Time for introverts to come out of the closet

August 19, 2007 | By | 54 Replies More

In his article in The Atlantic, Jonathan Rauch really hit the nail on the head with his description of introversion :

Do you know someone who needs hours alone every day? Who loves quiet conversations about feelings or ideas, and can give a dynamite presentation to a big audience, but seems awkward in groups and maladroit at small talk? Who has to be dragged to parties and then needs the rest of the day to recuperate? Who growls or scowls or grunts or winces when accosted with pleasantries by people who are just trying to be nice? If so, do you tell this person he is “too serious,” or ask if he is okay? Regard him as aloof, arrogant, rude? Redouble your efforts to draw him out?

If you answered yes to these questions, chances are that you have an introvert on your hands—and that you aren’t caring for him properly.

It’s embarrassing to be one of the last to know.  I’m 51 and I’ve always prided myself at taking the time to learn about the inner workings of human cognition.   My own way of processing information should not have so easily slipped under my own radar. Further, over the years, hundreds of people have plainly told me that my way of thinking is “different”   Without really understanding why, I’ve developed dozens of ready-to-roll reasons for declining social gatherings, especially where I suspect that chit-chat (gossip, television & movies, sports) will prevail.   When I can’t get out of such gatherings, I commonly feel the anxiety building.   I’ve never tolerated gatherings of people (especially large gatherings) as well as most others.  I do need people, though, and I seek them out, but only in measured doses. 

I’ve known and used the term “introvert” for many years, but I’m only now beginning to understand the full consequences of being an introvert.   Until recently, I merely understood that I am not as comfortable spending time with people.  I didn’t realize (as Rauch details in his article), that introverts can pay a huge price, psychologically and physiologically, if they socialize beyond their limit.  The effects of their introversion also go far beyond socializing.  

Recently, I’ve taken a few tests to see whether I’m introverted (see below).  It turns out that I’m off-the-charts introverted.  Hence, my compelling interest in this topic.

I’ve recently read some other materials on “Introversion.”  It’s been incredible to learn that experts on introversion, people who have never met me, understand me so well.   It feels like decades of my frustration have been explained.   Then again, “explanation” is a loaded word.   Despite my recent foray into some serious literature on introversion, I don’t really know why I’m an introvert.  Instead, I’ve merely come to realize that many other people (apparently 25% of the population) respond to gatherings of people much like I do.  Though I don’t really know why I am the way I am, I know that this “thing” is a commonly-encountered constellation of traits, emotions and impulses.  I now realize that what I have is one of the many forms of normalcy.

Howard Gardner touched on this issue of introversion when he included inter-personal intelligence as one of his multiple intelligences.  Extroversion does, indeed, seem to be a specialized set of skills that qualifies as a distinct form of intelligence.  People who excel at math don’t necessarily have proficient social skills and vice-versa.

Marti Laney, a self-described introvert, dug deeply into this topic of introversion, resulting in her 2002 book, The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World. 

Although Laney’s advice is sometimes a bit too predictable, her descriptions of introversion are insightful and detailed.  She notes that many introverts struggle when they judge themselves to the numerous extroverts in their homes, schools and workplaces.  They end up criticizing themselves for their own introverted qualities.  When they take the time to learn about introversion, they end up relieved to hear that their brains are merely different (not inferior) to those of the extroverts and that their way of thinking even offers some advantages over the techniques usually used by extroverts.  They also learned that their introversion will affect numerous areas of their life.  They learn that their introversion might well be the cause for the common experience of feeling “drained and over-stimulated.”

Here is Laney’s description of introverts:

The strongest distinguishing characteristic of introverts is their energy source: introverts draw energy from the internal world of ideas, emotions and impressions.  They are energy conservers.  They can be easily over-stimulated by the external world, experiencing the uncomfortable feeling of “too much.”  This can feel like antsyness or torpor.  In either case, they need to limit their social experiences so they don’t get drained.  However, introverts need to balance their alone time with outside time, or they can lose other perspectives and connections.  Introverted people who balance their energy and have perseverance and the ability to think independently, focus deeply, and work creatively.

(p. 19).  Laney makes it clear that introverts are “energized by the internal world–by ideas, impressions and emotions.”  She warns, however, that introverts are not necessarily quiet:

their focus is inside their heads.  They need a quiet, reflective place where they can think things through and recharge themselves. . .. introverts enjoy complexity when they can focus on one or two areas, without pressure.  But if they have too many projects, they easily feel overwhelmed. 

Just being around people can be overstimulating to introverts.  Their energy is drained in crowds, classes, or any noisy or invasive environment.  They may like people very much, but after talking to anyone, they usually begin to feel the need to move away, take a break, and get some air.  This is the reason for their mind/vapor-lock experience. . . . When overstimulated, the introvert’s mind can shut down, saying, “no more input, please.”  It goes dark.

Introverts like depth and will limit their experiences but feel each of them deeply.  Often, they have fewer friends but more intimacy.  They like to delve deeply into topics and look for “richness” more than “muchness.”  This is why it’s necessary to limit their topics to one or two, or they can become overwhelmed.  Their mind absorbs information from the outside environment and then reflects on it and expands it.  And long after they have taken in the information, they are still munching and crunching it–a little like cows chewing their cud.

Extroverts think and talk all at one time.  It is effortless to them.  In fact, things become clearer as they speak out loud.  Introverts, on the other hand, need time to think and don’t speak with spontaneity unless it’s a familiar subject.  Introverts can appear cautious or passive to extroverts.

Introverts, Jung wrote, conserve their energy, have fewer children, have more ways of protecting themselves, and live longer.  Because they appreciate a simpler life, make intimate attachments, and plan and reflect on new ways of doing things, they encourage others to be prudent, develop self-reflection, and think before acting.

Laney recognizes that introverts are often confused, that they sometimes enjoy socializing and noisy and overcrowded groups, while at other times, they are overwhelmed and depleted.  This is not unusual, in her research.  Introverts can do quite well in social situations, at least for relatively shorter intervals than extroverts, as long as they have a chance to get away from people to recharge and rest.  Starting on page 163 of her book, Laney offers numerous suggestions for getting out of social occasions or limiting one’s participation in such gatherings.

Laney strongly encourages introverts to come clean with their extrovert friends and co-workers.   This will avoid misunderstandings and facilitate working relationships, in her view.

Laney isn’t the only person riding on this topic, of course.  Nor does she speak for everyone else who writes about those people like me who get overwhelmed in social situations.  Elaine Aron would prefer to characterize introverts as a common type of a person who is highly sensitive. A Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) “has a sensitive nervous system, is aware of subtleties in his/her surroundings, and is more easily overwhelmed when in a highly stimulating environment.”

On her website, Aron offers a test for determining whether you’re a highly sensitive person.   Here are some of the characteristic behaviors of highly sensitive people:

Are you easily overwhelmed by such things as bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics, or sirens nearby?
Do you get rattled when you have a lot to do in a short amount of time?
Do you make a point of avoiding violent movies and TV shows?
Do you need to withdraw during busy days, into bed or a darkened room or some other place where you can have privacy and relief from the situation?
Do you make it a high priority to arrange your life to avoid upsetting or overwhelming situations?
Do you notice or enjoy delicate or fine scents, tastes, sounds, or works of art?
Do you have a rich and complex inner life?
When you were a child, did your parents or teachers see you as sensitive or shy?

According to Aron, not all highly sensitive people are introverts.   But then again, Aron and Laney have much overlap in the people they are attempting to assist and the type of advice they are offering:

[I]n the past HSPs have been called “shy,” “timid,” “inhibited,” or “introverted,” but these labels completely miss the nature of the trait. Thirty percent of HSPs are actually extraverts. HSPs only appear inhibited because they are so aware of all the possibilities in a situation. They pause before acting, reflecting on their past experiences. If these were mostly bad experiences, then yes, they will be truly shy. But in a culture that prefers confident, “bold” extraverts, it is harmful as well as mistaken to stigmatize all HSPs as shy when many are not.

I have a long way to go in reviewing this literature of people that remind me of myself.  Stumbling upon this topic has been a real eye-opener for me.  I am sharing it now, in this form (not thoroughly chewed like cud), with the hope that there are others like me out there who could use a little reassurance and encouragement regarding the way your mind works.  It’s that “thing” that makes your life, in equal parts, more frustrating and enriching.

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Category: Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    “Do you enjoy having time to yourself, but always feel a little guilty about it? Then Susan Cain’s “Quiet : The Power of Introverts” is for you. It’s part book, part manifesto. We live in a nation that values its extroverts – the outgoing, the lovers of crowds – but not the quiet types who change the world. She recently answered questions from Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook.”

    . . .

    “According to groundbreaking new research by Adam Grant, a management professor at Wharton, introverted leaders sometimes deliver better outcomes than extroverts do. Introverts are more likely to let talented employees run with their ideas, rather than trying to put their own stamp on things. And they tend to be motivated not by ego or a desire for the spotlight, but by dedication to their larger goal. . . . An interesting line of research by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist suggests that the most creative people in many fields are usually introverts. This is probably because introverts are comfortable spending time alone, and solitude is a crucial (and underrated) ingredient for creativity.”

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/24/the-power-of-introverts-a_n_1229320.html

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    From Atlantic: “Caring for Your Introvert: The habits and needs of a little-understood group.”

    https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2003/03/caring-for-your-introvert/302696/?utm_source=atlfb

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