Coming Out of the Closet


Published previously on LinkedIn

We store things in closets. They aren’t made for people; they are made for things. Perhaps the reason people are found in closets has to do with the way we have failed to treat them as people and instead have treated them as if they were things. This is yet another aspect of what Simon Sinek calls “the problem of abstraction,” not seeing people as people.

I’ve never much liked closets. The closet is a place of darkness, of isolation. There are no windows. It doesn’t necessarily smell good. The air doesn’t move. It doesn’t feel good to be in there, but it may give us a sense of protection from “out there.” In the closet, in the absence of light, we can’t see ourselves or others and (more importantly) they can’t see us. “Out there,” we feel exposed and vulnerable. There’s only room for one “in here.” The closet is a symbol of the effect of shame on those who seek it as a hiding place. The action potential that has always been connected with shame is hiding. Shame tells us that there is something wrong with us and encourages us to separate from others who might see the shame we feel. Where better to hide than a closet where things are stored.

One of the little spoken of closets in the office is the closet created by and for introverts. Introverts at all levels within the organization are well aware of the cultural air of their environments that sends constant messages, spoken and unspoken, of the insufficiency and inadequacy of an essential part of who they are. The system, which tends to favor the extroverted fifty percent of employees, often reminds us of our perceived inadequacy. We actually like being alone in many ways, but not like this. Not in a prison that makes us feel like this about ourselves.

I have the privilege at times of entering into a closet that barely fits the two of us. I have the great duty and joy of helping introverts in organizations begin to recognize that the messages of shame that have driven them into the closet are false. Those messages that speak inadequacy come not only from others, but from within us. Introverts, by nature, tend to be introspective and can be highly self-critical. The negative things we hear or feel in the environment provide ample fuel for our inner critic. Our temperament amplifies the input we receive.

It’s much nicer outside of the closet. There is natural light. The air moves. We can move. We can see ourselves and others and have relationships. We can be creative. We can feel connected and part of something bigger than ourselves. We will benefit. Our team will benefit if we come out of the shadows.

Coming out of the closet is scary. It would be easier to stay in there. But, for our own sake and for the sake of our organization, coming out is important. Our teams desperately need the talents that we have. Our teams desperately need the fully engaged version of ourselves and the creativity that we will bring when it feels safe enough. The key to coming out is safety. Introverts are typically slower to developing feelings of safety. Once we feel safe, we are intensely loyal and dedicated.

For those who are outside of the closet, what can you do to make it safer for your introverted co-workers to feel good about themselves and their talents? For us on the inside, the first step out may be the dispelling of myths that have served to push us into isolation.

The following myths are untrue:

Extroverts are psychologically healthier people. Introversion is a psychological problem.
Introverts don’t like people.
Introverts can’t be leaders. Extroverts make the best leaders.
Extroverts are the best salespeople. (It’s actually ambiverts.)
Introverts have nothing to say. The only way to contribute is in the moment during the brainstorming session.
People who use more words have more to contribute.
Charisma is the most important trait in a leader.
Risk-taking is always better than risk-aversion.
Good leaders like change.
The best results are always produced by group effort.
One of my favorite writers and speakers is Brene Brown. She vividly describes what she calls “shame gremlins.” The gremlins have been lying to us for years. When we shine light on gremlins, they have a tendency to disappear. They love the closet, the darkness, hiding. Turn the light on the gremlins’ messages, the myths about you, and step out into the light.