Do you ever tell people you’re an introvert?
Do you enjoy articles with titles like ’10 Things Introverts Love to Do?
Was Susan Cain’s ‘Quiet’ one of the most important books you’ve read?
Two years ago that was me.
Now I want to tell you the reasons why I stopped thinking I’m an introvert and why I think you should too.
The Making of an Introvert
A few years ago, on a work retreat, I was invited to take a Myers Briggs Type Personality test.
For those of you unfamiliar with this, it’s a framework for understanding personality which built on the work of Carl Jung and identifies 16 distinct personality types.
Through taking the test, I discovered that I had an introversion preference and this was a huge revelation.
I’d never really heard of the introversion and extroversion distinction and had struggled in my younger life, wondering why I was exhausted after social encounters whilst other friends couldn’t get enough.
However, as time has gone on and I’ve digested the seemingly endless introvert related articles which have followed the publication of ‘Quiet’, the more I’ve become uncomfortable with the emergence of the ‘introvert identity’.
It’s this idea, which seems to underpin ‘Quiet Revolutionaries’, the community site started by Susan Cain which according to the site’s mission statement, seeks “to unlock the power of introverts for the benefit of us all”.
Although well intentioned, I question the usefulness of a community centred on the central tenet that there is some sort of card carrying introvert identity which sets us apart from others.
For me, the only value in knowing that I have an introversion preference can be summarised in these three points:
- Excessive socialising reduces your energy.
- You need to learn how to manage your energy.
- You need alone time to recharge.
I disagree with the idea that a preference for introversion or extroversion is an overt indicator of identity and somehow ascribes me to a like-minded tribe of introverted people.
The Joy of Division
One of the biggest problems currently, is the division and ‘toxic tribalism’ we have in society. Race, gender, political affiliation, dietary choice… Do we really need another criterion to separate and divide us?
In recent years my social media feed has been flooded with memes and listicals about the virtues and challenges of being an introvert and the things introverts like to do.
Whether intended or not, these cultivate an idea, similar to that touted by Susan Cain, that there is a ‘them and us’ battle being raged between introverts and extroverts.
I agree that historically that there’s been a leaning in America to a more extrovert ideal of success but the prevalence of more extroverted sensibilities can probably be explained by the unique historical context and formation of America.
America was founded on a frontier mentality and the individuals that were entrepreneurial and seized opportunities were more likely to succeed. Being a wallflower in a developing and competitive environment, was probably not a trait which increased your likelihood of survival and so it is not difficult to imagine how these more extroverted traits flourished.
One of the problems with the introvert vs extrovert discussion, is that it usually presents a vilified caricature of extroverts as loud mouthed, bullish attention seekers.
In her book ‘Quiet’, Susan Cain even goes as far as to suggest that extroverts were to blame for the 2008 Global financial crisis.
The Fallacy of the Introvert Identity
The introvert and extrovert personality types are part of a theoretical model which was brought to prominence by the psychiatrist and psychologist Carl Jung. Of course, in natural terms, human beings are not created in a binary mould of personality where you neatly fall into either of these categories.
Yes, we have natural neurological set points and behavioural preferences, but our personalities are adaptive and influenced by both circumstances and environment. At any point in time we are operating along a spectrum of behaviour which depending on the context, could manifest as ‘introverted’ or ‘extroverted’ like behaviour.
This is a feature of the introversion and extroversion model which Jung originally advocated but in the current understanding, propagated by social media, seems to have been subverted into unhelpful stereotypes.
Once you asign yourself to the identity of an introvert, whether consciously or not, you’re evaluating yourself against a model of introversion and the qualities you associate with it. Since there is no objective archetype of an introvert, your own model is based on either introverted people you’ve encountered or books and articles you’ve read on the subject.
In psychology, the concept of cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values.
So if for example, you identify yourself as an introvert, and by the definition held in your own head, an introvert doesn’t like socialising in large groups, it’s possible that in order to reduce cognitive dissonance you would avoid doing so, since this would contradict your belief of how an introvert should behave.
In truth, most people are uncomfortable in certain social situations but to just accept the suggestion that as an introvert ‘that’s just the way you are’, is to yield to a comfortable inertia from which you will never develop.
Since we all operate along the pre-mentioned spectrum of introversion and extraversion, and are capable of both types of associated characteristics, we must therefore have the capacity to influence our behaviour in either direction of that spectrum.
The current understanding of brain neuroplasticity supports the theory that if we constantly nudge ourselves in our desired direction of behaviour, then over time, our brains diverge from existing neural pathways and can establish new ones.
Another reason to be wary of embracing an introvert identity is the risk of confirmation bias. Wikipedia defines this as ‘the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses’
Essentially this means that you’re more likely to retrofit your own past behaviours and even unconsciously mould your future behaviours to align with the introvert stereotype. What were once innocuous, random behaviours become interpreted as a strand in a reinforcing narrative that you are and always have always been ‘introvert’ like.
Behaviours which do not fit with the introvert ideal are given less weight in your mind and over time your association with this narrative is strengthened.
Understanding your preference towards introversion or extroversion is a necessary and useful starting point for development. One of the most important factors for success in life is managing and maintaining your energy levels and therefore it’s essential that you understand the way you personally derive your energy
There are other ways which your preference towards introversion or extraversion will influence your behaviour, but this is not fixed and can be influenced by conscious effort, should you wish to change. Be aware of the labels that you apply to yourself and the implicit restrictions that you maybe placing on your development.
Having a preference for introversion or extroversion doesn’t dictate who you are as an individual and there is no ‘ideal’ mode of being. No-one is completed ‘introverted or ‘extroverted’ so we should be cautious of assigning ourselves to either category as a lazy association.
As human beings, we have a tendency to create narratives for ourselves. Some of these can be helpful but often times they are not and it’s essential that we are conscious of these and constantly questioning their value to our lives. As well as the narratives you’re applying to yourself, it’s equally important to be mindful of those which you are applying to others.
In essence, we are nothing but thoughts, emotions and consciousness. We don’t always have control over our thoughts and emotions but we are in control of our consciousness and where we choose to focus our attention.
We must remember that over time, the thoughts and emotions we concentrate on most often, eventually become our identity.