Evolution of the Self

On the paradoxes of personality

Inside Every Introvert Is...an Extrovert

An expert says we misread and badly underestimate introverts.

The charismatic introvert.

Many people would view this description as oxymoronic—“Introverts can be charismatic?! Really?” But that’s only because in our predominantly extroverted culture, there seems to be a not-so-hidden bias against inward personalities. True, introverts are more self-contained and less gregarious than their extroverted counterparts. And to avoid feeling uncomfortably over-stimulated, they require a lot more alone time. Additionally, when they do (somewhat reluctantly) come out of their shells, they hardly lust to be the center of attention, or life of the party. Yet not possessing these more sociable qualities doesn't mean that they lack the essential components that make people charismatic. These features may be somewhat latent, or recessive, within them, but they’re certainly accessible and can be manifested at will—that is, when introverts are sufficiently driven to influence or inspire others.

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To begin, it’s crucial to define what we mean when we define someone as charismatic. Typically, such individuals are characterized as exuding a particular charm or appeal, a magnetism that draws others toward them—almost “magically” evoking their enthusiasm, excitement, loyalty, or devotion. Words frequently employed as synonymous with charisma include alluring, enchanting, captivating, and seductive. Put another way, a charismatic person embodies a certain oomph or pizzazz.

Accordingly, one key prerequisite for charisma would involve possessing, or at least being able to acquire, superior interpersonal, public speaking, or leadership skills. But to assume, as so many do, that introverts, by virtue (or vice!) of their insular, retreating tendencies, must be deficient in such skills—or incapable of developing them—flies in the face of psychologists’ current understanding of social dexterity and intelligence.

Doubtless, introverts as children are more shy and self-conscious than extroverts. But the great majority outgrow this largely innate apprehension or detachment and frequently demonstrate interpersonal skills superior to those of extroverts. Why? Simply because they tend to be better listeners—they don’t need to talk as much, thereby focusing their attention on what they’re going to say next. Additionally, they pick up on various social cues that may be overlooked by their counterparts. (In fact, it’s precisely in their heightened reactivity to what’s going on around them that makes them vulnerable to a sensory overload to which extroverts are relatively immune.)

It can hardly be overemphasized that what constitutes the essence of the charismatic speaker or leader isn’t really their outgoingness at all—it’s their passion, their conviction, their sincere commitment to a belief, cause, or concern. And these enticing qualities have almost nothing to do with how temperamentally introverted or extroverted they might be. When such individuals address others, it’s the warmth and strength of their emotion—or the power of their eloquence—that inspires and motivates the audience, whether it be 1 listener or 1,000. Despite introverts not actually being born “out there” (the way their no-shell-required counterparts are), when they’re socially skilled and so inclined, most can connect just as intimately with others—and truly “move” them—as extroverts.

Unquestionably, introverts would be more at ease setting down their ideas alone at a desk than propounding them in a lecture hall. But when feeling called upon to “go public"—as long as they feel confident about who they are and convinced of their subject’s importance—their possibly somewhat restrained but nonetheless impassioned delivery can be just as persuasive, just as charismatic, as any extrovert’s. Moreover, since they tend to delve deeply into things, their studious intake of the subject they’re preparing to present may manifest vocally with more intensity, or even intimacy, as would be the case with an extrovert.

Here it might be added that introverts are seen frequently—but erroneously—as not simply more serious than extroverts but as having less of a sense of humor as well. Compared to their personality counterparts, they’re viewed as less dynamic (a term typically used as kindred to charisma). But, yet again, such a bias doesn’t withstand close scrutiny. While it admittedly represents a recessive aspect of their personality, introverts' potential for dynamism, wit, and humor can be every bit as pronounced or outlandish as an extrovert’s.

So “hamming it up” for comic effect, though it may not come spontaneously for them, is definitely within their behavioral repertoire. Reserved as they may be, they can even do stand up. Consider, for example, the late Johnny Carson, or Steve Martin, or Woody Allen, all of whom self-identify as introverts. I’ve no doubt that for them, and countless other inward-leaning individuals, the non-routine act of all-out extroverting—or performing uninhibitedly in front of a live audience—has its own gratifications. Enacting such a role, however selectively, and so giving free reign to this ordinarily held-back part of their personality can afford such introverts considerable pleasure and release.

I’d also emphasize that when an introvert is extroverting, it’s not that they’re acting “out of character.” There's nothing paradoxical about it—it’s altogether within their character. It’s just not expressive of the dominant part of their personality. In fact, a central problem with the whole concept of introversion vs. extroversion is that it implies a false dichotomy—as well as sometimes implying that there’s something not quite normal about introverts, who, after all, comprise up to 50% of the population.

Like so many other things, introversion and extroversion exist along a continuum. At its most extreme, introversion has been linked by experts to autism, or to schizoid personality disorder. And certainly those disturbances warrant being viewed as abnormal. But otherwise, introverts are just as mentally and emotionally healthy, and as well-adjusted, as extroverts—at times, depending on a multitude of factors, even more so.

But to sum up: Although introverts are wired at birth to prefer solitude over socializing, and listening over talking, they’re not—by any reasonable definition—deficient in the arts of self-expression or the power to influence others. Inherent in almost all of them is an “extroverted aptitude” altogether capable of charming and captivating those around them. As long as they have the knowledge, will, desire—and passion—to do so, introverts carry within them the same potential for charisma as do their more “out there” counterparts.

 

NOTE: If you found this post in any way illuminating, I hope you’ll consider sharing its link with others. And if you’d like to explore additional posts I’ve done for Psychology Today—on a broad variety of topics—click here.

© 2014 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., who holds doctorates in English and Psychology, is a clinical psychologist and author of Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy.

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