While flipping through one of my favorite bedside stand-bys, Reflections on the Art of Living: A Joseph Campbell Companion, I came across the following passage and chuckled out loud:

“My experience is that I can feel that I’m in the Grail Castle when I’m living with people I love, doing what I love. I get that sense of being fulfilled. But, by god, it doesn’t take much to make me feel I’ve lost the Castle, it’s gone. One way to lose the Grail is to go a cocktail party. That’s my idea of not being there at all.” p. 76

I smiled thinking about my audience of highly sensitive people who also struggle socially (not all HSPs struggle in social situations, but the vast majority are introverts so social challenges come with the territory). I smiled thinking about all of the times I’ve stood at a party feeling so awkward that I wanted to shrivel into the floor. I smiled tenderly remembering the adolescent-me who chose not to attend the high school parties, who even spent New Year’s Eve alone one year because for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what was so interesting about standing around drinking beer. I was lonely that year, yes, but I admire the Self who stood for herself and chose to watch a movie and write in her journal instead of losing her Grail at the party.

Our Western world, and especially this American culture, worships the extrovert ideal and, as a result, sends the message that if you’re not jazzed up by parties, drinking alcohol, and watching sports there must be something fundamentally wrong with you. It’s not a kind message for introverts. Part of reclaiming the vital Self that is our compass and rudder on this journey of life is learning to respect how you’re intrinsically wired and listening closely to the needs that result from that wiring. It’s also recognizing that the root of the problem isn’t you but rather lies in being a round introvert in a square extroverted culture. As Robert Johnson writes in his autobiography, Balancing Heaven and Earth:

“Politicians and officials lament the loss of family values in American society and rack their brains trying to figure out how to repair our social order. Perhaps the root of the problem is that our feeling function is nearly bankrupt. As an individual, I have spent much of my professional life working as a therapist to help patients develop and gain access to their feelings. I am, by birth, an introverted, feeling person – just the opposite of what is prized in American culture. One of the things I want to argue with God when I get the chance is this: Why on earth did you drop someone like me into that kind of family, in that kind of society, and in that century? I was total misfit!

“In any case, in India I was in the majority for the first time in my life, for the culture there favors introversion and feeling… After arriving on Indian soil I gradually understood why I was continually bursting with happiness: my feelings sense and my quiet, introverted nature were respected and even valued.” p. 222

What a validating passage for introverts everywhere! What a sigh of relief to know that you’re not the only one who struggles in social situations, and that if you were born in a different culture you likely wouldn’t struggle at all! Once you realize and accept that there’s no problem with how you’re intrinsically wired, you can get down to the business of learning how to work with your wiring more gently and successfully.

For example, it’s essential to know that most introverted highly sensitive people need a lot of time alone. The temperament of introversion is defined, in fact, by the need to recharge in solitude. Where extroverts recharge with groups of people, introverts recharge when they have time to slow down and process the day’s and night’s events. We simply cannot thrive without these charging stations – not only commas in the run-on sentence of a typical life but a full-halt period.

This isn’t to say that we don’t all need to push ourselves out of our introverted bubbles from time to time and attend that cocktail party or social event even when we’d so much rather stay home and snuggle up with a favorite book and cup of tea. In fact, those of us with a strong introverted temperament must, at some point in our lives, consciously work to strengthen our inferior function, which will naturally be extroversion. This means that we must pick up our right hand with our left in order to make a plan with a new friend and almost kick ourselves out the door to attend a gathering of people. But if we’re going to push ourselves out of our comfort zone it’s so much better to do it with kindness than with self-judgement.

As I’ve written before, much of what we label as “social anxiety” is simply sensitive introverts contorting themselves to try to fit into the extrovert ideal. I’ve had multiple sessions with multiple clients who talk about their anxiety in different types of situations – airports, family dinner parties (especially with their partner’s family), work events –  where they describe what sounds to me like very normal anxiety for any introvert. When we can reframe “social anxiety”, which carries some stigma and indicates that there’s a problem, to “typical anxiety for an introvert in an extroverted culture”, we can find more compassion for ourselves. And, as we know, it’s the self-compassion that allows us to grow our tolerance for uncomfortable situations and expand our comfort zone. We change not through judging ourselves but through accepting ourselves exactly as we are. Attending large social gatherings may never be our first choice but when we enter such situations without the heavy cloak of a stigmatic self-diagnosis and instead enter with the silky attire of self-acceptance, everything changes.

It’s also helpful to have some practical tools when entering uncomfortable or overwhelming social situation. “Bathrooms are excellent refuges for introverts,” is a tip I’ve shared with my clients who struggle socially. They always laugh, but it’s true: introverts needs to know that they can escape into a private place, even if only for a few minutes, to gather their thoughts and process their feelings, and restrooms offer the perfect retreat for just that. We live in a very loud, very overwhelming, very fast-paced world. Even if we’re lucky enough to create a peaceful bubble world in our homes, we still need to venture out into the big world from time to time. And when we do, it’s important that we have simple tools in our emotional toolbox so that we don’t lose our center completely. Perhaps if Mr. Campbell has utilized the bathroom-refuge he may have been able to hold onto his Grail even at the cocktail party ;).

One of the foundational principles of my work is breaking down the “shoulds” and “have-tos” so that we can step into the Holy Grail of who we really are, and from this place first of self-acceptance and then self-love, we can bring the fullness of who we are into the world. We heal not only for ourselves, but also for the world. And the first and most essential piece is shedding the messages of “not enough” or “too much” or “broken” so that we can learn to accept ourselves for who we are, exactly as we are. This is what means to drink from the Holy Grail and to become fully alive.

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