Monday, February 11, 2013

For the Introverts

Every so often I check out the search items that bring people to my blog, and one of the most popular ones is some form of "physical therapy introvert." So this post is not only for all of the introverted therapists out there, but for any introvert looking to thrive in a workplace dominated by extroverts.

According to the Myers-Briggs personality assessment, most PT's are extroverts. This means they are energized by being around other people. They would rather go out and engage in small talk at a party filled with strangers than stick around the house reading a book. As an introvert, however, the idea of going to a party where I hardly know anybody makes me anxious.

But! This doesn't mean introverts are shy or incapable of going to a party and impressing people with their witty banter. It just means that it drains them, and so they don't want to do it very often. And being an introvert certainly doesn't mean a person shouldn't enter this career or that career. It just means that you often have to make certain adjustments.

For example, therapists spend all day surrounded by people: patients, co-workers, doctors, nurses, social workers, occupational and speech therapists, family members of patients, etc, etc, etc. I enjoy helping people. But it's exhausting, mentally and physically. After a long day of togetherness, the introvert should take care of herself by taking the long way home, or curling up and reading a book, or taking a run or bike ride solo.

When it comes to interacting with patients, I often take my cues from them. Some people seem to want relative silence. I get the hint when I flip on the ultrasound machine and the patient closes his eyes or cracks open a magazine. Others, however, feel the need to talk. So I have a list of go-to questions. It probably goes without saying, but it's best to steer clear of topics such as religion and politics unless you know the patient absolutely shares your beliefs and ideas, and even then I'd be wary. Usually I ask things along the lines of books they've read lately, movies they've enjoyed, weekend plans, holiday plans, children/grandchildren, pets, upcoming local events (the Big Game or Balloon Fiesta, for example), and even what's for dinner (usually I ask this of my last patient of the day). In general, people love to talk about themselves--I mean, look at me blathering away on this blog--and once you ask a few questions and get them going, you don't have to do much to keep the conversation moving.

And finally, there's always some sort of meet-and-greet situation. Some people belong to professional organizations, or your job might require you to do marketing or community reach out. This is almost exactly like being invited to a party where you know only one or two people (or nobody, eek!), and this sort of situation usually makes an introvert's heart go into palpitations and their hands sweat. So how do you keep from freezing up? First, think of why you're going. How much do you really have to talk? Can you breeze in, say hello to a few people, and then breeze out? Come up with a few questions or comments ahead of time and practice them if you have to. Second, loosen up. Take a few deep breaths. Meditate in the car before you go in. Listen to Queen's "We Are The Champions" at full volume as you drive there. At a professional gathering, I wouldn't rely on alcohol as a way to loosen up, though. Loose lips and all that. And finally, take an acting class. Do some improv. Sometimes I find that I'm too far into my own head to have a meaningful exchange with another person, and improv techniques have helped with that.

Now go out there and embrace your introversion! I'll be over here, curled up in the corner with the cat and a good book.


  1. Hi, Rebecca. Thanks for this article which makes feel I'm not alone and tells me it's possible. I'm actually an international student, so language is another barrier, but I'm trying to overcome it.

    Do you think OT needs more interactioin and communication? I got accepted by both OT and PT. I think I would prefer PT because it's more technical(I mean requires more knowledge and skills) than OT. I'm a visual learner and know how to study anatomy and physiology. However, I'm not good at learning abstract knowledge, such as subjects like sociology. Do you think OT school requires more abstract thinking. Do you think I will survive in PT school? I guess I might be the only international student and the only Asian. Lots of unknown in the future. I don't know what kind of people I will meet in my class.I want to do things I'm good at and avoid my shortcomings and be smart at what I do.

    1. Hi Sophie. I think you'll do fine in PT (or OT) school. There's a period of adjustment, but you sound like an extremely intelligent and insightful person.

      I'm not sure if OT school/concepts require more abstract thinking than PT. They focus more on mental health and social/community issues than PT's usually do. The coursework in PT school was very specialized, so while I apply what I learned in undergraduate courses in psychology and sociology, I don't recall any of the courses in PT school being as abstract.

      As for the people in your class, you're sure to find some who will be like-minded and who will become lifelong friends. The future does hold many unknowns, but it also holds many adventures. I was homesick and scared at first, but after I got to know a few people and classes started, it got much better. I got to know the other PT students who lived on the same floor as me, and those in my anatomy lab group, and then I branched out from there. Also, I was so busy with reading and studying that I didn't have much time to worry about anything else.

      Best of luck, and if you have any more questions or concerns, I'm happy to help.