Monday, July 25, 2011

On Why I Disappear

/eɪˈsoʊʃəl/ [ey-soh-shuhl]
1. not sociable or gregarious; withdrawn from society.
2. indifferent to or averse to conforming to conventional standards of behavior.
3. inconsiderate of others; selfish; egocentric.

*my proof reader is MIA. Please forgive anything that doesn't make sense*

Last night I went to dinner with a cousin I've not seen in five or six years, along with my eldest brother (I'm the youngest of three) and Athena. During the conversation we had while walking to the restaurant my cousin asked me to define the difference between asocial and antisocial. For my money the good folks at pretty much nailed it. I would, however, assert that the tertiary definition for asocial befits antisocial more aptly. But, with that small aside, it seems a fitting banner to fly as my colours.

This is a question I field with some regularity. I'm rather accustomed addressing the discrepancies between indifference and intolerance. Indifference and aggression are opposed forces. Love and hate, on a continuum of passion, are on the same end of the spectrum. Indifference, dispassion, and lack of interest are on the opposite.

Why am I asked about this and why am I bothering to tell you? Because I self identify as asocial. I am largely indifferent to the social mores and conventions that make up the minutia of daily interaction. I find them to be irrelevant to the quality of my relationships. More importantly, however, is the notion conveyed in definition #1 above - withdrawal from society. I am pretty withdrawn. I have a few good friends. I can make conversation and often do so to set others at ease around me. Why bother if I disregard conventional social protocols I as claim? Because it makes my life easier. Things go better when people like me. It's the same reason that sociopaths can choose to function in society without constantly breaking laws and crushing the dreams of those around them. Because, in the long run, it's easier that way. More grease for the gears to get what you want. So this begs the question "what does 'I am' want?"

More or less to be left alone with the few high quality relationships I have. Most people are unaware of the fact that the best way to be left alone is to be the one to make contact first. There is an expectation, are here at least, that the person to engage is also the person who must disengage. If I bump into a neigher and they greet me, opening with small talk, and I disengage from that interaction before they do I'm probably going to be viewed as antisocial or some version of jerk. If I initiate the exchange then excuse myself (as if that phrase weren't telling enough) to leave, I'll likely be seen as a friendly chap who happened to be needed elsewhere. I recognize the mores and regulations. I just don't like them. The key is learning which ones to use that allow you to run roughshod over dozens of others.

But all of this is irrelevant without intention. Why withdraw? What's the real point? Many assume I must be a pretty angry person who hates humanity. Others believe I'm poorly socialized and uncomfortable around new people. Most people think I "just need to loosen up" (this falls into the 'if you'd just be more like me it would be great, because then you'd be like me" camp). All of these ideas are off the mark. The reason I withdraw and minimize the breadth of contact is simple and pretty obvious for those who know me.

People make me sad.

When I speak with people and see the habits formed, the coping mechanisms they're flogging themselves with, I become both frustrated and sad. People are better than this. Basic tenants - integrated self is better than a compartmentalized self, seeking inner quite is more nurturing than insatiable lust for intensity, skilled thinking results in more effective problem solving than raw emotion - seem to be largely ignored or forgotten. I want better than that for the people I meet. I want them to be well and joyful. I want them to be unshakable and compassionate. I know they can be, but the potential seems dormant so often.

I feel compassion for humanity. I genuinely do. That is precisely why I pull back. By my nature I am a very sensitive person. Like many other sensitive people that applies not only to my emotional spectrum but also to sensory data (which could be another post entirely). Like being overloaded by the advertisements, noise, and smells of Time Square, so too does a party full of people scream and throb emotionally. The empathetic weight of each person added together becomes too much to bear. There are a couple options for how to deal with this.

The first is to "put on blinders", effectively to filter what information you respond to. That's a necessary skill to develop, but it has a downside. Filtering is a useful skill to have for making unexpected situations tolerable. Filtering of compassion, however, means deeming some people "human" and others "less human". I can't divorce experiencing empathy for some people and not others as a value judgment. For my taste judging whether or not a person is human enough to merit compassion isn't a practice I'm willing to take up. In my life compassion is an expression of respect and I'm even less willing to make a habit of regularly disrespecting people.

The second option is to minimize stimulation. If Time Square is overwhelming don't be there. If parties are depressing, stop going. Try having a cup of tea or a beer with a friend instead. The key is matching environment to temperament. The first step to avoid fatigue is to reduce demand. By withdrawing I don't have to compromise my ethic related to compassion/respect and I avert compassion fatigue (see also). There are a limited number of times per week I can say "it's about respect" and "every relationship is individual and must be treated as such" before I get exhausted and depressed. So I stop putting myself in situations where it is likely to come up. Blog-land is a big draw on my resources. I get a lot out of it but there are times when life in my immediate surroundings asks too much for me to stay engaged here. That's why I disappear.

I don't want this to end on a down note, so let me make it clear that I'm sticking around. I just wanted to take this moment to explain my hot/cold relationship with posting new content. The other reason I'm posting this diatribe, and why I believe it belongs in the consciousness of the Open Adoption community, is because socialization, compassion, respect, and cyclic communication are all issues front and center in every open adoption whether we realize it or not. Open adoptions are about relationships. Specifically I think it's important to note that there are varying degrees of sensitivity to emotional trauma (inherent in an adoption) and habits of communication. For those of you who don't quite get what I mean when I'm talking about sensitivity let me give you an illustration:

Imagine every human being is a microphone. Each microphone has a different degree of sensitivity to sound. Put eight mics around a table and drop a pin, listen to the playback, and there are eight different volumes (this is referred to as "gain" in music circles). So each mic is receiving the same sound but experiences that sound at a different volume. A microphone that has very high gain is best suited to very quiet environments where it can pick up on the sounds of breath, insects crawling, or a low whisper. A microphone with low gain will be better suited to being onstage at a rock concert. If you take the high gain mic to the rock concert it will feedback, "clip", distort the sound, and be damaged.

In a very real way, to the highly sensitive person, everyone around her/him is yelling at all times. It is deafening. But unlike hearing damage emotional sensitivity never attenuates to the new level. It is the same deafening pain every time.

If any of this resonates (please pardon the pun) with you, or think you may know someone for whom this may be true please know there are resources available. There are two books linked at the bottom; one that has been invaluable for me as I learn to respect and care for myself as a sensitive person. The other gives valuable insight to other styles of communication and cognitive function. Very helpful when trying to navigate what can seem a world of people who "don't get it." Also consider reading more about compassion fatigue and understanding how to care for those that care for you. Thanks for sticking with me. This is a tricky subject and one rarely brought up.

Be gentle with each other out there. It can be a tough world.


  1. I love this post! Thank you for sharing so openly and honestly. I have also struggled and by default have developed a mechanism called "falling off the face of the earth" or "pulling a Lisa", according to my friends. I'm an introvert and this is most definitely an extrovert's world....I prefer my solitude to relax and recharge. I can be very social but at the end of the day sometimes it can all be "too much". (As if being a birthparent isn't enough!) I found the Myers-Briggs personality test pretty telling (took some psych class in college that used it) and it was my "aha!" moment when I realized that I wasn't simply shy, or reserved, or an "ice queen". I was just an introvert, with a different communication and personality style than a lot of the extroverts I grew up with in my family and school, etc. It also really helped to learn about how extroverts view introverts (shy, standoffish, cold) and also how introverts view extroverts (loud, brash, always want the center of attention, etc). It really taught me that all of us have one very specific lens through which we individually see the world and I need to be cognicent that not everyone- in fact the minority- see the world/situations the way I do. And by the way, we all fall disappear from blogland from time to time. Welcome back, enjoy your time away, and I look forward to reading if and when you choose to write again :)

  2. I definitely come under the social category, but I think I understand what you're saying and I respect it. Whenever you contribute to the conversation I appreciate it. Contribute when you are ready and willing. No pressure.

  3. This is a lovely post and you sound like someone I would like. You are an introvert. My husband is much like you, and people always think he does not like them because he is asocial. I am not as far in that direction, but can only take a limited amount of large groups and meaningless chatter.

    The world is set up for extroverts and social types who define us as abnormal and themselves the "healthy" norm. This is especially true in the US. My husband very much appreciated Japanese culture when he was there on business, because every silence did not have to be filled with noise.

  4. You are describing myself and my daughter. I greatly appreciate the books that you suggested and look forward to checking them out. Thank you.


  5. It's humorous that it took me this long to write a post about this as the Keirsey/Bates personality profiles were part of the inspiration for the title of this blog. For those familiar with the scale, I fall into INTP. For those unfamiliar that's introverted, intuitive, thinking, perceiver. The last estimates I saw were less than one percent of the human population matches the INTP mode of thought and feeling. Just a little trivia.


What do you think? I'm curious.