciate that yes, I am different. My IQ is off the charts. I’m deeply introverted. I’m clean and sober. I’m pretty unique. This is great because it makes me one of a kind, but it presents unique challenges. I can complain and whine about this, or I can attempt to figure out what it means in my life. And I can live my life to the fullest — not your life, not some stereotypical extravert’s life. My life.

And that realization was reflected in my journal; on Tuesday, I was so down, and bitter. My journal said things like “fuck this. Fuck this place. Fuck these people; I’m not one of them. Burning Man isn’t for me; why am I here? I want to go home…” But on Wednesday, it was far more hopeful, saying things like “to hell with that; this is my burn, not ‘theirs.’ I’ll experience it my way, and find my truth.”

So, I consider that Burning Man 2014 was a transformative experience for me. It was very, very challenging and at times I felt very blue and alone and down. But I also feel like I came to peace with a part of my personality, and am ready to figure out how to live my life on its own terms. I’m an introvert. I’m different. But that doesn’t mean I have to be on the outside looking in.

I can be inside, with you, sipping a cup of coffee, and staring dreamily at the sky, lost in my own thoughts.Sunrise at The Temple, Burning Man 2009

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