I am an introvert, through and through. A common misconception is that introverts are always shy or have social anxiety, but they simply prefer less stimulating environments, draw energy from time alone and tend to listen more than they speak. Extroverts are the opposite.
I recently read ‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking‘ by Susan Cain, which made me understand and embrace my introversion in a way I never could before. Very early in the book, she tells the reader, ‘at school, you may have been prodded to come “out of your shell” – that noxious expression which fails to appreciate that some animals carry their shelter wherever they go, and that some humans are just the same‘. This was the first of many times that I internally shouted “yes!” while reading this book. As I read on, I became more and more aware of how my introverted personality affects my lifestyle of training and fighting, and how they both feed into each other.
I’ve always been aware that I’m very introverted, but I never saw it as a defining part of my personality. It was only recently brought to my attention in a big way when I took a trip with some friends who came to visit me in Thailand. It was a two-week trip, involving a destination wedding and a reunion of friends and family. Some were people I knew, but there were also lots of new faces. Suddenly, I was thrust into a hyper-social situation, and only then did I realise how rarely I tear myself away from the gym and enter this kind of environment, and why my own time and space is so precious to me.
My day-to-day life consists of training, working and writing. I keep my social interactions to small groups, usually of 2-4 friends, as that is where I feel most comfortable and operate best. It’s also very important for me to make time for breaks in social activity, where I can spend time alone writing, reading or watching movies. This is how I unwind and recharge. Without that time, I become irritable. So, being constantly surrounded by people for two weeks, was a challenge for me, especially as I was sharing a room with several other people. I realised this after the first day, when I attended a party with all the wedding guests. I had a good time, but as the night went on, I found myself feeling utterly exhausted from doing nothing but socialising. I felt very out of place and could sense that people were aware of my social awkwardness. Already, I couldn’t wait for the opportunity to hide away by myself for a little bit. That night was a shock to the system for me and I suddenly realised how much my introversion affected my emotions and behaviour in social situations, and how I’d tailored my lifestyle to that.
Thankfully, my close friends understand my introverted traits and are sensitive to them. In the past, there have been some whom not only didn’t understand my introversion, but held it against me and attempted to persuade or even force me to change. They made me feel that there was something wrong with me and that I needed to adapt. At the time, I looked up to them, wished that I could be more like them, and was even grateful for what I perceived as their attemps to help me. Only after pursuing my passion for Muay Thai, understanding and appreciating introversion more, and subsequently shedding those friendships, do I realise how harmful they were.
There has been a recent increase in awareness of introversion, largely due to books like Cain’s. This has allowed me to understand myself more and become confident that not only is my introversion something that I share with lots of other people, but also that it’s something that I should be proud of. Throughout my childhood, I was always described as shy, and that word always carried a negative connotation. Through school, every single one of my teacher’s reports said that my downfall was that I did not participate enough in class and needed to speak up and raise my hand more, despite being a good student who always produced quality work. Even in adulthood, I’ve been called ‘cold‘, ‘awkward’, ‘a hermit‘ and ‘anti-social‘, all descriptors that I felt were rather extreme and not at all representative of my true self.
For the first time in my life, I’m now proud of my introverted personality. If it weren’t for that, I wouldn’t have graduated with a first class honours degree, I wouldn’t have left home and come to Thailand alone, I wouldn’t have committed to Muay Thai so heavily, I wouldn’t be as good a teacher as I am, and you certainly wouldn’t be reading this right now – Under the Ropes would not exist.
How My Introversion Has Manifested Throughout My Life
I always shied away from contact with new people and public attention as a child. My parents’ home videos provide strong evidence of that. In one particularly cringe-worthy video, my siblings are performing karaoke in our living room. It was hard enough to get me to be in front of a camera at all, but impossible to get me to sing, so I adamantly refused to take part. It was insisted that I make the introductions for each song, and I even protested that. My twin-sister, who happens to be my polar-opposite, was always fighting to be the centre of attention and was happy to prance around and sing for other people’s enjoyment. You could barely tear her away from the lens. In another home video, we’re playing in the garden with our skipping ropes. My mum is recording and my sister has her face right in front of the camera, repeatedly saying “Mummy, look what I can do!” and urging her to film while she skips (hilariously, not very well – she kept tripping over the rope and reminding my mum to keep filming until she got it). I stayed far away from the camera, and my Mum pans away from my sister to show me happily skipping away in the background by myself, not looking up or saying a word.
In social situations, I often prefer to observe the dynamics rather than to be an active part of the group and there have been many occasions where I’ve felt pressure to exaggerate my positive emotions in order to feel falsely upbeat to cater to those around me. I might only speak excessively when I really feel that I have something of note to contribute. Sometimes, my minimal interaction can make people feel as though I’m not listening or interested. I couldn’t count the amount of times that people have asked me if I’m bored or have showed concern that I might not be having a good time, when I’m perfectly happy and enjoying myself. Admittedly, this not helped by my chronic bitchy resting face.
My friends would tell you that I’m not particularly good at communicating my emotions. They’d probably describe me as one of the least ‘soppy‘ or ‘touchy-feely‘ people that they know, and they’d be right. This doesn’t mean that I have a heart of stone, although some have thought that to be the case. It just means that my means of communication and the realms in which I’m comfortable are different.
Towards the end of ‘Quiet’, Cain described how introverts interact with extroverted partners and the difficulties they tend to face as couples. She wrote about a character named Celia, whose husband mistook her for being cold and uncaring because of her lack of ability to show emotion in a way that he recognised. “Celia’s problem was not lack of feeling, it was how to show her emotions without losing control“, she wrote. I most certainly identify with Celia. It’s only recently been brought to my attention that I can appear completely indifferent and void of emotion in situations when my inner feelings are the complete opposite of that, purely because I struggle to communicate them. It’s something I’m working on. Cain also stated that many introverts have 2 gears: “overwhelming feelings or detached self-possession“. This applies most to me in conflict situations.
Conflict is something that I’ve always had a problem with. Whenever it arises, I immediately swerve to avoid it, even at times when I felt really strongly about something.
Conflict has just never been in my nature, and I usually have very little interest in causing any kind of disturbance. If I’m ever placed in a position of conflict where I have to express those strong feelings, I become deeply uncomfortable. I’m likely to be overcome with emotion and cry before I can finish what I’m saying. Perhaps that’s another reason why I avoid it. For this reason, it should be no surprise to anyone that I’ve never been in anything close to a fight outside of Muay Thai.
Cain described another character named Emily, who had similar problems with conflict. She wrote that when disagreeing, “her voice gets tired and flat, her manner slightly distant. What she is trying to do is minimise aggression, but she appears to be receding emotionally”. I do the same thing, and have done all my life. I’ve often become withdrawn and agreeable in such situations in attempts to end them as quickly as possible. I just really don’t like to disturb the peace. As a child, if my parents ever left the house, I would have to stay there to ensure that my extroverted siblings didn’t fight because they were almost constantly clashing when they were alone together. I’ve maintained that role as a peacekeeper ever since.
I’ve always valued sympathy over hostility. I think that’s one reason why I find it very easy to live in Thailand. In Thai culture, the idea of ‘saving face’ is valued very highly and causing one to lose face or feel shame is something that’s taken very seriously. Conflicts or disagreements are often brushed off as unimportant and dealt with using a smile rather than displays of anger. I function rather well in this environment. However, there have been many situations in which I should have stood up for myself. I’ve been told several times that I need to learn how to fight back against domineering people, become comfortable with the sound of my own voice, and say what I feel. I’ve come on in leaps and bounds with this in recent times, and I attribute this progress largely to Muay Thai.
How my Introversion Affects My Muay Thai
One very specific area of my fighting that is certainly affected by my introversion is the manner in which I receive and interpret certain kinds of instruction from my corner.
Experience has shown me that I don’t respond well to aggressive, forceful or negative feedback or instruction. Although some fighters find that this kind of talk makes them energised, more motivated and ‘pumped up’, I find that it has the opposite effect. During the few fights in which I’ve had this kind of cornering, I became withdrawn, doubted myself and shut down. The high level of energy, shouting and aggressive language was over-stimulating and over-whelming and actually hindered my thought process and performance. I always lost those fights.
On the other hand, I’ve found that I respond very well to calm, controlled and minimal speech from my corner and always shone in fights in which I received it. A study by Maja Matarić in which recovering stroke patients interacted with robots during physical rehabilitation exercises confirms that my response is indeed due to my introverted personality.
The robots in this study were designed with the ability to be able to judge whether a patient was introverted or extroverted and to respond to them accordingly. Certain elements in the robots’ behaviour were adjusted, including “how far it positioned itself from the patient, the speed of its movements, and its type of communication“. When paired with extroverted patients, the robots moved closer, spoke with a higher pitch and at a faster pace and used more forceful language, such as “You can do more than that, I know it!” and “concentrate on your exercise!”. With introverted patients, the robots stayed further away, used less gestures, spoke more slowly and at a lower pitch with more complimentary and soothing words, like “I know it is hard, but remember that it is for your own good”, and “very nice, keep up the good work”. When the robots acted in a way that correlated with the patient’s personalities, patients were willing to interact with them for longer and responded better. It works exactly the same way for me when I fight.
While many see introverted traits as negative, I believe that they yield some very valuable benefits. When it comes to training and fighting, they’re particularly useful. Earlier, I mentioned the home video in which I’m skipping in the garden, doing so with ease but keeping myself in the background while my extroverted sister struggles to get it right but craves attention at the same time. This may seem inconsequential, but to me, it illlustrates another of Cain’s points. In Quiet, she wrote about the idea of introverts being better at committing to and becoming skilled at activities they enjoy.
The above quote undoubtedly applies to my experience with Muay Thai, too. If it wasn’t for my introverted personality, I don’t think I would have been able to stick at it for as long as I have. It can often be an isolating experience and one that requires a large amount of solo work and restriction of social activities that more extroverted people might enjoy. Extroverted friends, even those who love Muay Thai as much as I do, have often asked me how I’ve done it, implying that it would be too hard for them. For me, it’s not a chore, it’s a privilege.
How Muay Thai Helped Me to Embrace My Introversion
Muay Thai has been a channel for my introversion in the same way that my introversion has affected the way that I train and fight. I’m not sure that I ever felt fully comfortable with myself until I found it, and from the moment I did, it has enabled a lot of personal understanding and growth.
Muay Thai allows me to work and socialise in a way in which I’m comfortable. When I train, I’m in a relatively small group, working with one other person, such as in sparring or padwork. I’m also spending a lot of time working by myself, during bagwork, running and shadow boxing. This routine allows me plenty of interaction with others, while also giving me lots of my own space.
I do strength and conditioning sessions by myself on Sunday mornings before I go to work, and I specifically choose to do so because the gym is usually empty at that time. It’s like some kind of therapy, having that space all to myself. I’ve sometimes found myself feeling genuinely annoyed or disappointed when I’ve arrived to find that there’s someone else already there. ‘Me time’ is something that’s very important to me and I would go as far as to say it’s vital in order for me to function properly after certain lengths of time, so I am guilty of getting irked when it’s taken away from me.
Muay Thai brought a welcome change to my lifestyle. In Quiet, Psychologist David Buss is quoted as saying that introverts “prefer sincere and meaningful conversations over wild parties” and this is very true for me. As I left my teenage years, I became increasingly uncomfortable in nightclubs and bars, not only because they were socially overwhelming, but because those scenes just didn’t fit with what made me happy. I would always rather spend time in smaller groups. At that stage, I hadn’t found Muay Thai and was just into general fitness, but even then, I often preferred to be in the gym, something which my peer group never understood and sometimes ridiculed me for.
Since moving into a Muay Thai gym, I’ve been able to throw myself into a lifestyle that suits me without those negative influences or remarks. Of course, there was a transition process where I was still getting prodded by friends to ‘have some fun once in a while’. They couldn’t understand that this was my kind of fun. Now that I’m surrounded by like-minded people and opportunities to keep doing what I love, and I feel completely in my element.
Muay Thai has helped me to become more proficient in performing under pressure, which is something I have never been never good at. The idea of doing anything in front of an audience, let alone the possibility of failing publicly, is something that previously struck fear into my heart. Muay Thai has acted as a tool to fix this.
Throughout my twenties, I’ve learned to become a ‘pseudo-extrovert’ in some situations. The first time I was forced to do this was when I began teaching English a few years ago. Now, when I’m in front of a class, my introverted tendencies don’t show. I’ve learned to perform, entertain and fill the room with my personality for my students. The second time was when I had my first fight. When I’m in the ring, I’m forced to bring something out, to show parts of myself that I would never usually dare to. This is part of the reason why I love it. Fighting is a form of creative self-expression, one which I’m glad to say has helped me grow tremendously.
A quote from LouAnne Johnson, the teacher and former marine who was portrayed by Michelle Pfeiffer in the film Dangerous Minds, describes this better than I ever could.