So it turns out that I was never an extrovert after all…

In the early days of this blog – just one day, in fact, before I was assessed for, and received, my official diagnosis – I wrote a post about how I considered myself to be not an introvert but an “autistic extrovert“. I now realise that I was mistaken.

I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while, but other topics have either piqued my interest more keenly, or simply got in the way and hassled me for their attention. There are times when I simply have to write about a thing, even if it means veering completely off-track from my original blogging plans (believe me, I have a list as long as my own arm of potential posts I’ll get around to writing at some point…).

About a month ago, I decided to undertake some online Myers-Briggs personality type tests. These seem to be a bit of a ‘thing’ amongst the #actuallyautistic community, especially on Twitter, and having communicated with a few fellow autistics who’d identified their “personality types”, I was intrigued to do the same.

I set about searching for some free tests to take. The first one that attracted my attention was the 16 Personalities quiz. I liked the format of it – the fact the questions involved Likert-type scales rather than selecting black-or-white, either/or answers. I struggle with decision-making, and am very rarely absolute.

But I had a problem. I couldn’t help but over-analyse every single question. I got lost in thinking far too deeply, and for far too long, on everything that was asked of me. For certain questions – particularly those relating to interactions with others – I really couldn’t tell whether I was being truly honest with myself or not.

The result came back: ENFJ. “The Protagonist“. An extrovert if ever there was one.

And yeah, sure; some of it seemed to make sense. I mean, really make sense. For instance, this personality type has:

a tremendous capacity for reflecting on and analyzing their own feelings, but if they get too caught up in another person’s plight, they can develop a sort of emotional hypochondria, seeing other people’s problems in themselves, trying to fix something in themselves that isn’t wrong.

But I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that it wasn’t quite correct. I like to think of myself as a “passionate altruist”, and I do find it “natural and easy to communicate with others” in certain contexts. But something didn’t quite sit right.

And so I did what any social media addict does when they’re puzzled by something. I posted about it on Twitter. I got a few more recommendations back from fellow users, and this time decided to go with gut instinct, and to complete the tests more quickly, with less conscious thought. And the results?

25 questions? INFJ.

Quistic? INFJ, once again.

My scores breakdowns told me I wasn’t quite as introverted as some; nevertheless, it appeared I was not the extrovert I thought myself to be. I decided to ignore the tests for a bit, and simply look at some descriptions for the INFJ personality type. And this particular description seemed to fit me like a glove.

They tend to feel happiest and most fulfilled when helping and enlightening others through their insights.

This is me. On the internet. All the time. Often it becomes a mission to research someone’s problem, find answers, and provide my own insights and experience. There are times when I can’t rest until I’ve provided my input to someone, if I can see that it will help them. It can become something of an obsession. And often, having promised to help someone, I don’t have the time, energy, to capacity to do so.

The guilt I feel at such times is truly immense.

I often focus on helping others at the expense of my own need for self-care. I’m learning, these days, that sometimes I must let things go.

INFJs also enjoy listening to music, watching movies and television, and engaging with people. Perhaps more than anything, they love spending time engrossed in meaningful conversation[…]

Me as well.

Yes, I am chatty. I’m often loud. I’m certainly not shy. I like to dance. Often. In the middle of the dance floor. I’m completely at ease when giving presentations and teaching sessions to sometimes very large groups of people.

But none of these things makes me a true extrovert. Introversion isn’t shyness. It doesn’t necessarily mean being always as meek and quiet as a mouse. It turns out, I was confusing my outward behaviours with the true definitions of introverts and extroverts – I was ignoring what goes on within.

Like every true introvert, my energy levels are depleted from too much social interaction. I draw energy and life force, recharging my batteries, from time spent alone.

So why had I got it so wrong? I seemed to have such a shaky sense of who I was. And I think this had come about from years, and years, and years, of trying to be someone I was not. Of not knowing quite how to be, and so adopting the traits of those around me; observing, absorbing, and imitating. Of being the person I felt other people wanted me to be, because I had no idea how to be myself. Yes, I am pretty sociable. I’ve done my fair share of partying in my time. I’ve enjoyed performing so often in my life. But I’ve so often forced myself to do far more of all this than was ever healthy for me. I’ve done things that felt unnatural to me because I didn’t know anything different.

Because a key part of me was not visible until this year.

A short while after my exploration of the Myers-Briggs type indicators, a fellow blogger and Twitter user (who writes a rather fantastic blog), conducted a Twitter survey of fellow #actuallyautistic users, asking them their personality types. The suggested quiz to use was the 16 Personalities test I’d tried before; the one that had yielded my dubious ENFJ result.

And so I re-visited it, this time giving my answers according to gut instinct; to “what felt right”, rather than what I’d been doing for years because I felt it was expected of me and because it was that I was accustomed to doing, regardless of my inner convictions.

The result? An emphatic INFJ. “The Advocate“. This, at last, made sense.

There aren’t many INFJs around in the world. I quite like that. I’m not into the idea of being a “special snowflake”, but I’m something of a non-conformist, and being a little different from the norm is something that comes naturally. It is my norm.

Of course, these are just online quizzes. They’re subjective. Your answers might be different on any given day, depending on circumstances, how you’re feeling, and so on. But – as with my autism self-discovery – the more I found out about the INFJ personality type, the more I realised it fit.

Personality types aren’t the absolute end of who we are. Humans are complicated. I’ve written before – exploring our relationships with information, and the (as I see it) misuse of the word “symptoms” – about how our behaviour is merely an outward manifestation of the internal.

My autism manifests itself in a manner specific only to me; the same is also true for my introversion. As it is for my femaleness, my whiteness, my living-in-the-North-of-England-ness, and so on. All of these things are elements of who I am, they are influenced by the particular circumstances in which I was born and have lived my life, and they are all interconnected.

But I feel a lot closer now to understanding who I am.

As introverts go, I’m a pretty loud one. And I’m certainly not at the extreme, introverted end of any introvert-extrovert spectrum. But that’s just me. Whether that makes me an “atypical introvert” or not, I now feel that it, and I, make far more sense.

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The Atypical Introvert?

extreme close-up of green glitter in a lava lamp

[Edit: since writing this post, I have come to the realisation that I was wrong in my assessment of myself as an “extrovert”, having misunderstood the definitions. However, I leave this post here as is – I’m still going through the process of learning about who I am, post-formal diagnosis, and this was me back then.]

I’m something of an all-or-nothing Twitter user. I’ve had a public account since around 2009, predominantly used for whatever line of work I happen to be in. My Twitter activity is sporadic: if there’s a CPD event, awards ceremony, conference or marketing campaign going on, I’m there, tweeting everything, drumming up support, provoking discussion, sharing learning. The rest of the time? The odd tweet about gin, tea, the temperature of the office, equality and diversity, and very little else.

In my recently-embraced autistic guise, I have another, anonymous account (although if you know me, it probably isn’t that hard to identify me). And the one thing I’ve noticed is that, Boy, there’s a high volume of autistic tweetage going on. I find myself metaphorically tripping over the sheer abundance of scattered-yet-interwoven, to-ing and fro-ing, quick-firing autistic exchanges. And fascinating and engaging they most certainly are. And there are some bloody wonderful autistic people involved. People to whom I feel connected.

Recently, a user posted something. I can’t remember the exact wording of the tweet, but it was something along the lines of “extreme introversion = high functioning autism”. A fair few folks, I seem to remember, liked and retweeted this assertion. I, however, had real problems with it. I didn’t say anything at the time, but it did get me back to something I’ve often mused upon. Am I an introvert or an extrovert?

A few years ago, a colleague and friend leant me Quiet, by Susan Cain. What an absolutely fascinating read. There was so much in there that I felt I could relate to. Sensitivity to environmental stimuli? Check. Preferring a Friday night in with a glass of wine and a book or DVD? Check. Exhaustion from social interaction? Check. Needing time on my own? Check.

That’s it, I thought. However much I appear to be otherwise, I am evidently an introvert.

Except I’m not.

I have always been talkative. Itching to put my hand up in class. Never afraid to voice my opinion. Keen to point out the error of others’ ways (my way is logical. Why would they take that approach? Seriously!) – although in more recent times I’ve dropped that particular gem in favour of wincing, cringing, quivering, or making squealy noises, or – on very rare occasions when I’m not too tired – tactfully suggesting that they might want to look at an alternative.

An over-sharer of personal information. Always eager to join (butt?) in with a conversation. Almost incapable of embarrassment (in certain situations, that is. More of that later). Bossy, at times (I hate the word “bossy”. It’s grossly overused in relation to girls and women. But that particular rant is for another day). Always the leader in group work at university. Happy to facilitate a discussion. At times, it’s difficult to shut me up. Interrupt me and I’m occasionally furious.

This all puzzled me. What, then, was I? Was I some kind of ‘atypical introvert’ masquerading as an extrovert? Certainly, many of the things introverts apparently feel were things that I, too, feel. But nope. It didn’t. Quite. Fit.

You see, I had the feeling I was pretending. Putting on an act. And this feeling was well-founded.

I loved drama as a child – I loved performing, putting on voices and accents, assuming another persona. In my recent professional life, I have done a lot of teaching, training delivery, and public speaking. And, if I do say so myself, I’m pretty bloody good at it. The observations I underwent for my teaching qualification got glowing feedback. Presentations I give at conferences and other external events are often tweeted about, and often result in a flurry of interested ‘after show’ questions from other delegates. But I was absolutely bloody awful at all this a few years ago. Stammering, stuttering, uncertain; freezing at the slight hint of an interruption or distraction. I decided to ‘pretend’ – both to myself, and others – that I was confident and knew what I was talking about. Over time, with practice, that pretend aspect of my professional self became real. I became knowledgeable about my material, and I continue to add to this knowledge and experience. I grew confident in my delivery. I experimented with new techniques and realised I could comfortably vary my approach, and making things more interesting. Last year, I co-delivered a workshop to nearly 1,000 undergrad students, and I wasn’t remotely fazed. I genuinely enjoy doing this stuff these days. I’m in my element, because, these days, I’m the expert – these days, I know my stuff, I’m well-prepared; and any questions thrown at me are likely to follow particular patterns that I can deal with without bursting into tears or freezing on the spot.

So I had the feeling I was pretending, and indeed, this really was something I was doing. But my interpretation of the origins, the motivations, and the directions, of that pretence were somewhat off.

Truth was, I’d been doing a lot more pretending than even I realised. I wasn’t merely an introvert pretending to be an extrovert. I realised that, actually, I am an extrovert. Just not a neurotypical one.

I was never completely content with being on my own at all times. Sure, there were times when this was absolutely the right thing. But in general, I liked having friends. I wanted friends. I was weird, and didn’t really feel an affinity with the popular kids, but I wasn’t shy or keen to remain quiet.

As a kid, I preferred the type of social activity that involved doing something. Girl Guides; bell ringing; a brief spell in a Christian youth group before I turned forever atheist. Playing music in groups was perfect, because it allowed for that communality, interaction, and sense of shared purpose, without me having to bother with a whole load of social niceties. Later, however,  I wanted to go out. With people. To pubs, clubs, gigs, festivals, and all the sorts of thing young, gregarious, sociable people like doing lots of. I drank alcohol. A lot. I laughed, shouted, talked nineteen-to-the-dozen, danced, snogged boys, fell over…and at times (many times), I made an enormous, great fucking fool of myself.

But the truth was, I never had the desire to stay on the edge. Socially, however much of an outsider I was, I wanted to be in on the action. Fear of missing out? Oh yes. In spades, my friend. And so I observed what others did. How they dressed. What they said. The things they talked about. And I learned to act like them. And yet I often got it wrong.

I would misinterpret friendliness for flirting, and vice versa. And boys and men would do the same to me. I would cringe at how unsuccessfully I’d played the role of indie-pop vinyl junkie, hardcore punk, or jazz aficionado. I would wonder whether my mask had slipped.  I would come home after a night out desperately wishing I hadn’t revealed my innermost secrets to a handful of recent acquaintances. Dissecting and post-match-analysing those times when I’d droned on, and on, and on, and nobody had stopped me, and yet somehow the conversation had drifted away from me.

And yet, it never put me off going out. I never got any sense of ‘pre-going-out’ social anxiety. Of course, I’d rehearse conversations in my head on the walk into town or the drive over to a friend’s house. I’d run through the logistics and practicalities of the night out. And all the while the social occasion was happening, I’d have that endless, meta-analytical inner voice analysing and commenting upon everything that was panning out in front of me, telling me what was going on,  (sometimes wrongly) categorising the nature of the interaction, instructing me as to how to react or respond. That voice that I still hear today.

Exhaustion from social interaction came along more as I get older. My life got busier, and more intellectually demanding. I had less downtime. In some ways, I guess I grew up (in circumstances, if not in personality). There was simply less room in my life for socialising, and less downtime meant I got tired more easily. And that’s where I’m at today.

But I’m still talkative. I still enjoy social interaction. It has to be planned – I get horribly flustered by unexpected, spontaneous socialising. It interrupts my vision of how I saw my day panning out, however much I like the other person. I resent it. And however much that type of interaction might be enjoyable, pleasant, I’m still trying to get away, to get back on track with my original plans. And I’m far better at talking than I am at listening. Listening was, is, and always will be, something I find difficult. But as long as I have some some control, I love a good chat.

Because I’m not an introvert. I’m an autistic extrovert.