Thursday, October 8, 2015

Learned Extroversion: an Anxiety-Sufferer's Guide to Professional Development

This post has been brewing for a long time, and continues my long-standing tradition of posting about conference talks (basically just a place for people to find my slides) and personal stuff and little else in between. Today is on the personal side of things, with professional implications.

I was watching a tv show the other day, and someone was talking about how they are a "learned extrovert" and something clicked in my head. This was right after some drama that went down with my dentist's office, whereby they needed me to come in and sign some paperwork and couldn't understand why I never answer my phone. Good question, that. I mean, I'm not a snake person after all, so what's my big deal with the damned phone? (Aside from the fact that I have some hearing issues that make it near impossible for me to actually understand what the other person is saying and result in a constant refrain of "excuse me? can you repeat that?")

This is where the idea of learned extroversion comes in. People always "accuse" me of being an extrovert, and I try to explain that the colloquial definition (and maybe literal, I don't particularly feel like looking it up right now) of an extrovert is someone who is energized by social interaction, NOT someone who is good at it. If social interaction drains you, you're probably actually an introvert at heart. But definitely somewhere along the line I picked up the rules and rhythm of socializing, and at times can be quite proficient at it. The problem is, in order to do it I need plenty of preparation, a good understanding of the type of people I'll be around, a feel for the type of space and level of formality, and just the right amount of alcohol. If any one of those factors is off, I'm flailing. I can sometimes still do pretty well, but it takes a hell of a lot more out of me. And even the most successful, seemingly effortless social forays leave me exhausted and second-guessing myself for days, or even weeks.

So this goes back to why I hate answering the phone, or why I hate unplanned social interactions in general. I haven't had time to assess the situation and prepare myself, so they fill me with untold anxiety. (I'm "lucky" in the anxiety department. I don't ever seem to worry about normal things like money or mortality or any of the bad things in life that can ACTUALLY HAPPEN. Anxiety for me comes on suddenly and often inexplicably and lingers even after the trigger event or trigger moment is long gone, and presents itself at various levels of severity, from vague sense of impending doom to all-out hammering heart and shortness of breath.)

This summer I went to a pretty high-level leadership academy at Harvard, and it was a really tough experience for me, which has been lingering in the back of my brain and bugging me ever since. It was a good example of how awful things can be for the learned extrovert when events are not what they were expecting and they are not properly prepared.

First, I went into the week-long workshop stressed out about the fact that the only reason I had applied was because my work told me I had funds to spend on professional development, and so I sought out what I thought would be a worthwhile experience, only to be told later that those funds, for unknown reasons, were no longer available. And this is not an inexpensive event, and Cambridge is not an inexpensive place to stay. So being thousands of dollars out of pocket for something I was doing mostly because I thought I had money to spend put me in a bad place right from the start. Then there was the fact that I had 2 vacations with friends in the following 2 weeks, one of which I was flying to directly from Boston. (Vacations are fun, yes, but vacations are also STRESSFUL, duh.)

Also, the academy was far more intensive than I had prepared for: they were long days with very little opportunity to decompress by oneself built in. I actually had to miss a couple of sessions in order to find a quiet place to sit alone and recover from all the interaction. At the end of the day(s) I really should have holed up in my hotel room, catching up on reading (of which there was A LOT) and ordering room service while mindlessly staring at the tv, but I have friends in Boston, and made new ones at the event, so I did more socializing after hours than I had expected to.

I feel bad for my fellow attendees, like I let them down by needing to opt out of some of the group work and discussion, but I do feel like it was the only way for me to be "present" at the rest of the sessions. I was also a bit bummed out that my stress levels kept me from getting as much out of the workshop as others did, and the disappointment I felt when I saw (seemingly) everyone else having a transformative and deeply enriching experience when I was feeling cynical and stressed out fed into the anxiety loop and just made everything that much harder.

My advice for anyone applying for an immersion program or intensive academy, especially if you have depression and/or anxiety, is:

a) DO NOT FORGET YOUR MEDS (I brought mine on the trip but didn't have them on me during the first day of sessions and that was NOT SMART.)

b) Choose one or two nights for after hours socializing and resist the temptation to go out on the other nights, even just for dinner. It's a great bonding experience, but if you're anything like me, dinner leads to happy hour leads to hotel bar drinks leads to staying up way later than you had planned.

c) Be honest with yourself and others about how you're doing. People are surprisingly understanding and accommodating when you're open about where your head's at.

d) Leave work at work. Let colleagues know ahead of time that you will not be available and don't check your email during the day.

e) Reach out to your touchstones. Part of my problem was being cut off from my supportive and helpful online community of librarians, who really are a lifeline for me. This academy expressly asked that we not use our phones during sessions, or tweet or post what was being talked about. I definitely understand these rules, but I wish I broke them just a little bit. My online PLN helps me make put ideas and theories in context, and more importantly, helps me feel a little bit less crazy through commiseration, compassion, and humor. Being so out of touch with them added to my feeling a bit adrift and isolated within the group.

Finally, it's important to know your limits. Conferences and workshops are meant to push you and inspire you, but you have to know when you're overwhelmed and consequently starting to shut down. Prioritize what you want to learn and what you want to get out of an experience, and hold yourself to that, but also give yourself the space you need to unwind and decompress. This is pretty much my lifelong challenge: learning when I should be hard on myself, and when I should just chill the fuck out.