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Making Peace with Introversion

This post is in honor of World Introvert Day, celebrated each year on January 2nd.

https://www.introvertday.org/

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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.

My top ten career matches from a test taken my freshman year of college

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.

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For Further Reading:

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Privacy

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Base Camp: My place of work and my home

 

It should come as no big surprise to say that I am an introvert; by nature, I tend to keep to myself and be a generally private person. But my reservedness and hesitancy to join in on social situations does not equate to a dislike of spending time or sharing my life with others. Quite the opposite I’d say. Since socialization does not come easily to me, I tend to value the connections I’m able to forge all the much more. But as a rather shy and introverted person, forming those connections is often a monumental task. Though privacy is in my nature, it is a very obstinate part of me that is a challenge to overcome in order to know and being known by others.

But in regards to privacy, I’m not so much describing it as a physical need. I can easily do without a high level of physical privacy; I’ve lived with people in very close quarters in the past, and continue to do so unhesitatingly. Sharing bedrooms and bathrooms and kitchens (and maybe even a ship’s hold) is no big deal to me. In fact, I currently live with three others in a giant platform tent. As one could imagine, a tent does not provide much personal privacy from those you share it with; all my personal effects and all my daily actions are on display for my tent-mates to bear witness. Nor is the tent even sealed off from the outside world, as the sheer necessity of ventilation keeps the flaps of the tent open for any gazing eyes. And, since the tent is my living quarters at the place where I work (a camp for children going on summer adventure trips), my daily life is exposed by close contact with many pairs of inquisitive eyes who I must interact with on both a personal and professional level. For all the lack of physical privacy, I’m very comfortable with the lifestyle. Limited privacy is just the unavoidable reality of living in tight quarters.

 

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Inside my simple living quarters

 

So when I consider myself a private person, it’s not because I seek out physical privacy to a higher degree than others; more accurately, it’s that I tend to be an emotionally private person. It is difficult to get to know me, and to those I’ve just met I may come off as cold, aloof, or disinterested. Maybe my reserve is a defense mechanism, a way of protecting myself from the perceived judgement of unfamiliar others. In any new social situation, I’m continually testing the waters to see if the temperature is right to expose just a little bit more of my inner self. Even the act of declaring an interest in something is risky for me. Always looking for social approval (and unfortunately, burdened too much by the need for it), I take relations with other people slowly and gradually, building off of the trust garnered from their acceptance. If I don’t perceive a sense of solidarity or acceptance from a group of people when I expose my inner workings, then it’s a hasty retreat back to my own private world. I don’t feel like people need to like the same things as I do; they just need to not make me feel less of a person for it.

As part of my private nature, I don’t put all of myself out on the table all at once. For me, the best is always yet to come, being saved away for when the moment is right. I am always holding something back, always keeping some part of my inner personality hidden and safe. These inner workings may be shared with others when the personal relationship has matured to an appropriate level. But that doesn’t occur until after so much of the hard groundwork of forming a friendship has taken place. I hate the phrase ‘instant friends’. I’ve never become instant friends with anyone. Instead, individuals who talk too much and share too much of themselves immediately are off-putting to me. Few things cause me to retreat into myself quicker than being in situations with many loud outgoing people. In a very social culture such as ours, I’ve found ways to manage my personal reactions in order to join in. In crowded places, I’ll seek out the quiet corners on the periphery. When not feeling a connection with the culture of a group, I’ve mastered the art of the slipping away unnoticed. Even living in close quarters with others, I have a knack for finding out-of-the-way places that are just out of sight. With all these situations, I’m usually lingering around with the hopes of forming connections with people, but am only just waiting for the right conditions to arrive in order to act.

Although it is hard to get to know me, I understand the extreme value of knowing and being known by others. I crave that longing deep desire for meaningful relationships in life, of having a circle around you of those who you can trust. This is as essential to me as food and water—a requirement for my psychological well-being. Though I do not make close friends with many people, the friendships I do forge are unshakeable. Forming new friendships and deepening old ones is essential. But given my shyness, it is also an extremely difficult endeavor.

I’ve found a way to combat my own shyness and reserve, though. Since I am a private person, the basis of my strategy is to structure my life so as to naturally reduce the level of personal privacy in my daily happenings. What I’ve found that breaks down the social barriers is living closely with other people, forgoing traditional ideas of privacy in order to form a communal life. It takes a long time for me to develop comfort around new people, and even so much longer for friendships to form to the level of depth that I desire. The formation of friendships is not by chance and not by chemistry alone, but rather as the result of the long-term accumulation of all the small, insignificant interactions shared between two people. Daily life may not in and of itself provoke the most meaningful interactions, but it does provide the framework for it to take place. I’m bad at small talk, but I’m great at sharing space. Doing so helps break down the barriers I have with getting to be known by others. Every time I interact with someone in a positive way, no matter how small, I begin to develop a deeper sense of trust with that person. The interaction can be as trivial as making breakfast at the same time in the kitchen—it doesn’t even really matter if we are making our own separate meals either—the important part is that I know you’re there with me and accepting of my presence just by being in the room. Seeing others act out their quotidian lives—making food in the kitchen, cleaning the bathroom, reading a book—helps me feel more trustful of them. Those daily interactions, fostered by the lack of personal privacy, form the basis of what is needed for me to open up to others.

It’s not that I don’t trust strangers—it’s just more natural to place confidence in the people I know well instead. Once that level of trust begins being reached in any relationship, then I’ll feel more comfortable offering up more of myself to them. My layers will be peeled back and I’ll begin to share more of my inner thoughts and past experiences, my embarrassments and insecurities as well. For me, my sharings are offered up as a valuable gift. If I don’t feel like these gifts of myself are well-received, then I will become more reserved and less likely to share again in the future. I do not like to talk about myself freely; it is only to those who have shown enough acceptance and fraternity who I feel comfortable enough around. There are only a few people in my life with who I feel I have reached that deep level of personal honesty. To me, being known in that manner is an incredible form of intimacy.

And it’s all so hard to achieve that level of intimacy in private. For me to reach that level, a lack of privacy is often needed. Hence, I enjoy (and probably require) living with people so closely, and it’s why I find it so beneficial to put myself in situations where there is a lack of physical privacy. With less physical privacy, the inner-lives of those around you (and yours as well) cannot be so well hidden. Those who I know best are the ones whom I’ve shared situations where personal privacy was lacking—roommates, housemates, camping buddies. I’ve also found that being in compromising situations—in the right circumstances—also helps friendships to grow rather quickly. Since I desire and yearn for being known both emotionally and intellectually, yet I am so shy and reserved, I have found that I require this lack of physical privacy to boost me along in my relationships. Otherwise, I’ve found, it takes years for such a deep level of friendship to develop—if it ever develops at all. So, I’ll gladly take the trade-off of having limited physical privacy. I don’t need that much of it anyway—especially when what is gained in return is being known at a deeper interpersonal level.