Introversion is hot. In the last couple of years, multiple authors have written books about it, trying to get rid of the stigma that introversion equals shy, and battling the extravert ideal that is so prominent in the Western culture, especially in the USA.
Some time ago, I did a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test, which divides people into 16 different types bases on four different criteria:
- introversion – extraversion (I/E)
- intuitive – sensing (N/S)
- thinking – feeling (T/F)
- judgement – perception (J/P)
Everybody doing the test gets a result that consists of four characters, one in each category. Together, they show how you approach the world. When I did the test, my result was INTJ (but the score was very close to INFJ as well). This triggered my interest. Apparently I was introverted. But what did that mean exactly?
Basically, introverted people have a lot of stimulation (thinking, sensing) going on on the inside, causing them to be more inward oriented, and be more sensitive to outside stimuli. Extraverted people are oriented outward, they need interaction with other people to feel optimal. Basically the two are different temperaments, based on preferred stimulation levels. Introverted and extraverted people experience boredom and overload on different levels of stimulation. People feel most happy when they are not bored and not in over their heads. This sweet spot is different for everybody.
Jung popularized the terms Introversion and Extraversion. In his view (and in the view of Myers & Briggs), all people have both an introverted and an extraverted side. One of the two is more dominant and is the preferred way of approaching the world. However, there is also the theory that introversion and extraversion are a spectrum, two sides of the same coin: to be the one, you cannot be the other.
I think the truth is in the middle. We can behave as the other type, if we choose to do so, but this will come at a price: exhaustion (for introverts) or boredom (for extraverts), since we are not in our “sweet spot”. There even is a physical difference between the brains of introverted and extraverted people. Introverts are generally more sensitive to external stimulation than extraverts. One study found that introverts have more blood flow in the frontal lobes of their brain and the anterior or frontal thalamus, which are areas dealing with internal processing, such as planning and problem solving. Extroverts have more blood flow in the anterior cingulate gyrus, temporal lobes, and posterior thalamus, which are involved in sensory and emotional experience. They are also much more sensitive to dopamine, causing them to enjoy the rush of gambling, competition and risk taking. Basically, incoming information travels a longer way and is processed more intensely by introverts than by extraverts, causing them to experience overload more quickly.
About half of the population is introverted. On the internet people usually say that one quarter to one third of the population is introverted, but that is based on some initial tests by Myers & Briggs, that are already over half a century old. Modern research clearly shows that a slight majority of the population is introverted!
But why don’t we see all those introverts? Actually, our society is quite extraversion-oriented. Ambition, competition, outgoingness, gregariousness and teamwork are key values and highly appreciated, but reflectiveness, carefulness, quietness, patience and solitude are not. So, lots of introverts act extraverted to be able to function in society. In eastern societies, like China en Japan, this is completely the other way around. There, it’s the extraverts that have to adapt.
Adaptation is possible, however, it’s not easy, and it takes its toll. People who don’t allow their basic personality to thrive become “unhappy”. This happens because happiness means something different for introverts and extraverts. When an introvert tries to become happy the extraverted way, with arousal and excitement, he will never succeed, just deplete his energy, and neither will the extravert enjoy the calmness of the introverted happy state.
For me personally, reading about introversion makes me accept my own preferred lifestyle more. I used to feel different from other people, wrong, a-social before, when I declined invitations to parties, didn’t enjoy going to pubs full of loud music and smoke, hated crowds, needed a long time to recover from social events and desired solitude. I even thought I might be autistic or something. But no, I’m just very introverted (and possibly an HSP too).
Embracing my introversion has made it more clear to me how I can live my life in a way that suits my physique (as your brain is part of that too). I plan my social interactions carefully, enjoy them thoroughly, value my deep conversations with my introverted friends, relish solitude and quietness, and don’t beat myself up for just not enjoying what extraverted people seem to enjoy so much, like loudness, groups and competition.
I escape situations that go against my temperament by either removing myself from the situation, changing the situation, or changing the way that I deal with it. For example, when I go to family party with a lot of people, I bring my photo camera and when I feel that I need a break, I start walking around with the camera, just observing and taking pictures of the people, not interacting with them. That way I get my much needed break, and we gain some nice family pictures in the process. Taking photographs of my friends and family having fun at something I don’t really want to do, like going on a rollercoaster, is a win-win situation. I enjoy some quiet time, and because I have my camera, the others don’t feel so guilty that I’m not participating, because I am, just in a different way.
If all else fails, there is always the restroom. This has become my secret safe haven in loud circumstances.
- Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking – Susan Cain (thorough introduction and baseline)
- Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life Is Your Hidden Strength – Laurie A. Helgoe (helpful tips and interesting stories)
- The Introvert’s Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World – Sophia Dembling (short, recognizable chapters, a bit column;like)
- The Introvert Advantage: Making the Most of Your Inner Strengths – Marti Olsen Laney (thorough explanation, also of the physical side)