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Karen Allendoerfer

Finding the Palace Beautiful

March 18, 2012 at 7:47 PM

I'm in the middle of reading a book about Introversion, called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that can't stop talking, by Susan Cain. I'm also in the middle of re-reading Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. It's always been normal for me to be reading several books at once, and the problem seems to have just gotten worse since I got a Nook last Christmas. Although in my defense, I'm reading Little Women to my daughter, aloud at night before bed. It's something we started when she was a baby and still do now that she is 12. I don't know how much longer it will last, probably not into high school, but I still treasure this time.

By chance, I saw on Facebook that a friend of mine is also reading Little Women. To herself, not to her daughter. My friend's first name is Amy, and she was named for Amy March, the youngest sister in the book. She was involved in a St. Patrick's Day project to shave her head for the St. Baldrick's Foundation, a foundation that raises money to help kids with childhood cancers. I immediately thought of Jo March, who sold her hair, her "one beauty," to a wig maker to help her mother pay for a ticket to Washington to care for her injured husband. My friend Amy, whose beautiful long blond hair is now also being made into a wig--for a child with cancer--has more than one beauty. Nonetheless, our conversation on Facebook turned to Jo. Even though she's named for a different character, Amy's favorite is Jo. The Director of Religious Education at my church loves Jo too, and has written academic papers on her. Jo is also my daughter's favorite. And when my daughter asked me who my favorite was, even I pointed out that there was something pretty cool about moving to New York and meeting and marrying a German guy (which is what I did myself 15 years ago). These days I think it's almost impossible to be a bookish girl of a certain age (or almost any age) and not admire Jo. Modeled on her creator, Louisa May Alcott, Jo became a wildly successful author in a time when most women did not have careers outside the home. And, at least in the book, she appears to have had fun doing it. Louisa in fact supported her own family for many years through her writing.

But upon re-reading a book that I last read about 30 years ago or more, I'm stumbling on some uncomfortable truths. I remember now that it took me a few tries to get through that book at all, when I was a kid. The tone is a little too preachy, and everybody--even the supposedly flawed and temperamental Jo--is a little too sweet and perfect.

What's most remarkable to me, though, is that while as an adult, I admire Jo and consider her an interesting and appropriate role model for my own spirited daughter, I'm remembering now that when I first read the book, my favorite character, the one I identified with the most, was not Jo at all. It was Beth. Quiet, introverted Beth--even then, an outlier in a world that couldn't stop talking. Jo, by contrast, was a little scary, and the opposite of me: she was jolly, and extroverted, and talked to boys easily.

Many days I envied Beth that she was allowed to be homeschooled. I liked that she petted and favored and was comforted by a beat-up old doll. More than anything, though, what I liked about Beth was that she was a musician, a pianist who played for herself, her family members, and her friends. Mr. Lawrence, her wealthy next-door neighbor, let her play their fancy grand piano every afternoon, when she thought no one else was around, or listening. Beth reminds Mr. Lawrence of his beloved granddaughter, who also played the piano and passed away while still a child.

There has been some scholarship on Beth. One commentator points out that Beth is a version of a 19th century stock character, the "Angel in the House," a character that Virginia Woolf wrote had to be killed in order for women artists to assert their creative independence. Louisa, by having Beth die in the second half of Little Women, appears to have largely agreed, perhaps foreshadowing Woolf. I never quite forgave Louisa for killing off Beth. Why not let her grow up and become a beloved piano teacher, lavishing all the love and care on her students that she lavished on her dolls? I took Beth's death a little personally. I never looked at the book quite the same way again.

The commentators are right in one way, at least: society doesn't seem to know what to do with introverts. It's certainly viewed as a tidier and more dramatic story if the quiet ones are pushed off the literary stage one way or another, leaving the real, interesting business of literature to those who heroically take risks and self-actualize. From reading Cain's book, it appears not much has changed, in literature or anywhere else. If anything, the pro-extrovert bias has gotten stronger in the 20th and 21st centuries. In situations from school, to work, to church, people are exhorted to "put themselves out there" and work collaboratively in large groups. Introverts are called anti-social, shamed, and weeded out in job interviews by misapplied Myers-Briggs tests.

Reading Cain's book, I, like many others, felt a shock of recognition. I almost felt like I could have written the book myself. In particular, it described virtually my entire early career on the violin: dislike of performing, not wanting people to hear me play--a desire, like Beth, to play music alone or only for people I knew rather than strangers. And the subsequent shame and feeling of being defective since I didn't fit society's “Extrovert Ideal — the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha and comfortable in the spotlight.”

But I didn't write the book, and in my relief at having my basic introversion validated in print, at first I missed an important part of Cain's thesis: that introverts and extroverts complement, and need each other. What's out of balance in modern times is that the extrovert ideal is taking up too much space. Rather than merely saying defensively that introverts are too just as good as extroverts, Cain makes the case that introversion, with its allowance for and consideration of fear, uncertainty, and doubt, provides a much-needed check on overreaching. Cain points out that throughout history there has always been an important creative tension between thought and action, between the philosopher and the king. She highlights the working relationship between introverted Rosa Parks and extroverted Martin Luther King Jr. as a particularly meaningful partnership in the civil rights movement. Introverts, with their tendency to look before they leap, are less likely to make bad investment decisions, and are more likely to be able to see and avert impending disasters. In fact, Jo March knew this too. Jo describes Beth as "her conscience" and has a special, close relationship with her of mutual respect.

A particularly important and damaging myth that Cain takes on in her book is the perception that introverts are anti-social or don't care about others. She provides many examples of introverts rising to the occasion and creating something meaningful in a relationship: a beloved college professor who has touched many of his students' lives but lives a solitary life with his wife and wants to be off when he's off, Rosa Parks, and a young lawyer who manages to negotiate a deal with a particularly difficult and egotistical client. And she also makes the case that introverted artists with their self-awareness and sensitivity can make great performers if they choose to, and if their gifts aren't squelched by damaging labels applied to their personalities.

In Little Women, at the end of the chapter, "Beth Finds the Palace Beautiful," Jo suggests, as a joke, that Beth go over and thank Mr. Lawrence for his kindnesses. To everyone's surprise and delight, Beth too rises to the occasion.

"she went and knocked at the study door before she gave herself time to think, and when a gruff voice called out, come in! she did go in, right up to Mr. Laurence, who looked quite taken aback, and held out her hand, saying, with only a small quaver in her voice, I came to thank you, sir, for. . . But she didn't finish, for he looked so friendly that she forgot her speech and, only remembering that he had lost the little girl he loved, she put both arms round his neck and kissed him . . . Beth ceased to fear him from that moment, and sat there talking to him as cozily as if she had known him all her life, for love casts out fear, and gratitude can conquer pride."

I hope that now, in the 21st century, for Jo to succeed, Beth no longer has to die. Both Beth and Jo deserve better.


From Yixi Zhang
Posted on March 18, 2012 at 8:44 PM
Karen, I've already put my comments on facebook but I post my same question here to see if this can generate some discussion here.

Question: Isn’t extraversion and introversion depending on the environment, age, experience, education, state of mind one is in at a particular time, etc.?

My answer is absolutely yes. I tried different tests and got mixed results. I feel I can (either by appearance or by my own choice) switch between two sides over a period of time. When I was a child, I was told often that I was the centre of the attention but I didn't seek the attention. I just got it being who I was, often not to my benefit in a society invisibility was more desirable and safer. As I grew up, I've noticed that in a more unhealthy environment (politically or otherwise), I would withdraw and I was told for being enigmatic and standoff-ish. Among likeminded people and when my guard comes down, I'm all jolly and talkative. My philosophy training encourages my introvert tendency but legal training has brought more extroversion out of me in many circumstances (eg. you have to exert confidence and be upbeat under pressure). This is same with performance, I only enjoy it when I believe the audience is friendly. I don't like to perform for the performance sake. So on... am I an extrovert or introvert? My answer is: it depends.

I'm sure I'm not alone. If a categorization of personality can be so fluid, I'm skeptical about its usefulness.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on March 18, 2012 at 10:17 PM
Yixi, I've also taken the Myers-Briggs a number of times and in different contexts, and for the other three traits, I'm also near the middle, and can come out one one side of the other. I've gotten INFP most often, but I have also gotten INFJ, INTP, and ISFJ. I tend to be most "T" at work and most "F" at home. The only one that doesn't change for me is I. Susan Cain has a theory about it, that sounds logical to me, that it has something to do with the excitability of one's nervous system. I could imagine there is some glutamate receptor allele, or GABA receptor allele, that is associated with introversion or extroversion, and that there are some alleles that are more functional than others such that there is a continuum or gradient of excitability.

I've also gotten less shy with age. But I think I'm like the introverts Cain talks about who rise to the occasion when necessary. And as she also points out, shy and introverted aren't necessarily coupled. I thought they were for a long time and it was good for me to learn that they don't have to be. I've also sought out, and have, more extroverted friends as I get older. But I don't think I've gotten any more extroverted myself.

But anyway, even if the classifications are context-dependent, and even if you can find an introvert and an extrovert in the same person at different times and places, I still think that Cain's point (and mine--that Beth doesn't have to die in order for Jo to live) is valid, and the distinction usefully made. The creative tension between the two is necessary. It's like a yin/yang sort of relationship. A society that stifles and kills off its introverts and the introverted sides of people--even metaphorically-- is losing an important part of itself.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on March 18, 2012 at 10:26 PM
Eric, I don't know if this is helpful to you or not, but I hope it is. A big point of the scholarship on introversion is that introversion and shyness are not the same. I got labeled "shy" early and often, and it did a lot of lasting damage. Susan Cain says that this damage results from the person who is labeled coming to see shyness as a fixed trait and introversion as a negative. But in fact shyness is not a fixed trait, it can be overcome--even by introverts. And introversion, decoupled from shyness, is a neutral, even positive, trait in some contexts.
From Tom Holzman
Posted on March 19, 2012 at 12:11 AM
I have not read Little Women, but I have taken two MB tests separated by about 20 years. What surprised me was that I changed categories, although perhaps I should not have been (I do not remember the category either time, except the first time I was in the do-it-by-the book, organized category). However, the first test helped my a good deal as a aupervisor because it made me aware of where the issues were, so I could modify my behavior accordingly. I suspect that some of the change was a function of maturing and aging. I wonder if others have had the experience.
From Ray Randall
Posted on March 19, 2012 at 12:48 AM
When my wife was alive she was a fan of the show "little people." Is that the sme as "Little Women?"
From Pauline Lerner
Posted on March 19, 2012 at 1:36 AM
Karen, thank you so much for this blog. For many years, the characters in Little Women were almost the only literary role models for girls growing up. I'm glad that you're reading it to your daughter and interested that you see it differently as an adult. I am also an introvert, and it has caused me a lot of trouble. People think that I'm shy, withdrawn, cold, unable to relate to other people, only interested in what I kind read in books, and many more negative traits. I wrote something on Facebook recently about the flack I've taken, particularly from my mother, about being "an egghead." I'm very glad to hear a more positive take on introverts who like to read. We are real people who look into ourselves and also need to connect with other people.
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on March 19, 2012 at 1:42 AM
Ray, I've never seen a TV show called Little People, but I don't think it's related to Little Women. "Little Women" is an affectionate nickname that the father in the book uses for his daughters. And this book does not have anything to do with its subjects being of small stature, if that is what the show was about.
From Johnny Fang
Posted on March 19, 2012 at 3:43 AM
Karen: Another very good book is "The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World" by Marti Olsen Laney. Best, Johnny
From Yixi Zhang
Posted on March 19, 2012 at 3:58 AM
I always think being an introvert is very cool and some of the extroverts drive me crazy:) But why do I frequently see self-identified introverts expressing self-pity? I don't think this necessarily has to do with being an introvert's trait. In other words, can an introvert be consistently positive and happy? Absolutely! My husband is one of those jolly introverts. He is a scholar, loves solitude and although talks well he listens a lot. During more than 16 years of our marriage, I've never seen him once feeling sorry for himself. He doesn't need to be validated by anyone or the society for being who he is. I on the other hand at times caught myself feeling being misunderstood or mistreated/undervalued, but this has nothing to do with being introvert or extrovert either (I can be both, as I mentioned earlier, depending the circumstance). Sure there are nasty people everywhere, but feeling being mistreated or misunderstood on a regular basis is more likely to do with one’s own problematic assumptions about the world or unrealistic expectation of others, at least this is what I have discovered about my own thinking in recent years: The source of unhappiness is usually not the world, nor our hardwired temperament, but the choice of how we think, how honest we are about our ego.
From Francesca Rizzardi
Posted on March 19, 2012 at 6:09 AM
Just for the record, "Little People" was about a doctor and his daughter who were pediatricians in Hawaii and the "little people" were their patients.
It was pretty cute but I didn't watch it very often.

My daughter is 10 and I wonder if she'd read "Little Women". People's attitudes have changed so much since then. I read it over and over when I was 12 or 13, but what I really loved was "Eight Cousins", also by LMA. It seemed less preachy and less "dated", maybe because it was about a lot of boys (and one girl) rather than a lot of girls (and one boy). Interesting to think that may be why.

From Francesca Rizzardi
Posted on March 19, 2012 at 6:16 AM
Thanks for mentioning St. Baldrick's Foundation. I was suggesting to my daughter that she might want to do that, but had no idea of who to approach.
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on March 19, 2012 at 7:31 AM
Yixi, I agree with you in the sense that I don't think introversion and unhappiness have to go together. I think that is an unfair stereotype about introverts that some have to contend with more than others. Introversion, according to the Myers-Briggs definition anyway, has to do with where your energy comes from: does it come from being alone or being with other people?

Introverts may need time to recharge and be alone after being in social situations, but it doesn't mean that they hate social situations or don't care about other people. I think Beth March is overall a good example of a happy introvert without self-pity. Although, in some ways I think Alcott took this to an extreme: Beth never complained, even on her deathbed. And in my opinion, because she was so self-abnegating, Beth was sometimes taken advantage of by her sisters. She so uncomplainingly did their chores that it took her getting deathly ill for them to realize how much she did for them.

So, I also think that having these introvert qualities misunderstood by others can be a source of real pain and suffering that shouldn't be dismissed. I have an extrovert friend who I've talked to about feeling misunderstood from the other end of the spectrum, too. That also hurts. I was once in a work situation with a woman who, in my opinion, was constantly talking about nothing. From my perspective she barged into my office unannounced and distracted me from doing my work. I found her irritating and I started to develop a low opinion of her intelligence because of her chatter and her habit of thinking aloud. Another introverted coworker and I would complain about her behind her back because, we would say, she didn't appear to be able to engage her brain without engaging her mouth. But, as we did not appreciate at the time, she was also good at other parts of her job that involved dealing with a lot of different people. She was great on the phone and visitors to the office remembered how kind, friendly, and thoughtful she was to them. We introverts weren't being fair to her, either, any more than the people who call us cold and shy and uncaring are to us.

I think that's another example of how the classification can be useful, even if it can change or be context-specific. As Tom says above, it helps you understand what the issues are. In that way I can see why it would be helpful to a workplace manager to use the I/E axis as a lens to view employees. If there is a conflict between I and E ways of behaving, rather than judging or placing blame, it points toward solutions.

So for example, realizing that my chatty coworker was an extrovert who needed human contact to be most effective, whereas I had different needs, was helpful to me in dealing with her. Instead of irritably saying "stop bothering me with your stupid chit-chat!" I was able to just calmly point out that I needed quiet, uninterrupted time to do my work and ask for that in a more polite and non-confrontational way.

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on March 19, 2012 at 3:34 AM
Eric, I wasn’t talking about you but now you've put me on the spot, I have to say a few words to clarify.

First of all, showing compassion to me does not mean you say what people want to hear, but rather it means one feels the suffering other people are having and tries to help reduce it, and pointing out the root of the cause is but one attempt of that.

Maybe a bit about myself will help make some sense. Growing up during the "cultural revolution" in China, I've seen evil and suffering beyond explanation. I was politically persecuted since in my elementary school years only because I was playing Mozart and reading books (eg. music theories) others didn’t know. Do I know unhappiness?! As an immigrant, I had to start from scratch and even after all the success academically, being a female visible minority member in North America, I certainly face all sorts of challenges that my white husband doesn’t seem to have. I don’t know how and when, but after quite some struggle and hard soul searching, I started to realize there is a solution to all this suffering, that is, to paraphrase Murakami, pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.

I know I’m very limited and one of the biggest limits I’ve got is I don’t yet know how to best present my good intent, unsugar-coated, in a language that is not my mother tongue. If my words offend you, please be assured that the intended effect was the opposite. Of course, how you should feel about it, the choice is always yours. Do not give this power to anyone else.

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on March 19, 2012 at 8:38 AM
Karen, what you've said make a lot of sense. Maybe we just need to encourage the extroverts at workplace a bit more introvert at the proper time? Surely they should also rise to the occasions just like the introverts have done so.

Seriously, I think part of human accomplishment is that we can rise above nature confines and transcend the animal conditions we are born with through help and self-help. It’s good to know people are born different and it is better if we can move to a next step, to create a space within ourself to have a more beautiful world inside.

From sharelle taylor
Posted on March 19, 2012 at 10:01 AM
Ahh, karen, taking me back to two fun memories.
One was little women, which I read a nerdish 54 times in my primary school years. I read it and was always surprised by how bloody annoying the girls were. Its like reading Harry Potter, the characters just get up my nose.
Needless to say, I didn't ever read this to my daughter, but Iw as still reading her winnie the Pooh (the originals, and from the books my mother had given me. they were given to her by her mother in 1934, when mum was already in her teens, because they hadn't had the money to buy them any earlier). Now there's an ensemble cast to set your watch by! And another great bunch of books to have read to you at that age are those by edith Nesbit - she didn't have pawning, perfect kids, and they have a lot of umour. The railway children, the phoenix and the carpet, heaps of excellent titles that kept us up way past sleepy time reading. Even the cat would run in and curl up on the beds for that.
but the second thing it reminded me of was a work team building day which began by having the whole Occupational therapy Dept do a modified myers briggs. When it was tallied, people were directed to groups in each corner according to how they had responded, and consistently I was in whichever minority group. finally, the denoument, the overall character type, and again we went off to our corner.
Diagonally opposite me was the majority of the department, and all of my immediate colleagues. In my corner just two of us - me, and the therapy aide who was much reviled and disliked by everyone, including patients and visiting staff. I think we were introverted, inuitive and thinking. Most of the dept was sensing and feeling. Dweebs. And there we were, the 2 of us. I was amused, frantically reading over my responses to see how could I possibly be the same in attitude, but I couldn't change anything. and from that day on, my corner buddy treated me like royalty. I think she was relived to have one person who understood where she was coming from, and I actually did. but I did before the test also.
I know I change- both my behaviour and my perception - depending on the context as Yixi says. these static test things don't measure much.
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on March 19, 2012 at 10:46 AM
Yixi, you certainly won't get any argument from me that it would be helpful if extroverts could be more introverted at times, or at least more compassionate and understanding towards introverts' needs. One part of Cain's book that I found especially interesting (and relevant to my personal needs) was her argument against open floor plan workspaces. She says that rather than fostering collaboration, as they are intended to do, open floor plans where there are no walls and everyone is just in a big room have no privacy and they make workers stressed out, unproductive, and sick. What she advocates instead is a variety of niches in a work space: some big open areas where the extroverts can go if they like, but also some little nooks and crannies where people can go for privacy and quiet if they need that to work.
From Paul Deck
Posted on March 19, 2012 at 12:34 PM
I certainly think that intro vs. extro is a trait that can shift during one's lifetime. I was quite an introverted child but during my last couple of years of high school I took stock of what was and what wasn't working in my life, and I decided that being an introvert wasn't moving me forward. Maybe I was making the shift anyway, as part of the intractable process of late adolescence, but becoming an extrovert is something I recall deciding to do. In retrospect I certainly regret some of the ancillary decisions that accompanied that purposeful shift (such as giving up the violin!!) but I did find myself much happier in my new personality. It's been at least ten years since I've done the MBTI but maybe I should see if I can find my old score, that would be interesting. Maybe even more interesting to take the test again before peeking.
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on March 19, 2012 at 1:24 PM
Paul, I don't know for sure, but I think you may be mixing up introversion and shyness. I agree that introverts can make the decision to be more social, and everyone can become more socially adept through effort. (Extroverts can too--not every extrovert is naturally socially adept. And I can imagine how painful it would be to be a shy extrovert, really needing a high level of social interaction and not being able to get it.)

But I guess I don't really understand this concern with whether or not the trait can change over time. I think it can, at least in certain cases, but that doesn't address the more interesting question of whether it should.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on March 19, 2012 at 6:25 PM
Lovely blog, Karen.
From Susan Bailey
Posted on March 22, 2012 at 3:51 PM
I really enjoyed this post, very thoughtful. Beth often doesn't get her due yet a lot of people seem to relate to her even if she seems too good to be true (although a memoir written by an Alcott family friend, a boy who boarded with them and became like a member of the family, said that the actual Beth (aka Lizzie) was really like that!).

I love the whole introvert theme too. As one myself, I can really understand the struggles, especially of making contributions to this life. It's funny, many performers are actually introverts (I used to be a professional musician) - fine on the stage but tongue-tied one on one.

I blog exclusively about Louisa May Alcott and we've just started a re-read of Little Women - we have a nice little community and we'd love to have you all stop by. There are several posts from last year's read of Little Women. The blog can be found at http://louisamayalcottismypassion.wordpress.com.

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