Skin Deep

Because skin is so nuanced in its response to environmental circumstances and psychic fields it serves as a barometer for physical and psychological well-being.
~ The Book of Symbols – The Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism

Extroverts are fueled by extensive social interactions in the external world while introverts are agitated, overwhelmed, and made anxious by such experiences, no matter how they appear on the skin’s surface.

Introverts are fueled by intensive contact with their own, and other’s internal, intimate subjective processes, while excessive focus on internal experience can unskin an extrovert leaving them feeling naked, exposed, anxious and uncomfortable.

My clients may imagine that I am an out-going, expansive and social creature – because, in our culture, extraversion correlates with being “well-adjusted” confident, and happy. But those who know me well, or who have seen my Meyers-Briggs know where I really fall on the continuum.

Introverted, highly sensitive, thin-skinned – any and all of those are accurate – I have developed some externally successful compensatory mechanisms that I wear as a protective hide in group and social settings: Because I like words, and have a lot a language at my disposal, I can be funny sometimes (humor is one of my favorite social shields). I am a good idea-person, a supportive teacher, an empathic healer and mentor. In groups, I am expressive and excited about new ideas, notions, theories, and problem solving.

Because I have a lot of thoughts to offer – usually drawn from reflecting on and by myself in private spaces – I can sometimes find myself pressed by the collective into leadership positions.

I am, in point of fact, a peevish and brittle leader: Non-intimate relationships and group dynamics can too easily drain and distress me even as we focus on solving a problem together or addressing a collective task at hand. When our work is over, I have a hard time understanding what a brief, curtailed, surface relationship might want from me or why they would want or expect anything at all.

To paraphrase C.G. Jung: Intensity is my aim, not extensity. (~ C. G. Jung, Psychological Types – General Description of the Types Ch. 10)

Non-intimate social events and groups can make my skin crawl and my feet itchy. Any chatty, surface engagement requires that I set aside significant recovery time afterward. It is depleting enough for me to take part in these processes that unless I calibrate my exposure, I can become fatigued, burdened, impatient, and plain old cranky due to the amount of energy it takes for me compensate for my inherent nature. I end up spending all my fuel and taking in little – because I only truly refuel in private and personal spaces.

Most frogs…have permeable skin that can easily absorb toxic chemicals. These traits make frogs especially susceptible to environmental disturbances, and thus frogs are considered accurate indicators of environmental stress: the health of frogs is thought to be indicative of the health of the biosphere as a whole.(web source http://www.savethefrogs.com/why-frogs)

I, and other introverted souls are biopsychosocial indicators. We are among the first poisoned by contaminants in the psychological environment. We sense too easily, and too intensely the unspoken, unconscious agendas, hostilities, resentments, hungers, wishes, at play in any social, non-intimate gathering.

Everything enacted in the room and yet unacknowledged seeps inside me. At any given community meeting, class parent gathering, cocktail party all the unnamed, unspoken affect rings louder in my ears than any verbalized dialogue, as I take in a mouthful of toxicity that I would be too impolite, off-putting or downright bizarre to spit out:

“Excuse me, but isn’t it interesting that you chose to cut Harriet off here, just as she was elaborating on her point? Did the two of you quarrel earlier in the evening? I’ve noticed that even though you are smiling, that something about your tone makes me uncomfortable, or even feel scolded… Is there something I have done previously that offended you? Perhaps we were discussing something that was unsettling or threatening to you? I can’t tell what the subtle tension in the conversation is about, but it felt hostile somehow, and I’d feel much more comfortable if you could talk about what may be angering you directly. Oh! and could you please pass that red-pepper hummus? So yummy!”

Instead, I quip and wise-crack, or try to talk, talk, talk, on top of the bubbling, oozing, latent content that bombards me and threatens, like quick-sand to swallow me whole. I keep my eyes peeled, sometimes ending a conversation too abruptly as I lunge for the nearest exit attempting to save my hide.

(The introvert) is always facing the problem of how libido can be withdrawn from the object. The object assumes terrifying dimensions, in spite of conscious depreciation… But, therewith, the introvert severs himself completely from the object, and either squanders his energy in defensive measures or makes fruitless attempts to impose his power upon the object and successfully assert himself. But these efforts are constantly being frustrated by the overwhelming impressions he receives from the object. It continually imposes itself upon him against his will; it provokes in him the most disagreeable and obstinate affects, persecuting him at every step. An immense, inner struggle is constantly required of him, in order to ‘keep going.’ Hence Psychoasthenia is his typical form of neurosis, a malady which is characterized on the one hand by an extreme sensitiveness, and on the other by a great liability to exhaustion and chronic fatigue. (~ C. G. Jung, Psychological Types – General Description of the Types Ch. 10)

This porous-ness requires that I reside primarily within the realm of intimate one-on-one relationships, with brief, purposeful and well-planned trips beyond this membrane. I am my happiest, most fulfilled and generative in interior spaces.

So, to live in the world of other human beings: I became a psychotherapist.

I can’t count the number of times thick-skinned folk say to me: ” I have no idea how you do the work you do! I couldn’t stand listening to other people’s’ feelings all day!”

Frankly, I don’t want to listen to much else.

Psychotherapy is the only job I could find, other than perhaps, living as a sponge on the sea-floor, where being such a pore-bearing creature gives me a significant professional advantage.

I connect to a single person, in a private space (or a natural space if we are on a walking session). We engage in inherently private processes, sharing excruciatingly personal or subjective details about our innermost perceptions. Where else would I be allowed, professionally mandated in fact, to offer my internal impressions back to the person who evoked them – and to have that returned in kind?

Skin is a responsive tactile boundary between self and other and the inside and the outside of an individual.
~ The Book of Symbols – The Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism

And, it is also true that the very same people who try my patience, drain and exhaust me in the world at large, are the very same people who I would undoubtedly feel bottomless patience, expansive empathy, warm affection and deep admiration for if we were to engage in the intimate processes of forging a therapeutic partnership.

It’s a pretty good gig for those who need to live in the interior-lands.

The finest clothing made is a person’s own skin, but of course, society demands something more than this ~ Mark Twain

A neighbor recently sent me an email which stated that of all her neighbors, I was the one that she felt least connected to, and that she found this distressing. (Was this for real? I was flabbergasted. ) She felt that whenever she encountered me that I was always in a rush, that I never seemed to want to stop and chat. (Chat? What on earth about? ) Moreover, she said, that even factoring in differences and variations in personal privacy, she had determined that I was insufficiently social, and that as a result, our relationship (Did we ever have one? I couldn’t think of a single instance when I had laid eyes on her in the past year) was in need of repair. How would I feel in her circumstance? (What circumstance exactly? The one where my neighbors want nothing more from me than a brief, cordial greeting? “Relieved beyond all imagining” were the only words that came to mind)

An extrovert, in external conversation, frustrated and injured that a confounding introvert was withholding much needed social contact. An introvert, misunderstood and in flight from an extroverted pursuer, in an internal monologue about the internal need to avoid extraneous social contact.

I forwarded the email to my more extroverted husband, who responded easily and effortlessly and who has made a point stopping and chatting more. No skin off of his nose.

The thick-skinned and the thin-skinned misunderstand each other all the time. It is not easy for us to comprehend each other. Our experience of ourselves and others, internal and external worlds is inverted. It is too easy to assume our own way of being as a template, and pillory or pathologize those who live inside or outside of their skin differently than we do.

Yet, we all live along a continuum of inner and outer spaces, some cluster toward the center, others distributed toward either end. We are all needed for our species to find balance. Our varied skills and awarenesses are incomplete without our complement. And ultimately the margins that divide us are as narrow as the skin of our teeth.

“Skin the rabbit!!!” my midwestern farmer grandmother would exclaim as we raised our arms high over our heads and she peeled our dirty play clothes up into the air before our evening bath. A false, active, social self stripped away, a true, vulnerable, private, home self set free.

Home and home-like environments are where the introverted return to refuel themselves, when supplies are running low. Retreat into natural environments is also extremely nurturing for the introverted.

One of the communities where I am most comfortable in my skin is a group of community gardeners. We focus on planting, watering. Our hands are dirty. We are unconcerned about external appearances. We sweat and work together. Our conversations focus on our common interests, our shared labors and our personal relationship with bees, seeds, sun, sky, vegetables and flowers. We have internal experiences outside together.

In Winnicotian theory, some of the aspects that Jung might classify as indicative of introversion, are framed as a developmental, maturational achievement: This is Winnicott’s Capacity to be Alone, which is above all the capacity for people to be alone together. To be in the presence of another person – simultaneously wholly in your own skin, and wholly present with the other, who is also wholly in their own skin and wholly present with you.

Not surprisingly many introverted people find their way into my office, and probably into many other therapists offices too. They want to find partners, to raise families, to secure non-toxic work, and ways to be connected to the community at large, to be of use, in ways that suit them. Many have internalized a culturally endorsed, critical bias against their own way of being.

Extroverts come to therapy fearful of their “people pleasing” tendencies, their need for stimulation, their difficulty being alone, their fear of intimate spaces.

And ultimately the psychotherapeutic process creates a space where intimacy can happen, in self-regulated doses, as we examine and accept our own and each other’s inner and outer layers, as we learn somehow, at last and over time, to get under each other’s skin.

copyright © 2013
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

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