I’ve noticed the terms “introvert” and “extrovert” popping up frequently in conversations lately. As a lifelong introvert, I also notice a lot of misunderstanding about what the term means.
I start, as you knew I would, with definitions. However, it happens I disagree with the online Oxford Dictionary definition of introvert, which is “a shy, reticent person.” As I look at other dictionaries, I find “shy” is widely used to describe introversion.
I’ve recently discovered a website called Introvert, Dear. I,D defines an introvert as “someone who prefers calm, minimally stimulating environments.“ Now that’s introversion! I’m not shy, but I do get overstimulated.
Introvert and extrovert are, inescapably, labels, and regular readers know I regard labels with a jaundiced eye. These two descriptors are not black and white. Rather, each describes one end of a continuum, and we all have a place on that continuum at any point in time. We may slide back and forth, depending on context, but there is no perfect or normal place to be. We’re the only ones who can decide what’s perfect and normal for us on any given day.
One of the biggest and most obvious differences between introverts and extroverts is extroverts recharge by socializing with others, while introverts recharge by being alone. Introverts are inward-turning, preoccupied with thoughts, feelings and experiences rather than external stimulation. Interestingly, science is discovering differences in dopamine production and reception may be related to introversion and extroversion, which is to say these parts of our personalities are neurobiologically and genetically wired in, like our eye color.
Introversion is not a defect of character, a weakness, or something that needs to be fixed or changed. Many artists of all types, including some big Hollywood names, are introverts. I relish my way of being and have no interest at all in becoming more extroverted. I’ve frequently been told I’m no fun, which used to really hurt but now makes me smile. Nobody on the planet knows how much fun I have every day by myself!
Introverts are not necessarily socially awkward or shy. We may be quiet and reserved at times, but needing to limit our social interaction doesn’t mean we don’t need, appreciate and enjoy social connection. We don’t hate people, but we may struggle with large groups of people and noisy environments because of overstimulation. Most introverts don’t like small talk, not because we can’t do it, but because it feels empty and shallow. We want and are able to make a more authentic and meaningful connection and contribution.
What this means is large gatherings like weddings, parties and reunions are a kind of nightmare for some introverts. Not only do we become overstimulated and exhausted, a wretched combination, but we are unable to contribute anything authentic and meaningful, which makes the whole event a painful waste of time and energy we’ll need a couple of days (at least) to recover from.
(How do introverts throw parties? Buy snacks. Invite no one.)
Which brings me to a sore spot in my own psyche. Feeling unhappy at large social gatherings does not mean I have nothing to offer. I have a great deal to offer, as do many introverts. Introversion is strongly associated with being a highly sensitive personality. Many introverts are intuitive, thoughtful, compassionate, creative people who are willing to explore life deeply. Because we choose only a few close connections, we have the time, attention and energy to be loyal, dependable, and good listeners and resources. We introverts give the gift of presence. Presence isn’t flashy or sexy or brightly colored, but it’s there, consistently reliable and steady. Sadly, presence is valued less and less in our culture. We’d much rather have a new phone, or a thumbs up, or a thing we bought in order to prove our affection.
A person who finds boundaries rude will certainly have trouble with introverts, because we need a lot of boundaries in this noisy, attention-demanding, chaotic, busy culture to protect ourselves. Introverts are often misinterpreted as being rude, cold, selfish, or stuck up because we must take care of our need for solitude in order to stay on our feet. This means we say no. Sometimes we say it frequently. For some folks, no is simply unacceptable for any reason. The fact is, I build and maintain boundaries with others because I want them in my life, not because I don’t. My no is not a rejection; it’s a choice to care for myself rather than care for another at my own (heavy) expense.
Some people define this as being selfish. So be it.
I’ve also received feedback that sensitive, introverted people “drive me nuts.” Here’s a newsflash: Those who insist on crowding us, drowning us out, violating and/or challenging our boundaries and being contemptuous of our marvelous sensitivity are driving us nuts! Please back off. Let us be. We don’t want to be like you. You be you. Allow us to be who we are.
One of the superpowers of introversion is the ability to enjoy my own company. I am never bored when I’m alone, though I’m frequently bored by the conversation of others. I’m self-sufficient. I don’t need other people to validate me, soothe me or make me happy. (Oddly, some people appear to find this fact highly insulting!) I’ve known people who can’t bear to sit quietly in silence with themselves or anyone else. This is as appalling to me as my glorious hours of solitude are to an extrovert!
What, exactly, am I doing during those hours of solitude?
I’m calming my environment with natural light or candlelight rather than electric light. I’m listening to music I find relaxing at low volume or relishing the sound of silence or the natural sounds coming through my open windows. I’m exercising slowly, deliberately and mindfully, being fully present with my breath, pulse and muscles. I’m sitting with a cup of tea, quietly gazing out the window or with my eyes closed. I’m reading. I’m ignoring the phone and my e-mail because I’m busy not being busy. I’m processing my hours and experience out in the world — observations, conversations, thoughts, feelings, interactions. I’m playing Mahjongg solitaire and remembering everything works out in the end, one way or another, and there can be order in seeming chaos. I’m doing spiritual work, ritual, and practicing gratitude.
I’m taking a walk. I’m swimming. I’m dancing with all the passion and sensuality I can muster (which is considerable). I’m sitting in the locked car in between errands, appointments, and working hours reading, or breathing, or dozing, or eating a take-out lunch.
I’m in my own soft bed with crisp sheets and heavy blankets. I’m reading. I’m sleeping. I’m just resting. I’m listening to the tick of the clock and drifting into a nap. I’m licking my wounds. I’m watching sunlight, moonlight, dusk or dawn steal across the ceiling and walls.
I’m writing, and writing and writing. All the time. Everywhere.
My hours of solitude make it possible for me to bring my best self into my treasured relationships. Ample solitude allows me to be fully present and supportive as a professional and team member at work. It allows me to push out of my comfort zone occasionally and do something more than ordinarily social, knowing I’ll have what I need to recover afterward.
It allows me to write.
I have delightful extroverts in my life. I value and enjoy them, and they drain me. I don’t think anything is wrong with them, and I don’t think anything is wrong with me. We have differing needs and personalities, and much to learn from one another.