Would you rather…

You know the game “would you rather”? The wickedly creative bit of entertainment that allows you all kinds of imaginative stretches?

I’ve played this game with my introverted friends, and the questions have gone something like this: would you rather do a class presentation totally unprepared, or have your wisdom teeth extracted? Would you rather ask the person you’re interested in out on a date, or hit a hammer repeatedly on your big toe? Would you rather go to a house party where you don’t know anybody, or put a couple dozen frenzied fire ants directly into your pants for 10 minutes (no undies)?

Now this is where you, my dear readers, will know instantly, and self-identify if you are introverted or not; no fancy schmancy psychological test required!

If you are a moderate to extreme introvert like me, you won’t have to think that long. When considering your options between giving an unprepared class presentation, or having your wisdom teeth extracted, you might ask, “Do I at least get to have freezing?” If I said no, the next question you might ask would be something like, “How long is said presentation?”

These are kind of extreme examples, and not every introvert is the same. As with other personality traits, there are degrees. If introversion wasn’t enough, other factors such as social anxiety, or being highly sensitive, can complicate the mix.

Either way, in a world that values people who are overtly expressive, outgoing, and assertive – which the Western world very much does – it might be tempting for us introverts to feel a little cheated, even devalued. To make matters worse, university is REALLY desirous and promoting of these extroverted traits.

All of these factors can make going to university harder for those of us who are introverts. In order to succeed in our academic setting, we simply must learn to live with some of these difficulties. [Plus, while we might be lacking in extroversion, we certainly are abundantly blessed in other areas of life, but more on that later.]

The good news? It is doable if you have the right perspective, plan carefully, and apply a few simple tips, with tactfulness.

Here are a few insights into my introversion that are helping me succeed in university. I hope that they can be of help to you.

Before we begin, it’s worthwhile to note that these examples, while common among introverts, also apply to those who live with social anxiety. While introversion and social anxiety are not the same thing, they do co-exist rather close to each other (think venn diagram, friends!). That being said, onto the insights!

Dreaded class participation

Imagine the following. Suddenly, you notice your heartbeat drastically increasing. You have near total tunnel vision; your palms are sweaty; your throat suddenly feels like sawdust has been stuffed down it; your breathing is becoming increasingly rapid and shallow.

The cortisone (a stress hormone) is spiking, along with your adrenal glands. Your mouth is intolerably dry. You can probably even feel the blood pulsating through your ears. Flub flub, Flub flub. Your head feels lighter than it should too. Your body is, essentially, preparing you to survive a coming apocalyptic event.

The event?

Is it that enormous half bear, half zombie, creature rounding on you in the semi-darkness?

Is it Chucky, Freddy, or Alien?


You are sitting quietly near the back of the classroom – possibly closer to the corner – and have noticed that the prof has just asked a question and her eyes are roaming around the room in search of an answer. You – the introvert – are petrified.

If you know this feeling, you know it’s not funny. It’s not just fear either, right? It’s a number of issues all swirling around in your head at the same time. What’s worse is the effect this can have on your GPA.

Unfortunately, many professors make assumptions about students who are not participating. It is often assumed – wrongly – as a sign of a student being an underachieving imbecilic loaf. Is it unfair? Yes. Will this assumption change any time soon at a university near you? Unlikely. So, the successful introvert must deal with this aspect of their personality.

What can you do?

Speak up sooner than later in class

Despite our slight handicap, there are ways we can strategize. First, determine early on in your classes that you are going to saying SOMETHING in class; I always found that starting off as one of the first people to say something is the best course of action.

Making the comment early on alleviates the tragic possibility of someone else beating you to the comment you wanted to make. It also has the handy benefit of keeping your skyrocketing blood pressure to a minimum. Instead of increasing a risk for a stroke until the class is over, you can get it over with early on.

And remember, the prof doesn’t expect you to know everything; the prof just expects you to say something that indicates you are a thinking creature – which introverts very much are. Introverts are gifted with great observation skills – so just use your gift. You DO have important things to offer.

Interact with your Professor

As you have already read, introverts have a disadvantage when it comes to class participation points. This has actually been documented. There is a bias against introverts in university for not talking up in class more. The assumption is that we don’t talk because we haven’t read our work or haven’t been thinking about the ideas.

How can we mitigate this? Hunt down the prof’s office, and have a nice human conversation. More often than not, I have been astoundingly surprised at how friendly profs will be if you approach them as an actual human being and not just an extension of their class. This friendly approach demonstrates conviviality. Only loser freakoid psychopaths don’t enjoy meaningful human interaction at all.

If you actually get to know them and ask them questions, they will assume (rightly, hopefully) that you, unlike many other students, are in the educational system for more than just a way to get a job (a truly horrific reason to go to university in the first place). By visiting a prof, you are demonstrating your uniqueness in that you are not only interested in the subject, but the human behind the information.

Additionally, since introverts usually excel at listening, the prof is going to notice and, probably, feel even more decently about you. More importantly, if you demonstrate to them, by bringing up a few class topics, they are going to be less likely to think you are just a lazy slob who has nothing to say. As an added bonus, you may even gain a wise long-term friend – I certainly have.

Make a friend in each class

“You are coming to the house party tonight?” the guy wearing too much cologne next to you in class asks. Looking him straight in the eye, you lie: “uh, no, I need to find all my textbooks on craigslist, but thanks anyway.” Well, it’s not quite lying, but nearly. Truth be told, you would rather take the fire ant option than going to a house party where you don’t know anyone.

Now while it’s true you don’t necessarily have to participate in house parties to remain in university, it is highly probable that you are going to have to take part in – horrors – at least a few group projects together. And depending on your major (if it’s education for instance) class projects might even be a regular requirement. Thus, getting to know at least a few people is going to help you. Actually, it’s really a necessity.

What to do?

In the first few days of class, if you don’t already know someone, try to spot your fellow introvert. This is sometimes easier than it sounds. Introverts, as you already know, tend to be highly skilled at finding quiet places. Whether that is in the corners of libraries, or other out-of-the-way haunts, introverts love silence.

Go to these places determined to find an ally. Having a few good friends will not only keep you more sane, it will also make the campus a more habitable place for you to be. (The upside is, as many introverts will know, once you find another introvert friend, if you click, the friendship could last a lifetime.)

Getting nested in a church community

If you are like me and attend a university in a different province, church involvement might prove challenging. To my shame, I never really got involved except for Sunday mornings and it’s something I deeply regret.

Don’t get me wrong, at first I tried. On a Wednesday or Friday I would put on my decentest clothes, get in my reliable little econo car, and drive to the function. But being an introvert, and also highly sensitive, the closer I got to the church, the faster my blood pressure would spike. As I made my way into the parking lot, I had to control my breathing. (Don’t laugh extrovert! I bet you might have a hard time sitting and studying in a library for more than 4 hours.)

Then I would park and take off my seatbelt… and then sit there, calming my mind. “You can do this,” I would whisper to myself in assuring tones (us introverts carry on exquisite internal dialogue). But as I imagined all the jostling people, all the small talk, all the NOISE? (Imagine an arctic fox enjoying itself in a death metal concert.)

Well, after imagining the setting, I would do my seatbelt back up and drive home, feeling utterly miserable. After three or four times of this I quit trying. But here is the thing: I missed out on opportunities to get meaningfully involved in a church community, which probably would have really aided in making my university stay a more fulfilling experience. Instead I just spent all my time in a library. The really bad part? It became a habit, and as far as habits go, they get harder to break.

What can you do to help you overcome your social anxieties and get involved in a spiritual community?

This may sound odd, but getting an accountability buddy really helped me, and is going to assist you. For me that was my best friend and sister, Joy. She came up with the brilliant idea to talk with me on the phone while I drove to the church event. Now, she knew that if she applied just a bit of pressure to get me into the door, then, chances were, I would stay. We have done this a lot and still do.

While I was driving to an event, she would be plugged into my ears. Then when she heard the car turn off, she would tell me how AWESOME the possibilities would be and how Jesus would approve of this. “You are making Jesus smile, you know that right?”

Then, like a clever parent she would say, “You don’t have to stay, you just have to get in the door.” This was careful planning on her part to keep me distracted, you see. And you know what? It worked. It might sound silly, but you gotta do what you gotta do.

So my advice? Getting plugged in to a church community might be terribly annoying at first, but it’s going to be worth it. None of us are lone rangers; we are not meant to succeed alone. Even though we are uniquely gifted, and might work better alone sometimes, we can’t be alone all the time. We weren’t made for it. Get a friend or family member to push you a bit and walk you through it – on the phone or in person. It will be worth it.

DISCLAIMER: Some of the personality traits described in this article may also be indicators of social anxiety. If social anxiety is hindering your day-to-day life, you may want to consider talking to someone about it, or exploring how counselling might help you along your journey.

Further Tips

If I have stirred up your curiosity about your introversion here are a few books I have found especially helpful.

Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking

The Introvert Advantage

Quiet Power

Introverts in the Church

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About the Author

Matthew Steem

Matthew Steem is passionate about exploring the intellectual, imaginative and emotional vibrancy at the heart of the Christian tradition: a tradition all too frequently perceived, from both inside and out, as drab and bereft of true joy. Matthew has written for Our Daily Bread, Relief Journal: Art and Faith Unbound, Clarion: Journal of Spirituality and Justice, and many more publications both online and in print. You can find more at www.elicitinsight.com

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