When you hear the question, "Are you an introvert or extrovert?" you likely have one of three reactions: "I'm such an introvert!" or "Extrovert is so me!" or "Hmm... I'm not sure which one I am..." Each one of those answers is valid and valuable. The problem is, society tends to be dominated by and structured for extroverts, which makes it really difficult for the rest of us -- everyone from the 100% introvert to the ambivert (it's a spectrum, after all!) -- to function in a ways that are comfortable and enjoyable. If you're not sure exactly what the differences between the two are, here's a very general idea, based on some reading I've done. These don't apply to every introvert/extrovert and they can vary by degrees, especially for those who find themselves in the ambivert camp.
- Introverts recharge with alone time. Extroverts are energized by other people.
- Introverts focus on inner thoughts and feelings. Extroverts seek out people and experiences.
- Introverts prefer reflection. Extroverts tend toward action.
- Introverts are more likely to avoid conflict. Extroverts are often at ease with confrontation.
- Introverts would rather observe. Extroverts prefer to participate.
- Introverts enjoy being introverts. Extroverts enjoy being extroverts.
- Introverts are excited by ideas (internal). Extroverts are enlivened by the world (external).
I personally tend to identify pretty strongly with the introvert tendencies listed above but, as I said, these are set in stone and can vary from person to person. The important thing to remember is that both introverts and extroverts have value, but one category (the extroverts) is given a lot more attention and acceptance in today's culture. See, introverts and extroverts are kind of like the night and the day. We need them both. They both add value to the human existence. But one -- the day -- is given a lot more attention and convenience. Society is set up for daytime living. If you were to try living only during the night, you'd have a lot of hurdles to overcome. That's kind of what it's like to life as an introvert (in a metaphorical way -- not an introverts-are-vampires way).
I've been an introvert my entire life, but it was only when I got into my late-twenties that I finally started recognizing (and trying to work with) my introvertedness. Before that, I'd either been very moody and mercurial (my childhood) or I'd used substances to cope with my introvertedness (high school and college socialization was conducted under the extrovert-inducing veil of alcohol or drugs). Getting older (and sober) taught me that, like it or not, I fall heavily on the introverted side of the spectrum. I've learned to accept and cope with this the best I can, but lately I've come against quite a few people who just don't get it and, as a result, try to push me into extroverted activities that I just don't enjoy.
One of the biggest challenges introverts face, or at least that this particular introvert faces, is people not understanding introversion and, worse still, trying to change it. The problem lies, I think, in one of the greatest misconceptions about introverts: that, deep down, we're all longing to be extroverts if only we could be a little braver / louder / more social. This idea stems from the false belief that all introverts are shy. Shyness is possible in introverts, but it's not part of what it means to be introverted at all. (It's like saying that all extroverts are attention-seekers. Yes, some are, but that's not what being an extrovert is all about.) Shyness is a painful experience, and those who are shy might, in fact, long to be more extroverted. Introverts, on the other hand, are perfectly happy being introverted -- typically only bothered by it when it's frowned upon or misunderstood by others.
This, I think, is at the root of my personal struggles as an introvert. I'm not shy. I'm not quiet. If I'm in a group of people, I have no problem being the center of attention, and, in fact, I quite enjoy it. These attributes can be confusing to extroverts. They see similarities -- a willingness to speak up, a boisterous laugh, a friendly smile -- and assume that I am like them, that I'm feeding off of the energy of others in a positive way. But, in reality, time spent with people -- even those I love and enjoy -- is draining my energy, minute by minute. For an extrovert, who receives energy from being around others, it can be nearly impossible to comprehend how social stimulation could literally (and mentally) exhaust an introvert, particularly if the introvert isn't quite, withdrawn, or reserved. Many introverts, myself included, have learned how to adapt to the extrovert-focused culture. I know that it's socially unacceptable to sit down at a party and just watch people. (Just try it and see how quickly you get the, "What's wrong? Are you alright?" questions.)
When I'm with people, particularly people I don't know well, I'm often putting on a show. I'm doing what I can do fit into the culture: engaging, laughing, asking, smiling, sharing, talking. I learned to do this as a child, I'm guessing, and I can be quite good at it when I want to be. But, the thing is, the older I get, the less time I want to spend pretending. (I think that's true for all of us. The older we get, the less time we want to waste on what's not positive for us.) For people who have known me for decades, this is likely to be a little confusing. I used to be more sociable, or so it seemed. But, in reality, it was only that I was better at pretending (or perhaps just more willing to pretend) back then. Also, alcohol used to help a great deal with this. When I drank, I became much more social and extroverted, as many people do. Now that I no longer drink, I am more myself, but that self isn't always aligned with what extroverts want me to be.
While I, of course, have lots of wonderful and positive experiences with other people, I almost always feel exhausted by being in new or overstimulating environments (even with people I love in places I love). When I need time alone to recharge, it isn't necessarily because I need to get away from people. It's often because I need to get away from overstimulation. This can be confusing (and frustrating) to extroverts who are having a good time, feeding off of the energy of others. I totally understand this frustration because I, on the flip side, feel frustrated by extroverts' need to constantly be around people.
It's difficult for introverts and extroverts (particularly those at the far sides of either end of the spectrum) to understand each other and find common, enjoyable ground. And, because society tends to be set up for extroverts, introverts often have to either grin-and-bear extroverted experiences or stay away from them. Over the years, I've seen more and more attention brought to the struggle of introverts in an external world. Susan Cain's Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking and the Quiet Revolution have had big impacts, as have books like Introvert Doodles, Text, Don't Call: A Guide to the Introverted Life, Quiet Girl in a Noisy World, and The Secret Lives of Introverts, but I have to wonder how many extroverts are actually reading these things. Books like these are amazingly helpful for introverts to feel less alone and more accepted internally, but they aren't changing the fact that most extroverts don't get introverts. And, to be honest, that's not really even the issue.
Sure, it would be nice if the world were a bit more introvert-friendly (the internet does help a lot with that, though!), but, at least for this introvert, that's not really the problem. I've learned to deal with the extrovert-focused world as best I can and, after thirty-five years, I've gotten used to it. I hope for changes, but I'm able to cope with how it is. What I do struggle to cope with is extroverts who try to change introverts. Extroverts don't have to be introverted. (No one is saying you need to stay home -- though most of you could benefit from a little quiet time!) Extroverts don't even have to understand introversion. (Though it'd be nice if they'd at least try.) Extroverts need only to accept introverts for who they are.
Here are just a few ways extroverts can be supportive of introverts:
- Invite introverts, but don't be offended if they say no.
- Don't pressure an introvert (or anyone) who has said "no."
- Realize that introversion isn't a flaw. It's how we're born.
- Respect the personal space of introverts (and all people!).
- Don't call if there's a way to text (or, if a call is needed, text first!).
- Try not to take introverts' need for alone time personally.
- Consider the level of stimulation before inviting an introvert.
- Aim for deep conversations over banal small talk.
- Don't make introverts do too much work in groups.
- Give introverts plenty of down time after socializing.
- Ask introverts what would make them most comfortable.
This isn't meant to put all of the pressure on extroverts to accommodate introverts but, in an extrovert-focused world, it's helpful for extroverts to pay attention to the introverts who are generally just doing their best to make the most of a society that wasn't designed with them in mind. Introverts and extroverts both have so much to offer but we just have different ways of presenting our gifts to the world. As Susan Cain said, "Everyone shines, given the right lighting." If you're an introvert, know that you, too, can shine. If you're an extrovert, consider how you might allow the introverts in your life to find their own kind of lighting.
I'd love to hear your thoughts on what it's like to be an introvert or extrovert. Do you identify as one or the other? What are some experiences (good or bad) that you've had with someone who is different than you are? Let me know in the comments below! Also, let me know if you want me to write more about this topic. I feel like I could write all day about this!