The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World
by Marti Olsen Laney, Psy.D
Our culture values and rewards the qualities of extroverts. America was built on rugged individualism and the importance of citizens speaking their minds. We value action, speed, competition, and drive. It's no wonder people are on the defensive about introversion.
As I became informed about the strengths and weaknesses of introverts, I felt less and less ashamed. When I realized that the ration of extroverts to introverts – three to one – I realized I lived in a world structured for all those “outies.” No wonder I felt like a fish out of water. I was living in a sea of extroverts!
Even though they were not selected with any specific career criteria in mind, a surprising number were in what Dr. Elaine Aron calls “advisor class” positions – people who work independently, who wrestle with decisions, who have to learn how to put themselves in other people's shoes and communicate with people. These workers are creative, imaginative, intelligent, and thoughtful. They are observers. Their work often impacts many people and they have the courage and perspective to say unpopular things. In her book The Highly Sensitive Person, Dr. Aron states that the other class, the warrior class, are the doers of the world. They need council from the advisors, and the advisors need warriors to take action and make things happen. Many theorists feel that that is why only 25% of the population consists of introverted people – fewer introverts are needed.
In many interviews, I heard introverts criticizing themselves for their introverted qualities, especially if they didn't even know they were introverted. They were confused about why they felt disregarded and unseen.
Introversion is at its root a type of temperament. It is not the same as shyness or having a withdrawn personality, and it is not pathological. It is also not something you can change. But you can learn to work with it, not against it.
The strongest distinguishing characteristic of introverts is their energy source: Introverts draw energy from their internal world of ideas, emotions, and expressions. They are energy conservers. They can be easily overstimulated by the external world, experiencing the uncomfortable feeling of “too much.” This can feel like antsyness or torpor. In either case, they need to limit their social experiences so they don't get drained. However, introverts need to balance their alone time with outside time, or they can lose other perspectives and connections. Introverted people who balance their energy have perseverance and the ability to think independently, focus deeply, and work creatively.
What are the most obvious characteristics of extroverts? They are energized by the external world – by activities, people, places, and things. They are energy spenders. Long periods of hanging out, internal contemplation, or being alone or with just one other person under-stimulates them. However, extroverts need to balance their time doing with intervals of just being, or they can lose themselves in a whirlwind of anxious activities. Extroverts offer much to our society – they express themselves easily, they concentrate on results, and they enjoy crowds and interaction.
Introverts are like a rechargeable battery. They need to stop expending energy and rest in order to recharge. T his is what a less stimulating environment provides for introverts. It restores energy. It is their natural niche.
Extroverts are like solar panels. For extroverts, being alone, or inside, is like living under a heavy cloud cover. Solar panels need the sun to recharge – extroverts need to be out and about to refuel. Like introversion, extroversion is a hard-wired temperament. It cannot be changed. You can learn to work with it, or against it.
Energy creation is the most salient difference between introverts and extroverts, but there are two primary differences: their response to stimulation and their approach to knowledge and experience. Extroverts thrive on a variety of stimuli, whereas introverts can find it too much. Similarly, outies generally cast a wide net when it comes to accruing knowledge and experience, whereas innies like a narrower, more in-depth focus.
The second difference between the introvert and extrovert is how they experience external stimulation. Extroverts like to experience a lot, and introverts like to know a lot about what they experience.
For introverts who have a high level of internal activity, anything coming from the outside raises their intensity level index quickly. It's kind of like being tickled – the sensation goes from feeling good and fun to “too much” and uncomfortable in a split second.
Just being around people can be overstimulating to introverts. Their energy is drained in crowds, classes, or any noisy and invasive environment. They may like people very much, but after talking to anyone, they usually begin to feel the need to move away, take a break, and get some air. When overstimulated, the introvert's mind can shut down, saying, No more input, please. It goes dark.
For extroverts, life is about collecting experiences. Extroverts view the world as an extensive Sunday brunch. They can graze at the banquet and fill up on all sorts of tasty treats, leaving when they are full to bursting. They want to wring every drop of stimulation they can from life. Variety is stimulating and energizing.
Introverts like depth and will limit their experiences but feel each of them deeply. Often, they have fewer friends but more intimacy. They like to delve deeply into topics and look for “richness” more than “muchness.” This is why it's necessary to limit their topics to one or two, or they can become overwhelmed. Their mind absorbs information from the outside environment and then reflects on it and expands it. And long after they have taken in the information, they are still munching and crunching it...
In the last chapter I explained what introverts are. They are people who need private space to refuel, who do not gain their primary energy from external activities, and who usually need time to think and reflect before they speak. In this chapter I will discuss what they are not. They are not scaredy cats, shrinking violets, or self-absorbed loners. Nor are they necessarily shy or antisocial. As a society we don't see introverts accurately because we are looking through a lens of incorrect assumptions. Most introverts don't understand their own temperament because they have grown up with their own misconceptions about introversion.
Let's now take aim at two of the most common charges lobbied against introverts – that they are self-centered and unsociable. It's easy to see why introverts can appear self-absorbed or uninterested, because we shut down external stimulation when we have had enough. Why? We need to compare external experiences to our own internal experience, attempting to understand new information against our old information. We think, How did that experience affect me?
Rather than being self-centered, introverts are often really the opposite. Our ability to focus on our internal world and reflect on what we are feeling and experiencing allows us to understand the external world and other human beings better. What appears to be self-centeredness is actually the very talent that provides the capacity to understand what it's like to put ourselves in some else's shoes.
Extroverts are focused on the self, but in a different way. Extroverts like socializing and require the company of other people, but it's as much about the need to be stimulated – engage me, challenge me, give me something to react to – as it is to feel related. Since extroverts don't generate as much internal stimulation as introverts do, they need to get it from outside. Maybe this is why extroverts put introverts down – we annoy them because they feel we are withholding, and we threaten them because we don't shoot the breeze or socialize in the way they need.
When introverts spend too much time around other people, they can start to feel drained just by the physical proximity. They can feel tired in a crowd without ever talking to anyone. Carving out physical space gives them the expanse they need to regroup. Most introverts need their own personal space because they tend to be territorial. They need an actual place to call their own. It gives them a sense of controlling their own energy.
Self-Absorbed, or Self-Reflective?
It's ironic that introverts are considered self-absorbed when often one of psychotherapists' major tasks when working with new clients is to help them develop the ability to be self-reflective. We struggle to get them to step back from outside activities so they can observe t heir own thoughts, feelings, and actions. Without self-reflection, it's all to easy for people to get caught up in a cycle of repeating the same behaviors over and over. For some strange reason, extroverts, who are usually much less skilled at self-reflection than introverts, are considered healthier than introverts, even in the field of psychology.
“If nature intended us to talk more than listen, she would have given us two mouths and one ear.” - Anonymous
Extroverts, being the majority, influence the entire cultural view of introversion. Extroverts' verbal ease intimidates introverts, making it even easier to conclude that they shouldn't speak. In his book Psychology of Personality: Viewpoints, Research, and Applications, Dr. Bernado J. Carducci, one of the leading researchers on shyness, states, “Our founding fathers were rejected for their religious beliefs, so they took great pains to assure the freedom for all of us to speak our minds. Today we value boldness and individuality. 'Talkers' are perceived as influential and become role models. We place a great premium on verbal ability, courage and candor.” It's interesting that “individuality” in this case means the qualities of an extroverted individual. Oration is valued in most Western societies...
Introverts don't talk for talk's sake. When the speak, they speak their mind.
There are reasons why introverts sometimes feel so alien – as if our spacecraft landed on the wrong planet – and are so often misunderstood. Introverts reveal less of themselves and their actions; they can appear aloof and mysterious.
Introverts are more likely to:
keep energy inside, making it difficult for others to know themselves
be absorbed in thoughtful
hesitate before speaking
avoid crowds and seek quiet
lose sight of what others are doing
proceed cautiously in meeting people and participate only in selected activities
not offer ideas freely; may need to be asked their opinions
get agitated without enough time alone or undisturbed
reflect and act in a careful way
not show much facial expression or reaction
Steeped in the Language:
When perceptions are deeply held in cultures, they are woven into the language. Our language reflects the values and beliefs that we hold and that hold us. I looked up introversion in several dictionaries and a thesaurus. In the Dictionary of Psychology it is defined as: “...orientation inward toward the self. The introvert is preoccupied with his own thoughts, avoids social contact and tends to turn away from reality.” The International Dictionary of Psychology states that introversion is: “...a major personality trait characterized by a preoccupation with the self, lack of sociability, and passiveness.” In Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, introversion is described as: “...the state or tendency toward being wholly or predominately concerned with and interested in one's own mental life.” And now sit down for this one, Webster's New World Thesaurus, in which the introvert is said to be: “...a brooder, self-observer, egoist, narcissist, solitary, lone wolf and loner.” When I read this, I started picturing the Unabomber in his meager cabin in the woods.
When I looked up extroversion in the same reference books, it quickly became clear why most of us feel a little fishy about being introverted. In the Dictionary of Psychology it said: “...a tendency to direct the personality outward, the extrovert is social, a man [I'm sure they mean women, too] of action, and one whose motives are conditioned by external events.” In The International Dictionary of Psychology: “...extroversion is marked by interest in the outside world, including confidence, sociability, assertiveness, sensation-seeking and dominance.” In Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, it reads: “...marked by obtaining gratification from what is outside the self, friendly, uninhibited.” Finally, Webster's New World Thesaurus defines extroversion as: “...other-directed person, gregarious, life of the party, show-ff.” That's as bad as it gets for extroverts. Are you beginning to get the drift? When I sound a little bit as if I am tooting the horn for introverts in this book, I am. I'm just attempting to level the playing field. It's been uneven for too long.
Growing up constantly being compared to extroverts can be very damaging. Most introverted children grow up receiving the message overtly and covertly that something is wrong with them. They feel blamed – why can't they answer the question faster? And defamed – maybe they aren't very smart. Forty-nine of the fifty introverts I interviewed felt they had been reproached and maligned for being the way they were. However, number fifty, Greg, a minister, did not.
Introverts, [Carl] Jung wrote, conserve their energy, have fewer children, have more ways of protecting themselves, and live longer. Because they appreciate a simpler life, make intimate attachments, and plan and reflect on new ways of doing things, they encourage others to be prudent, develop self-reflection, and think before acting.
Introverts walk around with lots of thoughts and feelings in their heads. They are mulling – comparing old and new experiences. They often have an ongoing dialogue with themselves. Since this is such a familiar experience, they may not realize that other minds work in different ways. Some introverts aren't even aware that they think so much, or that they need time for ideas or solutions to “pop” into their heads. They need to reach back into long-term memory to locate information, this requires reflection time without pressure. They also need to give themselves physical space to let their feelings and impressions bubble up.
Introverted Body-Brain Circuits:
As we have seen, the introverted brain has a higher level of internal activity and thinking than the extroverted brain. It is dominated by the long, slow acetylcholine pathway. Acetylcholine also triggers the Throttle-Down (parasympathetic nervous) system that controls certain body functions and influences how innies behave.
The fact that introverts' brains are buzzing means that they're more likely to:
reduce eye contact when speaking to focus on collecting words and thoughts; increase eye contact when listening to take in information
surprise others with their wealth of information
shy away from too much attention or focus
appear glazed, dazed, or zoned out when stressed, tired, or in groups
The dominance of the l-o-n-g acetylcholine pathway means that introverts:
may start talking in the middle of a thought, which can confuse others
have a good memory but take a long time to retrieve memories
can forget things they know very well – might stumble around when explaining their job or temporarily forget a word they want to use
may think they are told something when they just have thought it
are clearer about ideas, thoughts, and feelings after sleeping on themselves
may not be aware of their thoughts unless they write or talk about them
Food for Thought:
Here are a few more morsels relating to introversion and extroversion from the world of scientific research:
Extroverts have more trouble with the law, divorce more, change jobs more, gain and lose more friends, and have more conflicts in general than others.
Introverts do better on tasks that require careful attention, like air traffic controllers. Extroverts would get bored watching the screen: “Oh, another 747.”
Extroverts do better in grade school and on exams, but introverts do better in college and graduate school.
In a study on pain, extroverts complained more about pain but seemed to have higher tolerance than introverts.
In a test of memory tasks, the introverts performed better than the extroverts regardless of whether they received positive, negative, or no feedback. The extroverts' performance was improved by receiving positive feedback.
Introverts tend to have more sleep problems.
A study of 258 college students found that extroverts had higher self-esteem than introverts.
Innie and outie middle school children discuss topics differently. Outies tend to contradict and give counterexamples while innies worked collaboratively to develop creative solutions.
Extroverts adapt more quickly to time-zone changes than introverts.
Extroverts prefer nonsense humor and introverts prefer humor that resolves something that is incongruent.
Right-brained introverts have numerous talents, but many of them are difficult to translate into traditional job skills. They are creative and may seem eccentric or curious to others. The term starving artists was coined for these folks. Since right-brained introverts feel more emotions and see the big picture, they may feel quite sensitive about their differentness.
The Introvert's Communication Style:
Introverts tend to:
Keep energy, enthusiasm, and excitement to themselves and share only with those who they know very well. Hesitate before sharing personal information.
Need time to think before responding. Need time to reflect before reacting to outside events.
Prefer communicating one-on-one.
Need to be drawn out or invited to speak, and may prefer written to verbal communication.
May occasionally think they told you something they didn't (they're always going over things in their head).
Extroverts tend to:
Share their energy, excitement, and enthusiasm with almost anyone in the vicinity.
Respond quickly to questions and outward events.
Share personal information easily.
Communicate one-on-one or in groups with equal ease and enjoyment.
Think out loud, interacting with others, and, in the process, reach their conclusions. In addition they often don't give others a chance to speak and don't always attach tremendous meaning to what they say.
Prefer face-to-face, oral communication over written communication.
...[for introverts] socializing in groups requires huge amounts of energy. First of all, it takes energy to gear up to go out, because introverts tend to think ahead and imagine what it will be like for them later: They will end up feeling tired, uncomfortable, or anxious. Second, most introverted people need to ease into social situations gradually in order to get acclimated to the situation. Noise, colors, music, new faces, familiar faces, eating, drinking, smells – everything can cause brain overload. Finally, just physically being around a lot of people, friend or foe, drains energy from introverts.
The type of conversation engaged in at most social gatherings is made for extroverts, providing them with a lot of stimulation. But it goes against an introvert's natural grain and is extremely demanding. The chitchat often focuses on subjects like the latest news, weather, and sports; it's often loud, competitive, and fast-paced. People usually talk standing up; their faces are animated, and they make direct eye contact. They speak spontaneously, interrupting each other right and left, and ask a lot of personal questions. People who don't keep up with the chat often look and feel awkward. They are not drawn out but rather overlooked and ignored by the group.
What is so confusing about introverts is that sometimes they do enjoy socializing in noisy, overcrowded, standing-up groups and feel energized by it. The next time they feel depleted. What gives? Since most introverts feel they should enjoy mingling, they wonder why don't always feel invigorated. (When extroverts feel a little introvertish, they experience it as “I just need some rest.” Since they feel good about mingling, they give little thought to feeling pooped. It doesn't seem as unsettling to them – or as confusing.)
In their book Type Talk at Work, Otto Kroeger and Janet Thuesen discuss the differences between introverts and extroverts on the job: “Unlike extroverts, who wear their personalities on their sleeves, introverts often keep their best to themselves. With extroverts you see what you get. With introverts, what you see is only a portion of their personality. The richest and most trusted parts of an introvert's personality are not necessarily shared with the outside world. It takes time, trust, and special circumstances for them to begin to open up.”
Why don't innies speak up in meetings? One reason is that when innies are in large groups, they usually find it hard to both absorb all the new information and form an opinion about it. They need time away from the meeting to sift and sort the data. Next, they need to retrieve and then add their own thoughts and feelings. In privacy they an blend the components together and condense them into original ideas and suggestions. But it takes time. It's like making wine or bread. It isn't a process that can be rushed.
The second reason is that innies must expend extra energy to attend to what is being said in the meeting. For them, focusing on the outside world is like driving an SUV: it's a gas guzzler. There is little left over for speaking. Drawing attention to themselves by speaking up truly depletes them. If they do speak, it may be in a low voice, without eye contact, and in a halting way. Co-workers may not pay attention or may not think they sound knowledgeable.
Third, speaking up often increases the tension innies may feel from being in a group situation. This makes it hard to be articulate. Introverts don't usually talk easily unless they are relaxed and comfortable. If the group has conflict or becomes overstimulating for some other reason, they can become even more “brain-locked”: they search for words they can't find. After this has happened a few times, they anticipate that awful anxious feeling and become reluctant to speak.
Fourth, introverts often do so much thinking ahead of time that when they add a comment in a meeting it can be out of sync with what's happening at the moment. Or, because of their different thinking style, they may state the middle of their idea or just the final thought. After they realize that what they have said doesn't fit with the timing of the group or is a little confusing to people, they often conclude t hat they don't express themselves well and may stop talking altogether.
What Every Extroverted Employee Should Know About Introverts:
When extroverts (the majority) tangle with introverts (the minority) in the workplace, both sides need to be educated about what the other side is like. Introverts:
like quiet for concentration
care about their work and workplace
may have trouble communicating
may know more than they reveal
may seem quiet and aloof
need to be asked for their opinions and ideas (won't simply supply them)
like to work on long complex problems, and have good attention to detail
need to understand exactly why they are doing something
dislike intrusions and interruptions
need to think and reflect before speaking and acting
work alone contentedly
may be reluctant to delegate
prefer to stay in office or cubicle rather than socialize
do not like to draw attention to themselves
work well with little supervision
may have trouble remembering names and faces
What Every Introvert Employee Should Know About Extroverts:
Just as extroverts need to be educated about introverts, introverts would do well to remember the following about extroverts. Extroverts:
network well and socialize with co-workers
keep trap of the company grapevine
respond quickly to requests and spring into action without much advance thinking
enjoy phone calls and see interruptions as welcome diversions
become impatient and bored when the work is slow or repetitive
develop ideas through interaction and discussion
are good at marketing themselves
like to physically move around a lot, prefer to be out and about
speak while they are thinking
have excellent verbal skills, enjoy verbal jousting, ask many questions
like to be part of the majority opinion and feel isolated without management support
appreciate and enjoy attention
are attracted to other extroverts
Why don't innies disclose more or promote themselves? As I mentioned in an earlier chapter, introverts are territorial. They like their own protected space. One way they keep it private is by guarding what they show the world, thereby reducing outgoing energy and limiting what the world directs toward them.
The last reason innies don't expose their internal selves is because they aren't looking for outside approval. Though they want to be appreciated for their achievements, getting public attention can be painful and/or uncomfortable – like hearing fingernails scratch on a blackboard: squirmy and shrill.
All these factors can add up to innies appearing remote, uncooperative, or, in the worst-case scenario, expendable.
We are often pressured by extroverts to answer quickly. Don't fall into that trap. Practice sleeping on ideas, projects, or anything that involves complex thinking. If I have to make a decision, I remind myself that the pros and cons will be clearer in the morning. Sometimes I imagine I will wake up from the loud crunching sound caused by my brain's working on an especially challenging question.
As Anthony Storr says in his book Solitude, “The capacity to be alone is also an aspect of emotional maturity.” The very quality that has been thought of as troubling or as a liability is actually a sign of psychological health.
One of the reasons introverts can have trouble sleeping is because they have such active brains. The blood flow to the stimulation areas of their brains is greater than in extroverts, and they are constantly bombarded by a variety of stimuli – from the inner as well as the outer world. They can't switch their minds off, shut out the world around them, or quiet their inner voices. This often makes it harder for them to simmer down, relax, and get the seven or eight hours of sleep experts say they need.
Words for introverts to live by:
Appreciate your inside world.
Stay in harmony.
Revel in solitude.
Remember, let your light shine.