Do I have to become a people person?

March 1st, 2017 Posted by Ask the Rabbi 18 comments

Question:

When growing up, it seemed reasonable that some people liked to build and tinker with things as opposed to interacting with other people.  I became an engineer and am quite happy working with things rather than others.  My like-minded brother thinks we should build on our strengths and not be dragged down by spending time trying to eliminate our weaknesses.

I recently was exposed to attachment theory, the bonding to a person’s mother in the first year of life.  There is a category of attachment called avoidant attachment.  People with avoidant attachment generally remember little about their childhood and have relationship difficulties.  I feel this applies to me.  As I understand it, God has preprogrammed development to happen in stages.  Once that stage is passed, it is very difficult to recover it.  As an example, there is a window in which children learn to speak.  If they are deprived from talking with others during this period, then it is almost impossible for them to learn later how to make the necessary sounds used in normal speech.  Similarly, if we did not learn how to have relationships when we were quite young, it seems futile to try and develop that ability when we are older.

My brother and I seem to fall in line with the comment from Linus of Charlie Brown: “I love mankind, it is people I can’t stand.”  Like most (if not all introverts), I find interacting with people to be draining and eventually need to be alone.  My brother is quite content with considering himself a non-people person and feels no need to attend family functions.  I am trying to process the concept that God created man to be relational and that being a non-people person is a “defect” that needs to be corrected.

So my question is what is your thought about being a non-people person?

Richard M.

Answer: 

Dear Richard,

Thank you for writing and expressing your question in such an articulate way. Our guess is that quite a few people will be nodding in agreement as they read your question. 

Without writing a dissertation in response, we would like to explore some of your premises. We agree that God created humans to best and most easily be open to certain things at defined stages of our lives. The example you gave, of acquiring language, is one such reality. However, while we might need to work much harder at another stage of life and possibly never have the same proficiency as we might have developed at the best time, that is very different from saying that we should not even try if a window has passed. 

It is much easier to learn how to ride a bicycle, play certain sports, learn foreign languages, play an instrument and countless other skills when exposed to them young. However, if one truly wants to attain some proficiency there are role models to follow who prove that you can start at a later time in life. What a loss it would be for someone not to get pleasure from those pursuits. 

When your brother speaks of building on your strengths, he is right when it comes to things like being stronger at tennis than at, say, tortoise racing. Or someone with a natural talent with numbers should probably build on that rather than try to write poetry.  But in this day and age, for someone to say,“I’m not good at working technology, so I’ll avoid learning to do anything on a computer or other digital devices,” is less wise.  Today, almost everyone is online to some extent and, while usage certainly can be overdone, there is great value to be had. Similarly, connecting with others is basic and adds value to every life.  As we’d advise even a technophobe to become familiar with a laptop, so we advise even introverts to learn to connect a bit more.

Tending towards introversion or even not being a ‘people person’ (a phrase that might mean different things to different people) is not the same as avoiding relationships. Both of us (Rabbi and Susan) consider ourselves introverts. We recharge our batteries by spending quiet time reading or in other solitary activities and we prefer small groups to large parties. Neither of us is innately good at ‘cocktail chatter.’ Nonetheless, we love and appreciate people. Since our ministry work as well as family often has us surrounded by crowds, we know we must schedule in down time when our lives are busy. We sometimes choose, for example, to stay in a hotel even when we receive gracious invitations from friends. We know we will need some quiet time at the end of a busy day. 

Introverts can have very strong relationships. We may prefer a few deep friendships to dozens of more superficial ones. There is a world of difference between that and avoiding people altogether. Whether it is the family one is born to or a group of friends who have become like family, the benefits of having people who feel a loyalty to and relationship with you is a priceless treasure. Yes, that means that sometimes you put their needs ahead of your own and make an effort even if it is uncomfortable. Perhaps you could start by joining for dessert at a family Thanksgiving rather than the whole meal. Prepare questions in advance that you can ask two or three people at a gathering rather than facing an entire room.

There’s no need to be the life of the party or even to enjoy parties at all, but we would recommend that cultivating some relationships is vital to a complete life. If you look around and discover that there are a few more people in the circle along with your brother and you, then perhaps you are more of a people-person than you think. 

Blessings,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

 

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18 comments

Joyce Redos says:

I loved the question and your response. I, too, am something of an introvert and need down down from people. Nevertheless I have several very close, lifelong friends. I might not see them for a year or more, but we talk on the phone and when we do get together we pick up from where we left off. One such friend is from my college days. Another from my first full time job. A third from my congregation and later fellowship group. I can share things with these three people I could not say to my family because over time we have communicated at such heart depth that we can speak into each other’s lives. my family is also wonderful and I love being with them, particularly my nephew and his family and I enjoy spending holidays with them. Relationships with friends and family point the way to the most important relationship of all, our relationship with HaShem. That is the most fulfilling one of all. I hope Richard will find his way to exploring that one too.

Susan Lapin says:

Joyce, people sometimes use the words introverted and shy or introverted and unsocial as synonyms. They aren’t. We all need to recognize our tendencies and temperaments, but we also need to know when we cross a line from honoring who we are into acting against our own interests.

Beth says:

I am 76yrs old and never married although I had affairs and had a child that died shortly after birth. I have some friends but find it difficult to be around people most of the time. My mother was institutionalized in a mental facility when I was 2yrs old. My father raised me and four siblings with some help from an aunt who lived in the same building but separate facilities.. My father rarely talked to us and was quite distant most of the time. I tagged along after my sister who was 1yr older than I and she was more like a mom than anyone else and I clung to her. My life was lacking in so many things and I was quite shy and ill at ease and found close relationships difficult to maintain so I stayed to myself a lot of the time and was frequently nursing real or imaginary wounds from others and was easily offended. How can one really know love when it was never given in their youth.

Susan Lapin says:

Beth, I am so sorry that you faced so many painful times in your life. Of course, you are right that our upbringing has a huge influence on us. The responsibility of bringing a child into the world is a serious one and when, for whatever reason, parents cannot give love to their children, it does great harm. I’m so glad that you have friends and we would encourage you to find a way to give to others what you yourself never received as a child.

Richard M says:

Hi Susan

Thank you for responding to my original question. In your response to Beth, you did not answer her question about “How can one really know love when it was never given in their youth.” I have also puzzled over this. Counselors will say something like: “Remember when you first met your love one and how you wanted to know everything about them and would talk for hours on the phone and could not wait to see them again?” For me that would be a no. I did not want to know all about them, or to talk for hours on the phone, or was desperate to see them again. I would ask: “Why would I want to do those things?” As previously mentioned, an avoidant attachment is linked to being mistrustful about relationships and difficulty with establishing relationships. So apparently, people like Beth and myself were missing something from our youth that makes it virtually impossible to understand what is going on.

Susan Lapin says:

Richard, I admit to being aghast at both your comment and Beth’s. This means that not only did parents not deliver, but no one – not a grandparent, relative, teacher etc., was able to model love to a child. That is truly tragic. I would think that this is an example of where very competent therapy would be recommended or, yes, you will go through life not knowing how to relate to love. An exceptional spiritual leader would also be of great assistance. I can’t see this being that much different from someone needing physical therapy to cope with a missing limb.

Richard M says:

Thank you for being aghast, but I have chosen to be happy and look forward to being “repaired” in the resurrection. Obviously, not feeling comfortable with mankind is nothing new as the following statement from Arthur Conan Doyle

“There are many men in London, you know, who, some from shyness, some from misanthropy, have no wish for the company of their fellows. Yet they are not averse to comfortable chairs and the latest periodicals. It is for the convenience of these that the Diogenes Club was started, and it now contains the most unsociable and unclubbable men in town. No member is permitted to take the least notice of any other one. Save in the Stranger’s Room, no talking is, under any circumstances, allowed, and three offenses, if brought to the notice of the committee, render the talker liable to expulsion. My brother was one of the founders, and I have myself found it a very soothing atmosphere.”
― Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter

Susan Lapin says:

I love the quote. It sounds very British -somewhat snobby – to me (from my limited experience), which makes sense considering the source. I’m delighted that you are happy.

James says:

What a fine answer! As for the attachment theory, I might offer the following ripple, or wrinkle, to Richard. I clamored to enter the world, punching with fists and kicking with feet, and insisted on popping out two months ahead of schedule. At that time two months’ premature delivery was a near-death-sentence, and both parents were preparing themselves to lose me. As for Severe Attachment Deficit (Did I just invent a new acronym?), the first mother I knew for weeks was a heat lamp, and I was tormented by frantically scurrying attendants in white coats checking my temperature and vital signs, force-feeding me with vitamin-enriched formula. It must have been like a crazy isolation ward / torture chamber until some responsible someone decided that I the oversized fetus was a sure candidate for real mother’s contact. And like the Rabbi and Susan, I am an introvert (a classic Myers-Briggs INTJ) and therefore need a fair amount of soothing isolation to sort and process the crazy stimuli of this world. Yet I grew up the other way around: ‘I love people, it’s mankind I can’t stand.’ People are astonishingly diverse and challenging, yet as humans what we all share in common far outweighs any differences we have, or think we have. If we just reach out to others, we are often amazed at the new friends we find. And how amazing is the Rabbi’s message that it is the will of God that we reach out to others and connect with them.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

So important is it to God, James, that we constantly reach out and connect with His other children, that He graciously grants us a giant bonus when we do reach out and try to cement the relationship by serving them. He blesses us with the enormous blessing of financial abundance. Most of us need some downtime–that is partly what daily prayer is for! But most of us also delight in the contact with others.
Cordially
RDL

Eric B says:

This thread is so touching. I have felt the pain of being a child who is ignored and overly controled then given the curve ball of, ” I love you so much. I’m doing the best I can.” We had a strange houshold where God’s love was explained in the context of an eternal hell where the burning never stopped forever and ever. My young mind spent most of the time trying to fathom this. Money was also treated as a sinful thing to work for yet charity was somehow a sign of one’s righteousness. Just to be clear, the message was that you had to work hard, just don’t make much money with your effort.
Needless to say, I did not meet many people in my life that I related to. I often feel like my life has a lot of similarities to an immigrant trying to learn the local culture even though I was born in the U.S. I have often been frustrated and tempted to give up. Several times, especially in my early adult life I came close to the ultimate check out. Needless to say I did not choose that path. One turning point for me was when I found a career in healthcare. This allowed me to connect with people who were also feeling pain which was something I could relate to. These connections were in a setting with strict boundaries and regulations and I felt very comfortable in this setting. Along the way I met a beautiful lady who saw things in me that I didn’t believe were there. We met in the Emergency Department bringing a woman back to life after her heart had stopped beating. There was more than one heart that came back to life that day. We fell in love and married just over 1 year later. It was a very turbulent first 3 years of marriage. Having someone so close to me scared me to death. I caused her a lot of pain during that time. In December of 2013 we started counceling. It scared me to start that journey of my healing and growth. But I started to see a glimpse of what my beautiful wife had seen in me all along. We started to work through the destructive attachment style I had developed early in life. And we learned tools and guidelines that helped us keep our communication open even when it hurt. We made a lot of progress quickly, but had a long way still to go. In February of 2014 I met my unborn son in a dream. I had always been certain I would never be able to be a good father, but in this dream I was a good father and I had a son I was proud of and in love with. In that dream I experienced a level of love I could not have imagined before. I woke up in a blissful daze the next morning in wonder at how real the dream had felt. Not long after I woke up my wife told me she was preagnant. My son was born October 14, 2014. Since that day God has had a direct line straight to my heart. The depth of love I experience with people is far beyond what I could have imagined five or ten years ago. I say all this to encourage any of you who might be contemplating the withdrawl from interacting with people. It is hard to change patterns we learned early in life. It takes a lot of courage and humility. It is worth it a thousand times over though. There is a quote by John Shedd that I think is appropriate: “A ship in harbor is safe– but that is not what ships are built for.” I want to thank Rabbi Daniel Lapin for making God’s wisdom understandable and beneficial to me.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Dear Eric–
what an absolutely beautiful phrase you chose: “There was more than one heart that came back to life that day. We fell in love…”
It helped make your whole letter quite gripping. The time comes when people need to let go of every aspect of their upbringing and begin sculpting their own lives. This you have done very successfully. Now obviously, in raising your infant son, you won’t make the same awful mistakes your parents made. But you will make others! Stay as self aware as you are in this letter and you should both do fine.
Cordially
RDL

Mark says:

The question and the answer are equally interesting and thought provoking.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Thanks Mark–
we receive wonderful questions; we try to pick out those that will interest the largest number of people and we pray for wisdom while responding. Sometimes we are granted our request.
Cordially
RDL

Pamela Wykoff says:

I’m thankful to the Lapin’s for encouraging us to be open to people and relationships. It’s easy to get discouraged when a friendship becomes difficult to manage. A dear friend of mine is domineering, meddling, and gossips. These bad traits are helpful when we have a project together. She isn’t afraid to speak up and communicate to get things done. However, I don’t enjoy her evaluating (uncorrectly) and broadcasting small unimportant issues that I comment on. Unfortunately, churches can be breeding grounds for all kinds of personalities. How does one watch what they say every time they are in public to protect themselves?

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Hello Pamela
I think Susan may have some wise words here too but from my perspective, your letter raises such an interesting point. Relationships need maintaining, nurturing and managing. When something wounds a relationship, it must be repaired. All the time it needs nurturing with contact and communication and occasionally, gifts of one kind or another as tangible symbols of feeling. And, yes, they need managing. When she tries to dominate you, you can and should gently put a stop to it. When she gossips you might lightheartedly warn her that you allow yourself ten minutes a week of mindless gossip and you just want to let her know she’s hit 9 1/2 minutes and counting. All organizations and institutions have all kinds of people. I am very close to a nurse and a doctor. They both report that the large hospitals they serve breed far more strange and often toxic human personalities than they breed germs and harmful microorganisms.
But like churches, and everything else, they also breed some wonderful compassionate altruistic thoughtful generous creative fascinating brilliant beguiling children of God
Cordially
RDL

Eric says:

I fall comfortably into the standard descriptions of an introvert, and in my profession, I work alongside more than a few extroverts. I recognize that I will never be an enthusiastic cold-calling sales genius, like some of my colleagues. However, I also have begun to recognize that I can learn to ‘warm-call’ clients that I have worked with in the past, and ask how else I might be able to serve them. This is drawing on relationships that begin purely professionally, and develop over the natural life of a project. Towards the tail end of a project, it’s easier to ask the client for feedback, for additional opportunities to serve, for recommendations for improvement, for potential referrals, and the like.

I cannot do what I am meant to do, if I am on my own. I will always enjoy the rest and quiet and calm at home after a busy day, but I would be utterly miserable as a professional recluse. And for an introvert like me, who is also genuinely fascinated by human nature and behavior, learning how to interact with those crazy hyperactive extroverts is an intriguing (if sometimes aggravating) challenge.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Good insights Eric–
And indeed, as a professional sales trainer, I am very much of the conviction that nobody serious about the career of selling, should ever do cold calling. You can hire $8/hour students to make those cold calls. You should only be working off referrals and the skill of a sales professional is generating referrals. As you say, drawing on long-term relationships.
Cordially
RDL

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