Social Flexibility: When Should You Act More Extroverted Than You Really Are?

People have a variety of social selves that they choose to project to the world. I have encountered many extroverted people who are secretly introverts. They project a booming and energetic sense of self in certain social situations, but they retreat in private and seek more solitary pursuits. People often describe me as ‘extroverted,’ but they couldn’t be further from the truth. I might appear confident in public, and be able to talk to anyone at all, but it has always been a secret struggle of mine. I prefer one-on-one conversations and encounters, and I often disappear to share quiet dialogues at parties. When I’m forced to spend too much out in public, or at social events, I can literally feel myself becoming unwell, and I need days alone to recharge my batteries. Outwardly however, people assume that I love socialising and am never nervous of people. The truth couldn’t be any more different.

It is my belief that we are very capable of flexibility when it comes to our extroverted and introverted sides. Our projected selves shift depending on the social situation, and it could be argued that we are all a mix of both extrovert and introvert. There are a group of psychologists known as Situationists, and they believe that the words we use to describe one another – shy, aggressive, agreeable, conscientious – are incredibly misleading. They state that there is no ‘core’ self; there are only various selves. This idea was introduced by a man called Walter Mischel, who believed that situational factors predicted the behaviour of people. For example, a normally introverted lecturer could become extroverted when faced with a large auditorium of people. As a species, we must be flexible with our social selves. I would describe myself as flexible socially, because I can be both the life and soul of the party, but also desire to remain indoors in isolated locations and devote myself to the silent and solitary pursuit of writing.  I also understand that being the confident talker means that I am exhausted afterwards, and need time to recharge before I’m able to socialise again. It is simply the way that I am.

Why can we turn certain personality traits on? How can an introvert behave as an extrovert at certain times, and not others? There is a theory amongst psychologists called the Free Trait Theory. These people believe that fixed traits and free traits almost certainly coexist. According to this theory, we are born and culturally endowed with certain personality traits, but we can and do act out of character for situations such as work, or in the pursuit of something that we particularly enjoy. For example, an introverted athlete may display extreme aggression and passion when pursuing their sport. They have adapted their personality traits to achieve something that means a lot to them. This might seem slightly deceptive, but we are simply doing what we have been psychologically programed to do. Yes, we may pretend to be extroverts at times, and such inauthenticity can be morally ambiguous, but if it’s in pursuit of something that we love? Or something we are working towards? Social flexibility can indeed be the answer.

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Death as a Silent Teacher

As an archaeologist and anthropologist, I work with death and the past every day. I delve into the worlds of forgotten societies and peoples, and piece together narratives based on material culture left behind. People have often asked why I prefer the realm of the dead to the living, and the answer is simple. Death is misunderstood. She has always been personified as a sinister force, and a harbinger of pain and misery, but I do not believe that there is anything to fear. People die every day. It is a cruel certainty that every life will expire. Over 55 million people will die every year – two a second – and it is arguably the only inevitability in life. It is my job to look at death and read it as a puzzle. I find the evidence – skeletal remains, clothing, pottery, jewellery, tools, weapons – and use them to piece together the events before the subject’s expiry. It is both a fascinating and enlightening process, and I couldn’t imagine doing anything different.

Death can teach us many things. If we look at it objectively, we can learn about the workings of the corporeal form. We also learn about humanity and altruism, respect and dignity, patience, calmness, and manual dexterity. Our interaction with human bodies is very personal and altogether tactile. When I excavate skeletal remains from the ground, I see a story being revealed to me. I see a life cut short, and an invitation to interpret and add context to that life. I can still remember the most poignant case that I worked on. The skeletal remains of several Neo-Assyrian warriors were discovered at the ancient site of Nineveh, modern day Mosul, in the Near East. They had fallen at the city gates, and were unearthed by a team of skilled archaeologists. Their final moments were immortalised. They had fallen where they were cut down, and remained there for centuries. Some of them still held their weapons in their hands, and others were turned towards the sand where they’d collapsed. They had died in defence of what they held dear, and their final moments were laid bare to people who cared to look for them. They are silent witnesses to their final moments, and yet they do not need to speak a word to tell a story.

My fascination with the past is deeply ingrained in my desire to understand the present and the future. Ancient societies offer us an insight into the behaviours of mankind that sometimes we fail to acknowledge in our present selves, such as the outcomes of greed or the disastrous need to expand territories and take control. These behaviours nearly always result in great tragedy, but there is also some peace in knowing that these behaviours are firmly fixed in the past. However, we can learn from the past, and we should do so willingly, because it has a lot to teach us.

Is ‘clique’ behaviour an evolutionary weakness?

Most of us have experienced some form of social ‘clique’ in our lifetime. These groups consist of people who share similar interests and bond over them, such as the football team at school, the cheerleaders at college, or the ‘ladies-who-lunch-together’ in the office. They can be quite intimidating and cruel towards outsiders too. Despite the emotional effect such groups can have on individuals, there has been very little study into the science behind them. This blog entry will seek to investigate the science behind the ‘clique’ mentality, and introduce the idea that this behaviour is actually an evolutionary weakness.

The science of clique behaviour is fascinating to consider. Since the beginning of time, human beings have felt a natural affinity towards each other, and have clubbed together in order to survive. Groups of hunters were far more adept at finding food than lone huntsman, and groups of warriors were more able to protect their families from harm. Groups of people would travel together, and fight against outsider groups who may seek to steal provisions from them. Outsiders were a real threat, and therefore the targets for violence. This theory may seem difficult to apply to modern day situations, but it isn’t as far-fetched as you’d think. Sociologists argue that people form cliques because they need to feel a sense of belonging in order to survive in a world ruled by social interactions. Many academics argue that this need is equally as crucial as food and shelter, and stems back to our ancestors who survived in clans, or in a herd mentality. Lone outsiders were unlikely to survive in the wilderness, and are still viewed with suspicion and dislike in the modern day.  If a person doesn’t gravitate towards a certain group, or ‘clique,’ then they become a target for gossip, hearsay and bullying.

Being an outsider is not for the faint-hearted. I’ve never felt a sense of belonging to any particular social group, and that’s always been a difficult burden to bear. I never engaged in office politics, because I had no idea how to, and I was bullied continuously at school. I didn’t fit the ‘mould’ of other workers or pupils either, so was often left out when people went for ‘drinks’ after work or sleepovers at the weekend. This can leave a person feeling humiliated, and it absolutely crushes self-esteem. However, I have started to see that being an outsider is actually an advantage. Outsiders are more capable of being objective, and less social commitments result is far less stress. I am quite glad that I don’t feel obligated to go out with a certain group of people on a weekend, or have to deal with the stresses of trying to belong. I pride myself on being an outsider, and I would urge other people to do the same. Cliques are an outdated method of survival, and there is far more power and pride to be had in being an independent and lone entity in this day and age.

The Introvert-Extrovert Spectrum

Our lives and experiences are vastly shaped by our personality types. The introvert-extrovert spectrum has been widely recognised as the two polar opposites of the human personality, and is often used as a defining feature when describing people in particular situations. In my experience, the loudly spoken and buoyant personality will always gain certain opportunities that the quiet, cerebral type does not. A shy and quiet child is often viewed as an enigma to teachers, and therefore is more easily overlooked and targeted for a lack of contribution in school reports. The loud and boisterous child holds the room’s attention, and is often more liked by his or her class. The latter grows in popularity, and the former easily blends into the background. Why is this? Why is introversion viewed as a second class personality that cannot be valued in our society?

The answer is simple. Scientific studies have revealed that talkative people are viewed as smarter, more attractive and conforming to a universal standard of psychological expectation. Fast talkers are considered more competent and likeable, and yet there is no correlation between speech velocity and intellect. As adults, we are expected to work in offices without walls, and to be at the beck and call of bosses who value ‘people skills’ above everything else, but I have never been wired that way. It is more difficult for an introvert to promote themselves in modern society, and they need to work harder for recognition, because quietness does not sell. It does not turn heads. Introverts however, have strong social skills, but they devote their energies to reflection rather than voice velocity and attention grabbing. They listen more than they talk. They think before they speak, and they feel more comfortable expressing themselves in writing rather than conversation. The word ‘introvert’ is not a synonym for social recluse, or hermit, but rather for a person that avoids the overstimulating and chaotic, and finds comfortable expression in more understated mediums.

Introverts may feel alone in their approach, but they are far from it. In 1955, Rosa Parks stood up for what she believed in when approached with racist segregation laws, and stood firm against confrontation. It would be very easy to assume that she was a bold and outspoken woman, but she was not. When she died in 2005, her obituaries praised her for being ‘timid’ and ‘shy,’ but with the ‘courage of a lion.’ Some of mankind’s greatest achievements and ideas have come from introverts. Van Gogh and T.S. Eliot were famously private souls, and Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein were known to be great thinkers who achieved great productivity in solitude. Einstein himself described himself as a ‘horse built for a single harness,’ and Charles Darwin famously stated that a man could be shy but ‘as bold as a hero in battle.’ Introversion is not a curse; it is a powerful personality type that is simply misunderstood in present society.

Meanwhile, in my uterus…

“It’s nothing to be concerned about. It’s just your period. Keep taking ibuprofen,” stated my doctor, as he dismissed my frustrations and concerns about having bled profusely for six months.  I nodded numbly in agreement, and left the doctor’s office without another word. Frankly, I didn’t have the energy to argue. I’d been in debilitating pain for a long time and I could barely get out of bed in the mornings. I was crippled by never-ending backache, and felt weak, disorientated and extremely sick. I described these symptoms to my doctor, who was all too keen to dismiss them. He didn’t take my concerns seriously, and he certainly didn’t suggest that I might have a disease called Endometriosis, which affects 10% of the female population (1). That’s 176 million women worldwide.  That’s a large number of women out there, who suffer in silence.

Six months after fourteen similar disastrous doctors’ appointments, I was admitted to hospital where I received an internal ultrasound and laparoscopy, which led to a formal diagnosis of this disease. I felt a mixture of relief and absolute dread. I was relieved that my symptoms weren’t just in my head, which my doctors had convinced me, but this relief was swiftly followed by trepidation, because I knew there was no known cure. Endometriosis is a complex condition, and every case is different. There is also a distinct lack of accessible information regarding how to live with it. It took a far kinder (and infinitely more patient) doctor to explain that this disorder is caused by a woman’s endometrium, which is otherwise known as the tissue that usually lines the inside of the uterus. A person suffering from endometriosis will have this tissue growing outside of the uterus and elsewhere in the body. During the menstrual cycle, this tissue creates an inflammatory response in the body. It forms painful lesions, scars, and nodules. These can cause a variety of life-changing symptoms – moderate to severe pain, migraines, fatigue, pain during sex, heavy bleeding, and many more.  I knew that I’d made alterations to my life because of this disease, and I wondered how many other women had done the same.

My doctor recommended another laparoscopy, which would be aimed at removing the excess tissue. This is a very popular method of easing the symptoms associated with endometriosis. It isn’t a cure, but there is statistical evidence that it can help in the long term. In a recent study of 176 women who had confirmed endometriosis, 67% of these women noted a lessening of their symptoms after surgery (2). After almost a year of being stuck in bed, and using only ibuprofen to deal with the pain, I told my doctor that I would be a willing participant in this operation. It took two weeks for the hospital to arrange a date, and then I was under the surgeon’s knife. The procedure went without a hitch, but I’d be lying if I said the outcome wasn’t painful. I went home two days later with a stomach that rivalled the size and shape of a good-sized watermelon. I was bloated, sore, and I could barely move. I spent five days in bed, before starting to move around again.

Would I recommend the procedure? I absolutely would. I was far more comfortable for a long time afterwards, and was eventually able to return to work. Unsurprisingly, the lesions returned, and I am always in agony during my menstrual cycle. My doctors still haven’t found a solution to my pain either, although they are more willing to prescribe stronger anti-inflammatories (NSAIDS) to try and keep me out of their waiting rooms.  They have recommended hormonal treatment, but as a super sensitive sufferer of anxiety, I declined. It worries me that there isn’t more research going into discovering a cure for this disease, and awareness is fairly rubbish too. As I delve deeper into online communities of the suffering, I’m learning that it can take years to achieve a diagnosis, because the symptoms are simply dismissed. The NHS are also under increasing pressure to see more and more patients within limited timeframes, which results in patients feeling like a number to be ticked off. It almost feels impossible to gain a proper exploration into the symptoms, which was half my battle in the beginning. Awareness has to be key here. There is a still a ridiculous stigma attached to the discussion of the female’s intimate anatomy, but this draconian view needs to be overcome. Doctors must be educated about this debilitating disease that is affecting a huge number of the female population, and be informed about the treatments that are available.  It isn’t good enough to send women home when their symptoms are so severe. Doctors have a duty of care to their patients.

I know it’s going to be a long fight, but I’m in it for the long haul, so wish we luck! If you are a woman who is suffering in silence, please reach out to your doctors, health professionals and friends. It’s not something that should be endured alone, nor should it be brushed beneath the carpet.

https://www.endometriosis-uk.org

  • (1) Rogers PA, D’Hooghe TM, Fazleabas A, et al. Priorities for endometriosis research: recommendations from an international consensus workshop. Reprod Sci 2009;16(4): 335-46.
  • (2) Morris, KA. Living Well with Endometriosis. William Morrow 2006: 97

Sorry, but can we stop saying ‘sorry’?

According to studies, British women apologise up to eight times a day. We apologise for being unable to attend social engagements, and for putting our health and careers first. We apologise for disagreeing with people, to avoid causing offense, and we apologise for the way we look and feel. We are apologising for our choices, every day, and it needs to stop. We don’t need to be the ‘yes’ girls all the time, and we don’t need to justify that either. We’re women, and the choices we make are our own. The mere concept of apologising for something that isn’t your fault, or hasn’t caused any wrongdoing is bloody ridiculous. It’s very British too.

There is a good explanation for our apologies too. Women are socialised from an early age to focus on relationships and nurturing. Any sign of strength can be off-putting, so we’re conditioned to soften communication that can be construed as assertive or aggressive. We undermine our decisions and choices by apologising for them, because we don’t want to seem aggressive or antagonistic, but we need to start taking charge of our decisions, and not apologising for them. Men put their careers first every single day, and they don’t apologise for it, so why should we? Emotional and financial independence is something to be proud of. It doesn’t warrant an apology. People should not be offended by your success. My point is that we can follow our heart’s callings and that’s ok. Do you think Hilary Clinton apologised for becoming the First Lady of the United States? I don’t think she did. She worked hard for it. She earned it.

There are too many pressures on women in this day and age. We are expected to reach certain milestones in a specified timeframe, but those pressures are not ok. Why shouldn’t we wait until we’re ready to have babies? Is it wrong if we don’t want babies at all? Should we all dress and act a certain way, for fear of causing offense? Should we hold back on our careers because there’s a man involved? Absolutely not. I’ve recently realised how often I use the word ‘sorry,’ and it’s a little embarrassing. I’m not taking credit where credit is due, and why not? Am I afraid of upsetting someone for the way I look, act and feel? Should my achievements be apologised for? No they shouldn’t.

In essence, we need to stand by our decisions, and believe firmly in them. It isn’t wrong to be in control of your own life. We should believe in ourselves. You won’t do any good by pretending to be anything less than you are. Let’s stop doing ourselves a disservice.

Four Tips To Help You Finish Your Novel

1) Schedule your writing time, and protect it with your life. There are 24 hours in a day, and those hours can be spent however you choose. During my college years, I would get up at 5am to get some writing in before classes, and then stay up late writing too. It wasn’t entirely healthy, but it taught me a lesson. I wanted to write, so I made the time to do it. I’m an adult now (or so I’m told), and so I schedule responsibly instead. I get up at a reasonable time, put the coffee on and sit down to write. I write from 9am-4pm. I work office hours, and my body and my muse finally seem in tune to that pattern. I’m also incredibly protective over that time. I turn the phone and television off, and if people invite me out for lunch? I politely decline. The problem is, non-writers don’t understand the process, nor the importance of your writing time. They think you have all the time in the world because you work from home, but that isn’t the case at all. You must treat your writing like a job, even if it isn’t yet. Make sure you turn up. 2) Set goals. There is no point in saying you’ll write that book or screenplay by January next year. That isn’t how it works. You must set yourself achievable goals, and by achievable goals, I mean word targets. I set myself the writing target of 2000 words a day. I don’t always reach that target, but that is what I’m working towards. On a bad day, I’ll only churn out 1000 words, but on a good day? I’ve been known to get 4000 words done. The point is, it’s all progress. Do the maths. 2000 or 1000 words a day x 365 days = a rather sizeable novel. 3) Write. Write. Write. Don’t wait for your muse. I’ve read many different writing blogs and spoken to numerous writers over the years, and all admit that their muse is unreliable. It’s a myth that writers are suddenly absorbed in a moment of sheer inspiration. They force themselves to sit down in the chair every morning, and they get to work. Inspiration will follow. Ideas will emerge, but this is still a job, remember? Creativity is only a fraction of it. Hard work is the rest. 4) Believe in yourself. I have battled with anxiety and self-doubt for many years, and it can be completely destructive. Don’t compare yourself to other writers, because it’s unrealistic. Your voice is unique, and chances are you’re writing something unique too. If you sound like your favourite author, then you aren’t using your voice, and that’s a damn shame. Believe in your voice, and believe in your work. You can do this.

Confessions

‘Men make mess,’ my Great Grandma used to say. ‘They come to you when everything is tidy. They mess everything up, and then they leave again.’

They were strong words to say to an eleven year old girl, and finally, thirteen years later, I think I understand what she meant. The ‘mess’ she was referring to was not the domestic image of unwashed dishes that I had previously assumed. She meant an emotional mess, and being in the shadow of your former ‘tidy’ self. She was referring to the great and sometimes painful process of falling in love, and what happens when it’s over.

My Great Grandma had always been a strong woman. She drove a tank during World War II, and did supply runs in armoured trucks over live minefields. She met my great grandfather during a raid, and she took great delight in telling us how he talked far too much. He was a skinny fellow, she said, who wore shabby shoes, and he was lucky he didn’t get his toes blown off. She said it was love at first sight, and when my Grandma fell pregnant, she came home to England and began building a home for her new family. She chose a quiet little village in Surrey, where the most exciting occurrence was Sunday Mass. It was a million miles away from war. It was perfect.

Sadly, my Grandma never saw her lover again. She explained to everyone that he had died in action, and that his body had never been recovered. When we asked her how, her eyes would gloss over and grow distant. She didn’t want to talk about it, and no-one pressured my Grandma into doing anything. This woman was a soldier.

It always made me sad to think of her, alone with a child. She was a resilient woman, who prided herself on being able to handle anything life threw at her. Rather than cry in front of people, and feel sorry for herself, she got on with life. She juggled three jobs at once. She was a nurse during the day, a barmaid during the night and a milkman in the middle of the night. People who knew her said she hardly slept at all. She didn’t have time to feel sorry for herself. She moved on, and gave my Grandad the best childhood imaginable.

When my Grandad was twenty-five years old, he died in a car accident. I remember sitting with my Great Grandma at the time, eating stew and watching her do the crossword. She didn’t react to the phone-call. She put the receiver down and shuffled back into the kitchen, putting all the plates away and starting the washing up. No-one really understood what was going on, and although everyone offered her support, she merely shrugged it off. At the funeral, she sat in the front row in silence, fingering the embroidered daisies on her dress. She cried one single tear, and it dribbled down her wrinkled skin silently. She spoke to no-one.

To say that my Grandma suffered a great loss is an understatement. She lost the man she loved and she outlived her son. I would spend most weekends with her, and she taught me everything she knew. We’d plant potatoes together, knit little blankets and do the crosswords. She told me to work hard in life, and always be mindful of other people. She said I had to go to school, because school would give me a life. She was the smartest person in the world, and I did everything she said. There were times when I grew bored and restless, but then I remembered her wise words and carried on.

My Grandma passed away last year, and she made a shocking confession on her deathbed. My Great Grandad hadn’t died in the war. He had already been married, but had failed to mention it until after she fell pregnant. He returned home to his wife and three children, and my Grandma never saw him again. Most people would have crumbled, but she coped. She accepted that she would never have her lover in her life, and so she focused on bringing up my Grandad alone. Maybe my Grandad should have been given the chance to find his father? When my Mum asked her this, my Grandma simply smiled and said, ‘It would have made a terrible mess.’

Unfinished Business

Writing and I have a turbulent relationship. When things are going well, it’s the best love affair I’ve ever had. I wake up breathless and excited every day, and cannot wait to see my work again. I drink copious amounts of coffee as I delve into it, and the feeling of enthusiasm never fades. It’s like a damn drug, and I stay up all hours, contemplating our next meeting. It’s blissful. Manic, but blissful.

It isn’t always so. When things are bad, I tend to fall into a black hole of depression, and view my work as though it were a treacherous ex boyfriend. Why did it stop talking to me? Why did our love affair end, and on what terms? I can’t figure out what went wrong. Maybe we had a different endgame in mind? I wanted to finish in a well-rounded and credible place, but my muse had different ideas. It refuses to offer any more inspiration or guidance. It’s cruel, and I start to question my own abilities at restoring the relationship, or ever creating anything again. Maybe I don’t have what it takes?

I’m sure I’m not the only person to have suffered this, and it’s a bitter experience. Nobody likes unfinished business, and an unfinished book is just that. It started well. I spent a year researching my subject matter, and created a plot plan which seemed flawless. ‘Seemed’ being the important word here. The plot wasn’t flawless, and I often found myself at points where I wondered where to go next. My characters took strange turns which were both fascinating and frustrating. I followed these turns in the name of narrative flow, and I was genuinely excited at the time, but then I found myself ill-prepared when new turns reared their heads. To put it bluntly, my characters approached complex situations, and then they stopped talking to me. I didn’t know where to go next. I went from being unable to function without being inspired to write, to…nothing.

The love affair seemed to be over, and I made the mistake of stepping away from my work. I turned off the laptop, and returned the next morning, expecting to find my muse. I didn’t. I sat and stared at the same amount of words, over and over again. My muse didn’t return to me immediately, and so I gave up. I’m ashamed to admit it now, but I walked away and stopped. I’d invested years into this, but it only took two days for me to give up. Needless to say, I’m ashamed to admit it, but it’s the truth.

The New Year has come back around, and I’m thinking about the unfinished book again. I’m thinking about my inability to focus on something long term, and how I can fix it. During university, I didn’t have a choice but to remain focused on dissertations and assignments. Fixed university deadlines terrified me into focus, and I powered through the moments of self-doubt, and discovered inspiration again on the way. My New Years Eve resolution is therefore to make a plan, set myself deadlines and stick to them. I’m going to be turning off the internet when writing, and staying the hell away from social media. Facebook is an absolute curse to my writing. My self-control is weak, but things need to change!

And they will. Once I’ve checked Facebook one more time…only kidding!

Wish me luck!