Psychology

Challenges of being an Introvert



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Imagine being in a large minority group (roughly 20-30% of the total population) who are physically indistinguishable from the majority. Imagine that you are somehow unaware of this fact but are just conscious that you relate to people and to your surroundings differently, and are worried there may be "something the matter" with you.

And then imagine - but you may not have to, in fact. You may actually be someone like this. I know I am. I'm talking about being an introvert.

Ever since Carl Jung first coined these terms in the early 20th century (and especially since the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator was developed in the 1940s) introversion and extraversion have been used to describe two psychological polarities, which both come with a variety of traits and personal preferences.

We introverts are generally said to be more concerned with our inner world of thoughts and feelings than we are with the external world. We tend to enjoy our own company, feel frazzled after excessive socialising, and need to "recharge" by being alone for a while. We may prefer a few close friendships to a multitude of shallower relationships.

Extraverts, on the other hand, tend to be more attuned to the physical world around them, might dislike being alone, and thrive on plentiful interaction with others.

There is some scientific evidence to support this divide; for instance, a 1999 study found that patterns of blood flow in the brain differed according to whether the person tested was basically an introvert or an extravert. There are also theories (such as the "Big Five") which suggest that people are scattered along a continuum, with a few people at the absolute extremes and "ambiverts" occupying the centre.

If we introverts are generally in a minority, then, what sort of challenges do we face? Are we less successful than extraverts? Are we poorer? Are we less happy?

I would argue that our main challenge is not directly to do with money, status, success or happiness.

It's true that an extravert is generally more vocal (for example in classrooms and business meetings) and tends to receive more attention from teachers, when in school, and managers, when at work. But an introvert is generally more patient, methodical and diplomatic - being able to engage your brain before opening your mouth to speak, is also a definite advantage. Career-wise, I'd say it was pretty much a level playing field.

There is a high proportion of introverts who are also gifted, including such people as Albert Einstein and Bill Gates. Being an introvert is clearly no barrier to academic or financial success.

Are we happy? Some studies relate extraversion and a full social calendar to happiness, but I'm wondering whether this has just as much to do with self-awareness (or the lack of it) as it does with actual emotions. "Are you happy?" might elicit different answers from introverts and extraverts, just as the answers to "Are these two boxes green?" might depend on whether that person was colour blind or not. I would generally describe myself both as an introvert and as a very happy person, so perhaps that's my bias showing.

No, I think the main challenge we have is linked to the fact that since the concepts of introversion and extraversion entered general public usage, these words have gathered meanings and connotations that were originally absent.

Consider the word "introverted", when used in the media to describe someone. What sort of attributes might that person have? Chances are, the intention is to depict him or her as being a loner, socially awkward, not functioning well in society. Incidentally, there are words relating to extraversion which definitely have a positive bias (especially in Anglo-Saxon cultures), such as "outgoing", which implies that person is pleasantly sociable and well-adjusted, also "gregarious" and "lively". Compare these with "quiet", "shy", "solitary".

A "lively" person is surely a happy member of society. But a "quiet" person? Hmm... There might be a problem here.

It seems to me that when a word is generally used, it often reflects the attitude of the majority. Just as a "black" day is a bad one, a "quiet" person sounds like someone who could be troubled, shy or insecure. This is understandable, if you consider that an extravert with deep problems might well be subdued and uncommunicative.

Being "quiet" thus has certain connotations, in most people's minds. "Not talking? What's wrong?"

It is clear to me why an introvert growing up in an extravert-oriented world, without being aware of the whole introversion/extraversion issue, would feel like a fish in the wrong pond. He or she might be labelled "shy", because extraverts sometimes have difficulty understanding the important difference between shyness and introversion (a shy person avoids social contact out of fear, an introvert might do so out of personal preference.)

He or she would be seen, not as a normal introvert but essentially as a failed extravert.

This was basically me as a child. My school reports always labelled me as "quiet" (although I actually did quite well, academically.) I grew to think of myself as shy, self-conscious, rather inadequate socially. It has only been recently, as a middle-aged person, that I have become much more comfortable with who I am, and have accepted the fact that although I often enjoy the company of others, I need time alone to recover and renew myself, and there is nothing "the matter" with me because of that.

My message to fellow introverts who are still struggling to come to terms with yourselves is this. Know who you are. Listen to your inner nature, and instead of assuming that there is something wrong with you, learn to accept and love yourself unconditionally. Play to your strengths. And change the way you see yourself, not as an ugly duckling - but as a fledgling swan.

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