An introvert and an extrovert walk into a bar…wait…no one’s going to buy that. Here we go…an introvert and an extrovert walk into a…WalMart. Nope, too many people, harsh lighting, probably also some unpleasant smells. Okay, an introvert and an extrovert walk into an empty library after an electrical storm knocks out the power…crap, the extrovert fell asleep. At what point do you pull the plug on a failed intro? Let’s just start over…
Do you know if you’re an introvert or an extrovert? Or an ambivert? I mean, do you really, truly know? Do you ever have difficulties understanding one or the other? Do you wish you were more like the other one? Do introvert/extrovert differences create rifts in your relationships, romantic, familial, business, or otherwise? Do you wish I’d stop asking so many questions? If you do, you might be an introvert, by the way…but point taken, I’ll drop it.
Most people have heard the terms, and a fair amount probably have a decent working knowledge of them. There is some very progressive work being done on this segment of personality psychology, however, that explains how the differences between extroverts and introverts impact relationships and communication. It’s also helping us become aware of a giant misunderstanding that compels a large part of our country’s population to deny a fundamental aspect of who they truly are. It turns out that introverts and extroverts really are quite different people…but that’s okay.
I just finished reading a book by Susan Cain called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. I was surprised at the amount of novel insight it offered on a topic that I had assumed was already pretty thoroughly understood. The book also provided a number of answers to some life puzzles about myself, puzzles that had been a steady source of rumination for years. She does a fantastic Ted Talk as well, a great lead-in and supplement to the full-length book. I’d recommend both of them for introverts and extroverts alike.
I don’t want to rehash all her thoughts here, but I do want to borrow a few to lay a little groundwork on the topic before I go any further. After that, I’d like to get into more about how I have applied the newfound wisdom to my own life experience, some of which may resonate with you as well (and perhaps entertain along the way…there may or may not be cartoons involved).
What Are Introverts and Extroverts?
The first thing to understand is that, like many things, introversion and extroversion aren’t black and white, one or the other…they’re on a spectrum that looks like this:
Everyone (and potentially every animal) falls somewhere on this line, but no one is radically hanging off either edge. In fact, in her book Susan provides a funny quote from influential psychiatrist Carl Jung, the man who first popularized the terms, to emphasize this very point:
“There is no such thing as a pure extrovert or pure introvert. Such a man would be in the lunatic asylum.” – Carl Jung
Yikes. So yeah, we all have some aspects of both, and we probably all shift along the line a little depending on the day. We may even shift around some during different phases of our life as we grow, fall into relationships, change jobs, and just generally experience life. Most likely, though, we can all identify with a sort of default position on the scale.
As you can tell from the spectrum chart, introversion and extroversion, by definition, have to do with a person’s preference for stimulation. Introverts tend towards a preference for lower stimulation, and extroverts tend towards a preference for higher stimulation. The qualifying word “tend” is very important here and is what creates the sliding scale part of things.
So what does environmental stimulation mean? Well, it’s literally any input from the space around you that your brain senses in some way. It can include lighting, noise, movements, temperature, and almost anything else you can think of. A loud dance club with flashy lights and shoulder-to-shoulder people all trying to talk over music is an obvious example of a highly stimulating environment. A quiet library with few people and warm lighting would be an example of a less stimulating environment. Not that all extroverts are bar hoppers and all introverts are librarians (though you may have inferred that from that train wreck of an introduction), but we can generalize to begin wrapping our heads around things.
This idea of environmental stimulation, beyond just social stimulation, is something that I first came across in Susan’s book and interestingly broadens our understanding. I think we all know how social stimuli reveal our introverted or extroverted nature, but the same can be said for everything else around us. Introverts, for example, can be overstimulated and drained by the cacophony of ticking clocks, clicking keyboards, and whizzing cars just as much as by exhausting love-life interrogations orchestrated by nosy friends and relatives over served with one too many bowls of loudmouth soup.
Monitoring the Energy Battery
Introverts generally prefer less stimulating environments, but why exactly is that the case? As do a lot of topics I write about here, it comes down to an energy balance thing. Extroverts are actually at their best in highly stimulating environments, thus they feel energized by such situations. Introverts are at their best at lower levels of stimulation, so highly stimulating environments wind up draining their energy. We can use the old battery analogy here to tie this together…and the generic term “party” as a proxy for a “highly stimulating environment.”
And WHY do introverts and extroverts feel at their best within different levels of stimulation, you might ask? It’s the dopamine, dude! Actually, sensitivity to dopamine. Introverts are very sensitive to dopamine (amongst other things), thus get stimulated easily and don’t need as much of it. Extroverts are the opposite; they crave it.
Sidebar: I wonder if this also means that extroverts are less likely to use and/or abuse recreational drugs (many of which work by preventing the breakdown of dopamine thus keeping it around in our brains and creating more “feel goodies”)? Perhaps an interesting topic for a future post…or maybe you know the answer?
There are actually a number of fascinating ways in which introvert and extrovert brains are quite different from each other; you might enjoy reading about those here -> cool article on brains
So extroverts are charging the battery (getting optimal dopamine stimulation) during a party. Consequently, they act more carefree and crave more of it. The introverts, however, may be having fun too, but they’re expending energy in the process (dealing with excess dopamine stimulation). The more energy they have to start with, the longer they can go, but eventually they begin to run on empty, and the nervous system starts sending out warning signs just like a car’s gas gauge. This is when things like social anxiety or irritability may start to set in or magnify for the introvert. If you watch closely, you can usually spot what’s happening.
This protection of the energy battery, in my opinion, leads to a lot of common characteristics we associate with introverts, things like thinking before they speak, analyzing decisions thoroughly, and generally having a more cautious demeanor. Oh, and sometimes just flat out saying “No” and skipping the party altogether. When you’re always mindful of your energy battery and protecting it from running on empty, you’re less likely to be as carefree and spontaneous as an extrovert. All of these variables that an introvert thinks about will undoubtedly have an impact on the battery reserves, so they are thought through quite carefully to predict the consequences of decisions and actions.
This is also a key point to understand when working or socializing with an introvert. One needs to “pick his or her battles,” so to speak. You’re not going to get an introvert to go to every party with you, and your better odds are to pick the party or event that would be less draining on that particular introvert’s battery. This could mean the one with more mutual friends involved (more familiarity and less novelty equals lower stimulation) or an event in which they’d be interested (like the opening of an art gallery…for an artistic friend).
There is an interesting potential exception (or perhaps an override) to these stimulation preferences, however. The concept comes to us from the “Free Trait Theory” courtesy of Brian little, a psychology professor and self-proclaimed “off-the-charts introvert” (despite his publicly extroverted persona). Brian gives an amazing Ted Talk as well (and a rather funny one at that).
The idea behind Free Trait Theory is that while we have a certain home somewhere on the spectrum of introversion/extroversion, we can sometimes act out of character – run on battery reserves, if you will – for a brief stint to participate in or further the development of certain projects or causes that we find very important to us.
Say you’re an introvert and, oh…I don’t know…a writer, and someone asks you the stock question “How are you doing?” If you think about it deeply, you may notice that your true answer (the one beyond the stock reply of “pretty good”) has a lot to do with how you feel about your writing lately, how much writing you’ve done, or whether or not you’ve gotten some positive feedback recently. And you might also find that you’re more willing to go out and burn some social energy reserves if:
A) You have just spent satisfactory time on your writing that day, or
B) A social event presents you the opportunity to discuss or promote your writing.
As an example, I, myself, tend to find a lot of focused attention from others rather exhausting, but I also like to entertain people, especially those that I care about. I’m more than grateful for opportunities to play music for someone, speak in front of people about a topic that matters to me, write about somewhat personal things here on this blog, or give a best man speech because I love those things and/or people involved. I find the energy to run on reserves for these worthwhile occasions, but I definitely have to be selective about them…and then retreat and recover shortly thereafter.
The Role of Nervous System Sensitivity
We outlined earlier how introverts become overstimulated because of the dopamine sensitivity issue, but it’s not just dopamine, it’s sensitivity to almost anything in general. As I learned from Susan’s book, many introverts are also highly sensitive types (or highly reactive or highly inhibited). A sensitive person’s brain actually takes in far more input which is subsequently going to take more energy for filtering. This has the effect of making any environment seem more “busy” or “noisy” for a sensitive introvert. The sensitive introvert is the one in the group most likely to hear that buzzing noise no one else does or notice the fact that the lights are rather bright in the room when no one else gives a lick.
Although I haven’t done the science to prove it, my logically-educated guess would be that the level of nervous system sensitivity (sensitivity to biological cocktails like dopamine) is the underlying driver that ultimately triggers the expression of personality traits such as introversion/extroversion.
Another interesting effect of being highly sensitive and taking in more inputs is the complexity that develops in thought. While others (less sensitive extroverts) may tend to oversimplify concepts and thoughts, thinking more concretely in black and white, the sensitive type will see all the subtle nuances and realize there may be more to it than meets the eye.
In fact, I also happen to think this is what leads to the old “analysis paralysis” situation (certainly for me, anyway) because one realizes all the variables that really can go into the decision, whether they’re valid or not. The introvert’s battle is not getting more data; it’s data filtering.
It’s been proposed that this complex thinking also explains the observation that introverts bore easily of small talk. Susan offers this gem in her book via a quote from Dr. Jadzia Jagiellowicz:
“If you’re thinking in more complicated ways, then talking about the weather or where you went for the holidays is not quite as interesting as talking about values or morality.”
And now I know why my own small talk skills leave a lot to be desired…
Anyway, to sum up, introverts tend to be (or perhaps most always are) rather sensitive to the environment around them. As a result, they are more easily overwhelmed, express more inhibited personality traits, and thus routinely seek to lower their levels of arousal. And, of course, extroverts are the opposite.
The Extrovert Ideal
So why does all this matter? Well, conflict usually arises when you try to force a square peg into a round hole. In other words, people pressured into behaving differently from their natural state are going to experience some frustration, self-doubt, and possibly even anger as a result. Here’s where it helps to understand one more important concept from Susan’s book (possibly the most important part of it, in fact), what she terms “The Extrovert Ideal.”
The idea is completely obvious once you are aware of it, but it’s so deeply ingrained in the fabric of our society that most of us don’t even realize it’s there. Even if we do realize it, we don’t question it. Instead we question ourselves and our own personalities, not society’s expectations of us.
The Extrovert Ideal is the claim that, basically since the rise of the corporate business area, society has attempted – and mostly succeeded – to convince us we need to be extroverted to be successful and happy.
This dogma completely influences every job application, job interview, school scholarship award, and almost anything else you can think of that deals with being a successful member of society. The job interview itself is basically a huge extroversion test judging how well you interact with an intimidating panel of strangers whose eyes and questions are completely fixated on YOU. And think back to your formative childhood years; what was the “coolest” thing someone could say about you? In my school, anyway, it was that you were “outgoing” or “popular.”
The conflict lies in the difference between beliefs on extroversion. If one believes that extroversion is a skill we can all be good at if we just practice, then they’ll look at this Extrovert Ideal and say “Yeah, what’s the problem?” If, however, one believes that extroversion is a trait, something that’s biologically fundamental as deeply as their skin color or their gender…now we DO have a problem. We can’t go around demanding that people be extroverted any more than we can demand males be more female, yet that’s essentially what we as a collective society are doing. We’re telling people to try to make their brains less sensitive to dopamine; how crazy is that?! We just didn’t know what we didn’t know.
So What Am I (or What Are You)?
So far that was probably a bit heavy and academic (or possibly absolute heaven for many introverts), so let’s lighten up the tone a bit with a fun exercise.
If you don’t know what you are, or you just really enjoy taking a bunch of introspective personality tests as I do, there are plenty of ways to discover yourself. For the purposes of this post, I decided to take six different online tests (actually eight, but two of them tricked me into having to pay money or sign up for a dating site to get my results), so I might as well use my own data as examples (which is not a normal introvert thing to do, but I share for the greater good of humanity…Free Trait Theory in action).
I took all of the following tests below, which I’ve made into links in case you want to try:
- Lonerwolf – A straightforward test (and an aptly-named website) scored from 1-100
- Psychologies.co.uk – Breaks out your tendencies between your private and public persona
- Lifehack.org – Um…yeah…another introvert/extrovert test
- The “Susan Cain” Test – The most heavily weighted towards non-social environmental stuff
- Buzzfeed – Short test with a neat picture of Bart and Lisa Simpson
- Psychology Today – A bit of a beast, and you have to pay to get the full results
So what did I learn about myself? Well, I’m somewhere between a mild introvert and an ambivert, a person who is more introverted in private but who sometimes turns up extroversion in public. I have a lifestyle that others think is boring, and they can’t comprehend how much I actually love it. I have a small group of very close friends, and I become especially introverted when other non-social, environmental stimuli start to wear on me.
So yeah, how about you? I’d love to hear you share in the comments later…after you finish reading!
Summarizing the Differences
As we go through the rest of this post (and the cartoons), keeping in mind the differences between introverts and extroverts, as well as the impact of the Extrovert Ideal, will help to make sense of things the rest of the way through. So to that end, how about a reference?
Conversations with an Introvert
So now we know that introverts and extroverts communicate very differently. Often times an introvert comes across as weird or awkward or perhaps even anti-social to the extrovert. The truth is, though, that they’re just on different wavelengths and possibly looking for different things out of the conversation.
Let’s take a look at a partially hypothetical example of two coworkers in a happenstance meeting on their way to work, viewed through the lens of a totally made up cartoon (but inspired by real events)…Conversations with an Introvert:
There are a few things you can pick up here as to why the extrovert (left) and introvert (right) are out of sync. First of all, the extrovert approaches the introvert in a typically extroverted way, extremely open and expressive, implied by the physical posture and the booming voice (as indicated by text in all caps and exclamation marks), which heightens the level of stimulation for the introvert.
Secondly, the extrovert immediately engages in surface-level small talk (a question about the weather) which disinterests the introvert. Then he put loads of social pressure on the introvert by throwing out that “Got any big plans this weekend?!” question, which ratchets up the anxiety a little higher yet. Eventually the extrovert merrily goes about his day, everything seemingly fine, while the introvert feels a little less cool and a little more socially distanced (thought he need not be).
Sidebar: I need to go on a quick tangent about the whole “GOT ANY BIG PLANS THIS WEEKEND?!” question. Introvert or extrovert, man or woman, dog or gas-powered brush cutter, why on earth do we ask this question of others? To start with, it forces you into the uncomfortable situation of actually having to think and remember what your plans are, something that doesn’t always come to you on the spot, and that potential conversation gap creates an awkward silence that gets worse with every passing second.
Even if you’re lucky enough to remember said plans, you’re still not out of the woods. Best case scenario, you do have plans, but now you’re unsure of what constitutes “big,” so you either say “No, not really” and lie, or you say what the plans are and feel self-conscious about your lame plans. Worst case scenario, you are forced to admit you don’t have any plans at all, which makes you come off as a loser and just deepens your spiral of self-doubt and low self-esteem (I’m exaggerating…slightly).
Unless, by chance, someone is actually holding the “Flying to Mars on a SpaceX unicorn with Michael Jackson’s ghost and the cast of The Simpsons” card, this is a lose-lose proposition that 99.99% of the time makes people feel worse about themselves. Stop making people feel worse about themselves. End of tangent.
Okay, back to the conversations. The first one was awkward and uncomfortable, for one party anyway, and the extrovert may have left feeling uncomfortable as well despite not showing it. Let’s see what a little heightened understanding of introvert/extrovert dynamics does in this next conversation…
Ah, that’s better! First of all, the extrovert tones things down a bit and approaches the introvert more at an equal level. Then he goes into a deeper, more personal anecdote about a show he watched that he hopes the other person might relate to. Now the introvert is opening up and becoming more curious about the interaction, and you can see him moving in closer and engaging with positive facial expressions.
But he’s not quite there yet. First the introvert wants to know if the extrovert is sincerely into the conversation (and the documentary) before diving deeper, so he asks a follow-up question. Once the extrovert opens the door by saying “yeah,” however, the introvert is off to the races! At this point it may even be hard to tell he’s an introvert, and you might have to politely ask him to “shut up” if you actually have somewhere you need to be in the next five hours.
Let’s check back one more time to see how the conversation ended…
Okay, yeah, that one was for me. Moving on…
Another interesting thing about introverts is how sometimes anxiety can multiply exponentially in a conversation. Remember how introverts are always monitoring their energy battery? And remember how they are cautious, like to plan things, and like to feel as though things are under control?
Here you can just see how the introvert is constantly monitoring the amount of expected stimulation and energy expenditure as a result of this party proposition. As the variables accumulate, the introvert starts to freak out internally and eventually shuts down with input overload.
Admittedly, these conversations may seem a little silly, and the examples may be even a little extreme and exaggerated, but similar situations occur all the time. Extroverts aren’t jerks for not getting it, and introverts aren’t lame for being so damn sensitive, that’s just the reality of how their brains work. The more aware of these differences we can be, the easier it is to let one another be who they are. Remember, introversion and extroversion are fundamentally traits, not skills.
It’s All Just a Big Misunderstanding
I believe a large portion of conflict amongst people is simply due to misunderstanding each other. And within that portion of conflict, the portion driven by misunderstanding, I would say there’s nothing we can’t resolve by fine tuning our communication. If two people truly appreciate each other’s perspective, while they might not like it, they will often be able to accept it and move on with things.
The more time we spend living here on this rocky planet, the more we realize how different we are. Like literally, no two people are the same. Even two republicans have slightly different views on what it means to be republican. There’s no reason to discriminate against others for things like skin color, orientation, or gender any more than we would discriminate over less emotionally-charged differences such as the number of hair follicles per square inch of skin, taste preferences in food, or listening preferences in music. Likewise, it would behoove us to appreciate the fundamental personality traits of people, including one’s level of extroversion or introversion, and not expect them to act otherwise.
I used to fall prey to the Extrovert Ideal, that previously discussed notion that our society values extroversion as THE successful skill (rather than a version of a trait), we should all strive towards. And yes, extroversion is wonderful, but extroverts don’t have a monopoly on success and happiness.
Introversion is also a viable version of the trait, and if you are an introvert, you have endless paths to success and happiness as well. The best way to be successful and happy, especially long term, is to be the best, most authentic version of you, whether you’re a black, extroverted female, or a white, introverted male, or any other combination of traits possible.
Thoughts and feelings are just that, thoughts and feelings. There’s never anything wrong with them, it’s all about how you respond. Some of the conversations from the cartoons above may seem very silly (full disclosure, they’re based on actual conversations I’ve had in my recent past…I’m the introvert). I once thought they were silly too, even that I was doing something wrong, but I wasn’t wrong. We don’t need good vs bad labeling here. Things just are. It it what it is. Fighting against who you are only tears you down, weakens you, and drains your energy needlessly. Introverts aren’t failing at extroversion…they’re just introverted.
Getting back in touch with that introverted part of my personality has been a wild rollercoaster lately, and at times I have swung too far the other direction, but ultimately it’s been a most rewarding experience. I’ve learned that it’s okay to say “No” when I need to, but I’ve also learned when I need to push myself a little as well. Quiet, creative alone time isn’t necessarily the oxygen I breathe – I don’t need it all the time – but it is a lot like the food I eat; the longer I go without it, the crankier I get and the worse I function. Knowing is half the battle.
I think a lot of other introverts probably feel misunderstood as well. Perhaps extroverts do also, but because of this ever present “extrovert ideal” within our society, introverts are more likely to feel it. Many people think we introverts should get out more, have more “fun,” and that we need to be prodded to do so, as if they know what’s best for us and we won’t do it on our own accord. There may be a modicum of truth to that, yes. What many of them don’t understand, however, is that what we do IS our own version of fun.
For me personally, I really enjoy the grind of study, practice, and analysis, really getting to understand something deeply. I don’t enjoy things as much on their surface, I take them in very fully. And it takes a healthy dose of solitude to accomplish that (and to recover from it, paradoxically). Solitude is where we often find complex patterns, make creative connections, and come up with inspirations that wouldn’t manifest the same while in the company of others.
Solitude is also the place that led me to seemingly bizarre curiosities. When you contemplate truly on your own, quite logically you will stumble upon trains of thought that are as unique as you are. It’s great to read about and offer opinions on things everyone is talking about, but I think it is equally great to observe something independently and come up with a completely uninfluenced view.
Solitude led me to researching and understanding “crazy” things like how the physics of light may have a much bigger impact on our biology than “common sense” tells us. It led me to most everything on this blog. Solitary introspection helps you develop your true sense of self and your authentic set of beliefs before you go out in the world and talk about them with others. After all, without really knowing who you are and what you believe, how would you know what to say?
Tips for Introverts (and Extroverts too)
If there’s one thing I could say to help an introvert live their best life, I would just remind them that they don’t have to be, or act like, an extrovert. Even if you believe in the extrovert ideal and you believe that having more of those traits would make you more successful, whatever that means to you, also recognize the price you pay for not being truly authentic.
Realize that introverts have positive attributes too. The very things that make you sensitive and cautious can be your strengths. Your gifts of introspection, intuition, and deliberation may help you to make better decisions and come to better conclusions. Your empathy and ability to observe and read others may allow you to better help those around you. And you can take advantage of deep relationships that you make along the way. If you read Susan’s book, you’ll find this is hardly my original thought but still very true and worth repeating.
It’s also good to push your comfort zone and be able to bring out your inner ambivert or extrovert at times, just don’t try to be someone you’re not. And when you push, push modestly. Just as many great accomplishments are achieved by layering tiny gains that accumulate over time, being more comfortable with extroverted situations takes time and deliberate practice. Stretching yourself one or two notches higher at times can expand your comfort zone, but jumping off the deep end often hardens your nervous system’s defenses as it responds with an “I told you so!” and digs its heels in to “protect you.”
Make time for a small handful of things you truly enjoy and are truly passionate about doing well. Take advantage of Mr. Little’s Free Trait Theory for the times it helps to be more extroverted. You’ll find that you’re best able to put yourself out there for the things and people that truly light you up in life. It’ll give you that little edge to make it easier on yourself.
Take advantage of the times when your energy levels are higher. Since high levels of stimulation drain you, don’t pick the days where you are running on empty to attempt to be a pseudo extrovert. Be okay with saying “No.” On the days you have some reserves, though, pick those as your days to make a less-than-anticipated phone call, ask out that person you’ve been
stalking interested in, or join your friends at the pub.
Be an actor. This is one I’ve never really seen written elsewhere, but it works for me. The best way for me to play pseudo extrovert is to be in a position where I’m “acting.” Maybe that means using some sort of quasi “character” while giving a presentation at work. Maybe it means having an alias when you’re running around Vegas with your friends (just like they do in the movies). Or maybe it means literally becoming an actor and auditioning for a local play. Whatever it is, the temporary “mask” you wear gives you the freedom to be someone else, someone more extroverted when you need to be. This may seem to conflict with that whole “be the most authentic version of you,” but this is a short term “tool,” not a way of being.
And for the extroverts, try to get in the introvert’s shoes with the concepts above and see it from their point of view. Instead of expecting them to act like you, meet them in the middle, and appreciate them for who they are.
Now Go and Live with a New Perspective
The biggest gift I’ve gotten from my new perspective is the freedom to be myself, guilt-free, without trying to be something I’m not biologically equipped to be. I’m still a huge fan of personal growth, absolutely one-hundred percent, but I do it within the framework of who I am. In a lot of ways, true personal growth is really about searching within and discovering or remembering exactly what you are, what you always were.
There’s an easy way of knowing when you’re being your best self, and that’s following your gut. Even though at times it seems you have to fight against the grain of society to do so, I believe the struggle is more internal than we realize. Once we become fully in sync with this inner, authentic self, other people can sense an aura of confidence and comfortability. Whether you find it by talking the ears off every stranger you see, meditating peacefully in the park, or somewhere in between, other people will acknowledge your inner harmony and take notice. That’s when you realize you have nothing to prove…you never did.