Saturday, February 7, 2009

He seemed like a nice, quiet guy, mostly kept to himself ...

So what are you thinking now? Serial killer, right? Psychopath. Nice quiet people who enjoy their own company and periods of solitude tend to get a bad rap and a wholly undeserved reputation for weirdness. Happily, some recent books attempt to correct this sad injustice.

Party of One: the Loners' Manifesto by Anneli Rufus, plunges immediately into the fray. The media, and most of us, fail to distinguish between loners and losers. Solitude is a great incubator of creative thinking and loners are more often creators than destroyers, figuring prominently in the worlds of the arts and sciences. Rufus takes a quirky look at prominent loners, past and present, reflects on the pleasures of time spent alone, and corrects a few misconceptions. Loners have friends and lovers, they engage in social behavior; but, hey, back off -- Let's not do lunch.

Laurie Helgoe's Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life Is Your Hidden Strength has a somewhat more conciliatory tone. Her research suggests that introverts are actually quite common, perhaps over 50% of the population. Because introverts are so often seen as problematic, many have adapted, becoming what Helgoe calls "socially accessible introverts" adept at mimicking extroverted behavior. In addition to some insightful coping techniques for introverts forced "on-stage", she encourages self-acceptance and looks at the ways that extroverts and introverts enrich each other's lives.

In a quite different, but related work, Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became A Sickness, Christopher Lane looks at the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and questions the pathologization of healthy human emotions. In a convincing indictment of the Association's ties to the pharmaceutical industry, he sums it up in one sentence "Before you can sell a drug, you have to sell the disease" -- nowhere is this clearer than in the recent transformation of shyness into "social anxiety disorder." And yes, there is a drug to make it go away.

But perhaps that shy person is just an introvert needing a spot of solitude before returning to the world of the socially accessible. And the sociopath next door? Think again. That crowd of reporters is gathering because she just won a Nobel prize.

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