We introverts have always known how to sit back and watch, to fade into the wallpaper, to silently sip our drinks while our eyes scan clusters of chattering humans, meanwhile engaging in cataloging inside our heads. The more reflective of our breed, especially, has always known the peculiar satisfaction there is in watching life. We are content to gaze through the window, so to speak, at passing pedestrians and to smile and muse about what we see, to analyze the humans that flit by. People-watching is a collective pastime for a lot of us introverts. And we take great pleasure in generally watching life, watching the scenes unfolding all around us in our daily lives. And yet many of us are no strangers to having felt the faint presence of guilt or inferiority about this aspect of our introvert-selves.
We’re all too aware, after all, that we live in a culture that champions action, ambition, and perpetually “living in the moment”. Being observant and reflective, on the other hand, are tellingly absent from the roster of celebrated American traits. Observance and reflection are silent, overlooked attributes. Most of us introverts have them, and have quietly nurtured them throughout our lives, despite oftentimes feeling vaguely doubtful of their value and embarrassed of their existence, perhaps at the expense of other attributes.
For most of us, the journey starts as kids: In my experience, as a child, the adjectives that invariably sprouted up in descriptions of me were “shy” and “quiet”. Those words appeared in the casual remarks of classmates, the report-card comments of teachers, and within the general sphere of adult observation. Despite what may have been an accurate assessment, I sensed there wasn’t much admirable about being labeled “quiet”. On some level, even at a young age, I knew that the “quiet” label could be roughly translated to “boring”. What such a label often communicated was that because I didn’t appear to be publicly offering anything, I had nothing inside of me of which I could give, of which was of value. I couldn’t prove it very easily, after all.
So I shrugged my shoulders, resigned myself to my “quiet” status and endured the creeping shame there was something pitiful and unfortunate about me because I couldn’t supply the world with a version of myself that proved I had immediate value, that was sociable and forthcoming and expressive. I was a timid kid, but very dreamy. Tight-lipped though I was, I hid much behind a mousy demeanor. I struggled with feeling as if I was half of everyone else.
Most of my peers seemed to so easily possess the other half the equation, the sociable and action-hungry components. I didn’t stop to realize that perhaps they weren’t the full equation I imagined them to be. Maybe they were half of something too, in a way. Maybe I, as their contrast, possessed what they lacked.
Maybe, instead of my extroverted peers being the exemplary embodiment of full trees, they were all branches but barely any roots, and I was all roots but lacking in branches. It was a humbling thought, but one that would take me years to stumble upon. After all, at such an age, I only knew what I saw. And what I didn’t see was anybody telling me — with much conviction anyways — that my quiet identity could be a thing of pride and a thing of value.
Fast forward to 7th grade English class: We were tasked with choosing one adjective that best described ourselves. I remember the obvious ones popping to my head, “quiet” the most prominent, predictable one. I did not, however, warm to the idea of announcing to my class that I self-identified as merely “quiet”. This felt like capitulating to all those voices that had audibly labeled me as such for most of my life. My core identity, I knew, wasn’t simply a scarcity of spoken words and anyhow, I was tired of feeling like a dim shadow. I thought for a bit and settled upon “observant” as my chosen adjective. A soft smile blossomed on my face seeing it scrawled on the page in front of me. It felt honest and also a little redeeming. I didn’t feel quite so bad about myself, I realized, even if it was an adjective that probably most in my class would shrug at and not necessarily covet for themselves.
Now that I am older, I have embraced my observant and reflective qualities. I have come to respect my inner world. Being reserved and contemplative has its merits, I realize. And slowly I teach myself to enjoy these aspects of myself, slowly I have learned to give myself license to prioritize my identity as a very introspective person. I may not move very fast, I realize. I may not lead what looks like a thrilling, exciting, audacious life. But that’s ok, I decide. I have other things to do.
I go on frequent walks around my neighborhood, winding down familiar sidewalks repetitively. To some, the idea of walking for almost an hour, in mute silence, would be unthinkable and would look like an embarrassing waste of time. And though I may be lost in my own inner world, I am not severed from my surroundings. When I walk, I am always watching the houses I pass by with interest and curiosity. I pass children playing and people gardening, and cats sauntering up driveways, scenes of life, one after the other, softening into each other, the edges blurring. I’m studying people, families, life in general. It all makes me smile and it all makes me think. I’m generating a narrative — my life experience, broadly speaking — as I walk, simultaneously logging my surroundings and slipping into contemplations.
And in time, over the course of many such walks, the seasons change. Summer melts into fall. The trees thin and turn burnished orange. Dry leaves swirl underfoot, replacing August lawn clippings. Inwardly, I’m cataloging the seasons. As an introvert, and particularly as an INFJ, watching life is important to me; it’s my way of crafting a narrative that keeps pace with what is happening. It’s a means of incubating reality, in a sense.
A lot of extroverts are content to simply allow things to happen to them but for many of us introverts, an insufficient amount of internal processing would leave us feeling panicked and out-of-sorts, as if we need to collect ourselves, to draw the scattered pieces close, where they can be patiently organized. After all, why do virtually all introverts feel the urge to “re-charge” after stimulating events or social occasions? We’re sapped of energy, sure, but on a level we don’t always notice, we need to find our pace again. And our pace is slower. What we are often seeking is to feel as if our internal processing and the things externally happening to us are in harmony, in synchrony.
Life, to many of us introverts, is a narrative that needs to be recorded and meditated on and themes extracted from it. This is not to say that extroverts don’t feel the urge to do some of the same, simply that to the introvert the process is deepened and more careful. As observant, reflective people, we introverts can derive a lot of joy from simply observing life around us. We may have fielded feelings of embarrassment about this tendency of ours because it looked as if we weren’t doing anything. But that wasn’t the case, and we knew it wasn’t the case, we just couldn’t speak it out loud (which is, of course, very understandable).
So, if you are one of these introverts captivated by reflection and observance, don’t be ashamed. And please don’t feel small (because I know that is a very real danger). The plight of the observant introvert has always been that we’ve doubted the value of what we added to the world. And that too is understandable, given that in the West, the productivity enthusiast, the “hustler”, has always been upheld, meanwhile the quiet, meditative figure is not assigned much regard.
But know this: we don’t actually want a world that is all extroverted action and no contemplation. Thus, we don’t want a world wherein action is heartily applauded and contemplation is forgotten, met with timid applause or none at all.
We introverts may not be the most assertive or confident bunch, but we needn’t be afraid to forthrightly maintain that we are the other half of the equation — the forgotten half — that the world most certainly needs.