Let’s do a simple exercise together. Grab a piece of paper (or the notepad in your cellphone) and write down a quick list of qualities that you associate with the words “introvert” and “extrovert.”
Done? Your lists might look something like this:
Introvert: quiet, shy, reserved, introspective, withdrawn, wallflower, loner, solitary
Extrovert: life of the party, friendly, outgoing, gregarious, talkative, sociable
What do you notice about these lists? The words we associate with the words introvert and extrovert reflect the underlying value system in this culture. Both subtly and not-so-subtly society celebrates extroversion as a desirable personality trait. Think of the popular crowd in high school. You would never find the prom queen, student council president, or captain of the football team sitting in a corner having a quiet conversation with a single friend at a party.
The terms introversion and extroversion were initially popularized by Carl Jung, although our current usage differs from his original intent. They exist along a single continuum, which means that being high in one necessitates being low in the other. Almost all personality tests, including the MBTI and TKI, incorporate some form of determination of where the individual falls along this continuum. Here is the classic grid displaying the 16 personality types as defined by the MBTI:
Flaws of the MBTI aside, it is interesting to note that the personalities that most predict success in this culture are predominantly the extroverted types. ENTJs are known as life’s “natural leaders” and include well-known figures such as Winston Churchill, Madeline Albright, and Oskar Schindler (incidentally, Adolf Hitler was also an ENTJ). ESTJs are life’s administrators, ENFJs the smooth-talking persuaders, ENTPs are pursuing one exciting challenge after another, and ENFPs are giving life an extra squeeze. Who doesn’t want to be one of these people? This is in contrast, for example, to the rather stodgy and uptight ISTJs who are focused on doing what should be done and the ISFJs who have a high sense of duty. (For more reading on the descriptions behind the MBTI, see Otto Kroeger and Janet M. Thuesen’s 1989 book, Type Talk)
However, we can easily imagine a different culture in which introversion is praised. In many non-Western societies, where community and cooperation are valued, trying to be the loud epicenter of the room may be viewed quite negatively. The words associated with introversion might be something like “reflective,” “empathic listener,” and “wise,” whereas those associated with extroversion would be “brash,” ” self-centered,” and “blowhard.” Basically, extroversion may not be all it’s cracked up to be.
Basically, extroversion may not be all it’s cracked up to be.
I bring this all up in the first place because I used to be an introvert. As a child and throughout high school I was the classic nerdy quiet kid, obsessed with books, science-fiction, and anime. My small social circle was a close one. But starting around my senior year in high school and in early college I began to get tired of feeling awkward when meeting new people and in large social groups. I didn’t appreciate feeling ignored or looked over because I didn’t speak up and always make my presence known. My introversion became limiting in my mind. So I decided to change things. Over the next decade, I made a conscious effort to play the extrovert. The result? When I recently re-took the MBTI a few months ago, I just squeaked over the line into Extraversion.
I’m not saying that we should all become extroverts. My life hasn’t suddenly been transformed by an outpouring of warmth flooding my social circle by making a few conscious changes. I still need plenty of time alone to rest, reflect, and play. But I did learn a few skills that have helped me connect with patients, residents and co-workers. I’ve probably gotten a little better at networking and negotiating. I understand (and can tolerate) extroverted personalities a little better. Ironically, I’ve also come to appreciate my lovely introvert qualities more too, such as the ability to sit comfortably with my own thoughts and to rarely, if ever, feel lonely or bored when by myself.
Most likely this would have been a better illustrative story had I been born an extrovert and learned to adopt some introvert principles. But either way, the point remains the same, that introversion and extroversion are fluid and not fixed. Introversion is not a bad quality and extroversion is not necessarily a good one. It depends on your point of view. They both have positive and negative aspects. But perhaps we can learn from the opposite ends of the spectrum to become more balanced individuals. If you’re the type that feels anxious when left alone, then maybe this is a good time to learn to become more comfortable spending some time reflecting and focusing on yourself. If you feel awkward in new social situations, then you could to try deliberately making conversation with new people. Especially in this culture of extroversion, learn to recognize that “introversion” and “extroversion” are not absolute or fixed and that there is a lot of room to negotiate the in-between., and that, in fact, there is a lot of value to introversion too.