Sometimes it's hard being an introvert. It seems like extroverts have all the advantages, at least in today's world. American society values the characteristics associated with extroversion: energetic, outgoing, enthusiastic, active, willing to take risks, objective, cheerful, expressive. Extroverts are quick to engage with others. Because they tend to be action-oriented, they enlist other people in doing things; this shared participation in a common activity provides the context for building interpersonal connections. Thus, extroverts establish relationships quickly and easily. People like extroverts and they like to be around them.
Whereas the extrovert is attuned to and energized by the external environment, introverts tend to focus their attention inward. Introverts spend a lot of time thinking, interpreting, and analyzing. They often enjoy abstract concepts and ideas. They typically concentrate well and are not easily distracted. The extrovert gains energy by spending time with others; the introvert gains energy by spending time alone. Thus, introverts often withdraw from social situations.
These are not the qualities that get a person noticed. They are not the characteristics Americans tend to associate with success. Americans admire and respect the type of people who can walk into a situation and take charge without batting an eyelash. They look up to people who appear steady and confident. In America, the qualities of the extrovert are seen as favorable and are therefore advantageous.
In addition, there is an abundant body of evidence suggesting that extroverts tend to be significantly happier than introverts. So many studies, in fact, have demonstrated this effect that Lucas, Le, and Dyrenforth call the correlation between extroversion and positive emotion "one of the most robust findings in the study of personality and emotion." There have even been studies showing that introverts can increase their positive emotion by acting like extroverts.
And so being an introvert can be difficult. We're systematically undervalued and frequently misunderstood. Often, we're encouraged to become more extroverted, implying that there's something wrong with the way we are. I've seen the impact this can have on people. Over the years, I've had many introverted patients who came to me thinking there was something wrong with them. Such is the plight of the introvert living in an extrovert's world.
I briefly saw a psychologist when I was in graduate school. One of the first things he did was have me complete the Myers-Briggs (a personality assessment). I remember when we went over the results together. "So do you think you're an introvert or an extrovert?" he asked before revealing what the assessment showed. "I don't know," I replied. "I could see it going either way." "Actually," he said, pausing. "You're pretty strongly introverted." "Really?" I asked, surprised. I'd always thought of introverts as being shy, reserved, and quiet -- all things I definately am not. (As it turns out, this is a common misconception).
Discovering I'm an introvert shed new light on a light of things I didn't understand about myself. Once I understood these things about myself I was able to embrace them. I was also more sensitive to what I needed -- plenty of alone time to think and reflect as well as quiet time to regroup after socializing. Whenever I have a patient who is clearly introverted, I set aside time to help them understand what this means. I normalize their need for alone time; I explain that making time to be alone is an essential part of taking care of themselves. Hopefully, they will learn to embrace who they are...