I’m writing this in an isolated village north of the Arctic Circle. Bettles, Alaska. Year-round population 14. No permanent road access to the outside world. In winter. During the Coronavirus pandemic. This is perhaps to say that I have found ample time of late to explore and make peace with one important facet of my identity that is a powerful force in my being: introversion.
Years ago, in the course of rampant get-to-know-you questions featured as part of the dreaded ice-breakers common at new school years or group orientations, one question that would often arise was ‘what is something you would change about yourself?’ Immediate responses from most participants tended towards the superficial and the physical: ‘I would have straight hair,’ or ‘I would be taller.’ Trying to go deeper than that and thinking of myself as more clever, however, the response that I came up with, after mulling the question over for a few moments, was ‘I wish I would be more extroverted.’ You see, being in those new and unfamiliar social situations was anxiety-inducing for an introvert like me. And, growing up in a culture that places high esteem on extroverts and social butterflies, I too longed to be part of the extroverts, sociable and at ease with large groups of unfamiliar people. (Only years later, when I began to learn about the anatomy of introversion in greater detail, would I realize that my reaction to the question of ‘what is something you would change about yourself?’—to take a moment and deeply process the question itself—was a direct byproduct of being an introvert.)
I am now making peace with introversion, however. Unlike the days where I would have wished for a more extroverted temperament, I have begun to see my introversion for what it really is. Instead of seeing introversion as a shortcoming, as a lack of something, as an inadequacy, I’ve begun now to view it as a strength of its own merit. I no longer see introversion and extroversion on a scale of bad/undesirable (i.e. introversion) to good/desirable (i.e. extroversion). Instead, I am realizing that there are many gifts and qualities I possess as an introvert that I have previously taken for granted because I failed to realize that they derive from my introverted nature.
Perhaps it is quite obvious to notice the gifts of introversion here in remote Alaska. I spend the majority of my days working independently and alone (in the company of many dogs, but not people), and nights I spend by myself in my own apartment. There is ever so much quality alone time that I have available to myself. Fortunately, I am never at a loss for things to do. I never find myself getting bored, and I tend to keep my own company quite well. As for socialization, I have ample imagined conversations with people I’ve known previously that are all contained within my mind. In fact, my time up here in the Alaskan bush has afforded me both the time and space for activities that I enjoy but don’t often make time for (e.g. reading, blogging), and for mental processing that commonly falls by the wayside in a busy, fast-paced world.
As I have gotten older, I’ve not only begun to make peace with my temperament, but I’ve also begun to understand it in a more nuanced light. My very basic understanding of introversion—and this is what led me to desire to be more extroverted when I was younger—was altogether too simplistic. I viewed extroversion as the ability to make friends and have ease in social interactions. Introversion was extroversion’s opposite. Introversion was shyness, a difficulty making friends. Social anxiety.
To be fair, introversion and shyness do often look similar, but they are not the same. Shyness is in fact a symptom of a greater social anxiety experienced by interacting with people, particularly unfamiliar people (see social anxiety disorder). The fact that introverts do spend a great deal of their time alone does not automatically mean they are shy. Though introverts often prefer their own company, they can be quite gregarious when they are in the right environment.
But for me, as that small child hiding behind his mother’s legs, shyness and introversion were conflated. They were one and the same. Yes, I was born an introvert. But yes, I was also shy growing up. Making friends was never quick or easy for me. I blamed introversion as the source of my woes.
I kept my rudimentary notions of the introversion/extroversion divide intact and unchallenged for many years. It wasn’t until college that I began to see these personal qualities differently. My freshman year in college, I took a career-matching test that included the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test, or MBTI (take a free online version here). The MBTI rates each individual on a spectrum of four major temperament traits, one of them being introversion/extroversion. I, quite as expected, scored almost near the pole of introversion. I was, as I was unfortunately dreading, still ‘hindered’ by introversion after all these years. My career counselor, however, explained the result in a new light for me. Instead of seeing introversion and extroversion as a measure of shyness versus social affability, she said, see it as energy. Introversion and extroversion are more about where you get your energy from, how you recharge. Extroverts draw energy and recharge when hanging out with other people, she explained. Introverts, on the other hand, recharge energy by spending time by themselves. My career counselor’s words were food for a famished introvert’s soul. I gladly accepted her explanation. In fact, I took it very much to heart by almost immediately devouring David Keirsey’s book explaining the 16 Myers-Briggs personality types, Please Understand Me II: Temperament, Character, Intelligence. No longer seeing introversion quite as a negative, I sought to read and understand as much as I could about my temperament (which was quite an introverted thing to do).
The results from my career match test made much more sense when introversion was understood as a particular method of gaining energy, rather than as an aversion to people. My top ten career matches found during that counseling session were all very social in nature. They included Elementary School Teacher, Minister, and Corporate Trainer as the first three matches. In fact, only one result in my top ten matches, Carpenter (#6) did not have the parenthetical ‘S’ denoting it was classified by the survey as a ‘social’ occupation.
It wouldn’t be until years later when I read another book that I would again have an epiphany about introversion. The book, fittingly titled Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking is by self-identified introvert Susan Cain. Cain starts with a history of introversion and extroversion in American culture, explaining how those labels were not too relevant in a culture that judged people based primarily on their character and values up until the late nineteenth century. However, beginning in the early twentieth century, the culture of character became a ‘cult of personality,’ as increased economic competition from an industrializing nation forced people to become performers: either outperform each other or fall behind. Whereas in the nineteenth century a good leader was defined by values-driven words such as integrity, morals, duty, and citizenship (words that are not necessarily introverted or extroverted), in the twentieth century concepts that described a good leader shifted towards words like charming, fascinating, magnetic, and popular (traits of personality more befitting of extroverted individuals). The twentieth century saw the rise of the charismatic leader as the ideal. Individuals who were outgoing and loud talkers began to be seen as better leaders by virtue of their extroversion. Introversion, and introverts, began to be viewed as inferior to extroverts in their capabilities. The cultural bias against introversion in America had started. And it still continues today.
But beyond the fascinating social history of introversion in America, the most important part of Cain’s book for me, the content with which I resonated with the most, dealt with neuroscience. That introverts and extroverts are wired differently is, pardon my pun, a no-brainer. Cain relates how the biggest differences in introversion and extroversion are in information processing and the brain’s response to neurotransmitters. Extroverts have wide information channels. They take in lots of stimuli all at once, process it rather quickly, and move on to intake even more information. This can explain why extroverts can react so quickly to novel situations, think well on their feet, and often seek, perhaps even need to seek, high levels of stimulation to keep from getting bored. For extroverts, the neurotransmitter of import is dopamine, the chemical responsible for reward seeking in the brain. Dopamine is released in the brain when acquiring external rewards, like earning money, gaining notoriety, or attracting a mate. The extrovert brain is less sensitive to dopamine than an introvert’s, and thus needs more of the neurotransmitter to feel stimulated: more risk, more reward. The desire for more dopamine hits leads to extroverts seeking out risk, especially in social situations. Interestingly enough, the hormone adrenaline, the body’s fight-or-flight compound, increases the brain’s uptake of dopamine; this is also why extroverts trend towards high-risk, high-stimulation physical activities as well. With other people being some of the most stimulating things around, extroverts are drawn towards many interactions with many different people and feel intense reward from the rush of dopamine to the brain.
Introverts, on the other hand, have very narrow information processing channels. Though introverts process information slowly, they do so in a level of detail that is not seen in an extrovert’s rapid and cursory information processing. The neural information processing pathways of an introvert takes new stimuli past networks associated with long-term memory and future planning as well, which helps the introvert make connections with the past and help plan for the future. Though the narrow information processing channel of an introvert means novel stimuli are processed more slowly, it also lends the introvert unparalleled ability to focus on one thing at a time in great detail. In terms of neurotransmitters, introverts are highly sensitive to the dopamine encountered from risk-taking. Quiet activities like reading a book may provide an introvert enough dopamine to feel rewarded, while the amount of dopamine released at a large party may make the introvert feel over-stimulated and stressed by their surroundings. An additional neurotransmitter, acetylcholine, is particularly acute for introverts. Like dopamine, acetylcholine is also associated with reward systems in the brain; however, whereas dopamine comes from external reward stimuli, acetylcholine comes from internal reward stimuli. Acetylcholine provides the brain a pleasure sensation when an individual thinks deeply, reflects, and focuses attention for extended periods of time. Acetylcholine is also linked to the parasympathetic nervous system, the opposite of the sympathetic nervous system responsible for the fight-or-flight response. The parasympathetic nervous system is the ‘rest-and-digest’ side, responsible for calming the body down and withdrawing from the outside world. These neurological differences are all reasons why introverts quite often seek quiet places and time alone.
The way Susan Cain explained introversion in terms of mental processing made me see how my mind functioned as an introvert. My penchant to avoid loud and crowded parties and instead focus on only a few close friends or to seek alone time was directly tied to my capabilities to concentrate and think deeply. I was a holistic person, not someone marred by the unfortunate circumstance of being introverted and reserved. The gifts that I have that I cherish—my detailed observations, my keen memory, my mental acuity, my focus—are a byproduct of being wired as an introvert. I wouldn’t trade any of that for the chance to be more outgoing.
Once I began to see, in fact to feel, how being an introvert is quite a positive thing, I began to embark on an inner-journey of finding personal acceptance and flourishing as an introvert. There is no changing the way I am wired. I will never become an extrovert. There is only finding ways to use my introversion to its fullest.
On the Myers-Briggs survey, for example, one of the questions asks the taker to choose between the following scenarios: spending a little time with a lot of people, or, spending a lot of time with a few people. The introvert would, of course, tend towards spending time with a few close friends rather than many casual acquaintances. The beauty in this is that relationships, though relatively few, are much, much deeper. Perhaps I am shy and reserved because I am an introvert. But there are layers to me that will only get revealed when I am ready to share. It takes me time to grow close to people, and a great deal of effort before I can trust them with the privacy of my inner world. Anyone who does get to see my inner workings should feel special to have gained that level of trust.
But even though I have a small circle of very close friends, it doesn’t mean I interact with those friends all that often. Just by circumstance, my life choices have taken me away from my closest friends for months, even years at a time. We might only share a few remote interactions per year, but when we do see each other, the time is focused very intentionally on each other. I am proud that I have been able to maintain close friendships in my adult life. I am proud that I have close people to talk to about the big things in life. I am proud that there are people in my life who I can feel incredibly at ease with just being in their presence, not even having to fill the air with words. Indeed, many of the interactions I have with my closest friends occur in my own imagination. I can imagine holding a conversation with a particular friend about a specific subject, and I imagine what the dialogue would be. Hand-writing a letter is also a way of having a conversation with a friend without the need for talking. Though my closest friends are not the people I spend the most time with in my daily life, there is a great deal of connection between us that endures, in part to my introverted devotion to my close friend circle.
Now don’t get me wrong that I don’t enjoy going out with people to do things. It takes me time to come around to the idea of social engagements. The surest way to get me to say ‘no’ to something is to spring it on me last minute. Surprises make me ill at ease. Even if I say ‘no’ to a social engagement ahead of time, I’ll eventually come around to it, and will even look forward to it. I just need time to process and plan things well in advance. And don’t feel ashamed or like a bad host if I leave earlier than others; I don’t have as much social energy as other people and choose to leave before I feel drained and regret attending. It’s my way of getting the most joy out of the situation without exhausting myself.
When I do find myself overstimulated and socially exhausted, I need time and space away to recharge. I keep good company with myself—indeed, there’s rarely a dull moment. There is so much to see in the world, but I would rather focus on one thing at a time. I can spend hours alone in a woodshop fine-tuning details on the project I’m working on. I can readily lose myself in a good book. And spending time in nature—traveling or even just sitting still and observing—is restorative therapy. There is so much input to take in, and I want to spend all the time I can to take in each thing deeply.
I’ve heard it phrased quite often that introverts have quite rich inner lives. I’ve always thought: but doesn’t everyone? I’ve never thought of my inner life as anything other than rich. But maybe that’s one thing I take for granted. Maybe other people live most of their lives on the surface. There’s really no way to tell for certain. After all, we can never truly get into each other’s heads. But there’s a lot that goes on inside of me. It’s a world of unspoken conversations and imagined possibilities, conversations with plants and animals and things. It’s a world of thought experiments and logical arguments. It’s a world full of keen observations of anything I’ve ever taken in.
I’m finally accepting—no, wait—embracing my identity as an introvert. Introversion is not a social shortcoming—it is a valuable gift. In a society where personality has come to dominate our attention, it is harder for introverts to find their place. However, when given the right conditions to grow, it is the introverts who really have so much to offer the world.
“Though your mind continually searches for order and pattern in the ocean waves, there is none to be found. The ocean is perfectly chaotic and achieves a deep sense of beauty which our minds recognize but are scant to understand” —Paraphrased from an Alan Watts Lecture
At times you may find yourself unsettled: angsty, pensive, unsure, angry. These emotions welling up inside of you need a reprieve, an outlet; they need an environment conducive to processing those feelings. Someplace gloomy, foreboding, immense; somewhere to connect with your mood. In times like these, you seek out water, wherever it may be—the beach, on the ocean or a pond, a raging river or gentle stream. Whatever it is, there is something special inherent about that landscape. Something in its sublime beauty eases the tension in your mind. In these over-bearing alien landscapes, there is solace, solitude. Sitting, strolling, or wandering aimlessly lost along the water’s edge, you can feel a change in your psyche. Your anxious thoughts lessen, your mind begins to process what conflicts you. There by yourself, you begin to delve into your inner being. The landscape you have sought has become your conduit towards introspection.
I am one who seeks the water when anxious. The primal nature of the powerful waves awes me, and I feel small and insignificant compared to their might. The calm reflection on a still pond reaches me too, and my mind is soothed by the gently undulating ripples on the surface. Alone in these environs I can recollect myself, dive deeper into myself, come away with a deeper understanding of myself. The water, I have found, is a prime landscape for self-reflection.
Acadia National Park, Maine
Yet angst and anger—that troubling slew of emotions—is not the sole reason one visits the water’s edge. At other times, you will be experiencing different emotions: tranquil, curious, joyful. In those moments you may not be alone, or even want to be alone. You may be with other people. Regardless, the sheer beauty of the waves and water still works on you and those around you. This environment is different, you can tell. You feel something tangibly distinct here, though you cannot name it. Somehow you feel more at ease, like the water is a trusted friend there to support you in your relations. You can feel yourself opening up to the souls of those around you. Maybe those you are with had been introspecting the same as you, and have now became ready to share these quiet ruminations outside of themselves. Whatever the cause, you begin to open up. The landscape has fostered a window of special extroversion among those you are with.
I have had many deep and meaningful conversations by the water. So too I have had many deeply difficult conversations in similar places. On these occasions, the bond between the people involved was challenged—twisted, wrenched—and yet ultimately deepened. It’s not that meaningful conversations happen exclusively by the water—it’s just that this particular landscape seems to coax it out of me more easily. It seems to coax it out of those I’m with as well. These landscapes serve as a catalyst for our human connection.
Maybe different landscapes serve this same purpose for other people—deserts, mountains, forests—all have some sort of special power to connect us. For me, it is the water that is most impactful. It is a landscape that lends itself both to a powerful introspection yet also opens me up to meaningful relationships with others.