I first realized I wasn't happy being the shy, quiet girl hiding behind the flowers on the wall while everyone else had fun when I was in high school. A guy I liked, after watching me drawing for a few minutes, said, “You're boring.” I have no idea what his intentions were, but after my initial shock and indignation, it occurred to me that as far as he could tell, he was right. I never said anything because I spent most of my time listening and observing. He had no idea what was going on in my head because I never shared. That's the day I decided I wanted to get out of my introverted comfort zone.
What is an introvert?
When I was in high school, I was that shy, quiet kid who always had my nose in a book. I'd sit back though and watch all the extroverted kids chatting and joking with groups of admiring students and wonder why it was that they were so happy and carefree while I was worried that people would look at me funny if I said the wrong thing. I felt like there was some sort of secret that no one had ever told me and if I could figure out what that was, I could be one of the happy people enjoying the conversation.
As it turns out, my problem was that I'm an introvert. I'd rather have a one-on-one conversation with someone about the importance of reading then chat with a large group of people about the latest gossip. Parties drain me, as does trying to get a word in edge-wise in a Sunday School class with more than 10 people and/or an extrovert who has no idea introverts exist.
If you want more information about what is an introvert, I recommend you watch Susan Cain's original “The Power of Introverts” TED Talk. I thought about embedding it here, but decided to go with the video below instead in which she chats with Norwegian journalist Fredrik Skavlan and Rob Irwin (Yes, the son of Steve) about how our culture of personality discounts introverts in leadership roles.
I do think it's interesting how she points out that people think introverts can't be leaders. Or that extroverts are better leaders. A few times growing up, an extrovert adopted me and thought I'd make a great sidekick (and I was happy to let them lead in social situations) until they asked/expected me to do something that I was strongly against. Then they were surprised, some even offended, that I didn't just fall in line and do what I'm told. Now, of course, I'm an English education leader, which I do by quietly guiding them to (set and) achieve their goals. Which leads me to our next question.
Can Introverts be Leaders?
As Susan mentioned, our society expects leaders to be extroverted. The loudest person must be right. Right? But Simon points out that if you have an undying belief in your cause, whether it's that teachers should listen to their students when creating lessons or that we need to stop using fossil fuels, people will follow you.
How to Break Out of Your Shell
While there is nothing wrong with being introverted, and I think it's incredibly important that we have people in leadership roles who are introspective and great listeners, you may be like me and what to lead in a more outgoing way. I had this same urge in my 20s — and ended up leading my college newspaper staff as the editor-in-chief, which meant I also had to lead the weekly meetings. I was mortified the first time — but then noticed that each week, speaking in front of the group got easier. Now, after spending 10 years as a high school English teacher, speaking in front of groups doesn't bother me (usually).
For those of you who want to be more outgoing, who are tired of huddling up inside a shell that keeps getting more cramped, here are some steps you can take to break out. Or at least add some space.
15 Strategies for Introverts to Get Out of Your Comfort Zone
- Spend more time with others. Allow their energy to re-energize you.
- Speak up. Think out loud. Give your thoughts a voice.
- Go inside to do business you normally would do through a drive-up window, picking up prescriptions and ordering fast food.
- If you hide behind a keyboard and email, pick up the phone and make at least one call for every 5-10 emails you send.
- Ask an extrovert friend to help you plan how you can become more social and then hold you accountable for taking action.
- Talk to coworkers you normally don't speak to. Learn at least one new thing about each of them.
- Plan ahead. Anticipate how you will interact with others. How you will respond to common questions. How you will respond to uncomfortable situations.
- Practice before a mirror, or better yet, in front of a video camera until you feel more confident. If you do or say something awkward in public, it's fine. Don't sweat it or beat yourself up about it. Most people won't even remember it by the following day.
- Join that extrovert friend at a social event. Watch how they socialize and mimic some of their actions.
- Draw on your personal strengths and step out of your comfort zone with those first. For example, if you're great at painting, attend or host a class on painting and offer to share your expertise with students. Or offer to guest teach an art class at your local public school.
- Get out of your own head. Stop using being an introvert as an excuse. Choose to be confident. The more you practice, the easier it will be to break your introvert habits.
- If you have a passion, try to inspire others to feel that passion too. Show your passion openly and be proud of it.
- Take small steps but take action. If you attend a social event and feel the need to leave after an hour, don't feel guilty. Next time strive to stay an hour and a half. Regular exposure even in small doses can lead to big results.
- Skip the small talk and strive to have more meaningful conversations.
- Accept yourself for who you are. Those introvert feelings are perfectly okay. Just try to step out of your comfort zone some too.
For more guidance on how to get out of your introverted comfort zone, check out our Get Out of Your Comfort Zone! course. Click here to learn more.
Great read Michelle. I have client’s who deal with this as well. I love how you mentioned drawing on your personal strengths. The things that we are strong at makes us feel less anxious because we are more passionate about it.
Thank you, DaShane! I learned through a few leadership opportunities in my life that the best way to get out of one’s comfort zone is to take the leap in a safe space and then just keep swimming. Over time, one can build a tolerance to what made you uncomfortable, like speaking in public, that can become a comfort zone and something one actually enjoys doing.