The Buddha Was an Introvert

Finding peace of mind in a hectic world

Introverts Are Not Failed Extroverts

Overcoming the hidden legacy of contingent self-worth

The Buddha’s teaching on no-self or not-self is one of the most difficult for Westerners to grasp. The Buddha was not saying there isn’t a personality or some continuity of identity over time. He was saying is that there is nothing fixed in this self. Just like everything else, it is impermanent.

The principle way we make this fluid, changing self more solid and fixed is by pinning our self-worth on circumstances. This gives rise to almost all the anguish, misery, stress, dissatisfaction, and suffering we experience. When things go well, we are happy. When things don’t go well, we suffer. Our self-worth rises and falls with things that we cannot control, such as the opinions and actions of others.

Our culture has typically seen introverts as failed extroverts. If you are an introvert, you have probably been admonished, cajoled, and judged by extroverts because you were not talkative, enthusiastic, or energetic enough. It is easy for introverts to feel a particular version of this contingent self-worth when they encounter the culture’s bias against them.

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Shame and vulnerability researcher Brené Brown show us how to become shame resilient in her bestselling book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.

There are four components to cultivating shame resilience:

  1. Recognizing shame and understanding its triggers
  2. Practicing critical awareness
  3. Reaching out
  4. Speaking shame

Let’s look at these four steps as they apply to introverts with the Buddha’s teaching as the backdrop.

The first step is recognize that the feeling of shame is present and to seek out the triggers for this feeling. It may be extroverts saying or doing things that provide the trigger or perhaps we just beat ourselves up from the cultural indoctrination that favors the extrovert way of doing things. Mindfulness practices help us to become more self-aware and also move us towards being more self-accepting. We can see how experiences arise and change in every moment and we can also recognize how it is our identification with stories, judgments, and ideas that gives rise to anguish. If we can develop a healthy perspective and distance from the stories, we can go a long way towards freeing ourselves from stress.

Critical awareness helps to put your experience in context. Read an empowering book on introversion such as my Everyting Guide to the Introvert Edge or Susan Cain’s Quiet, Michaela Chung’s Introvert Revolution, Sophia Dembling's The Introvert's Way (which has a chapter called "Introverts are not failed extroverts), or Laurie Helgoe’s Introvert PowerIntroversion is a normal variation in human temperament and personality. In many cultures, such as those in Asia and Scandinavia, introvert qualities are valued, celebrated, and favored. You don’t need to apologize for being an introvert, yet you will need to understand the unique needs of introverts, defend yourself against extrovert bias, and take care of your energy by building solitude into your life. Mindfulness, of course, provides a ready way to do this.

Reaching out is a powerful way to claim your experience. I invite you to reach out here and to share your challenges, joys, and questions about being an introvert in today’s extrovert dominated culture. I am working on a new book project: a mindfulness-based workbook for introverts and I’d love to incorporate your perspectives. Submit your experiences as comments to this blog or email me at arniekozak@gmail.com.

Finally, do you have friends, confidants, or therapists to whom you can talk about your experiences of inadequacy, frustration, and shame? Giving a voice to your experience is the perfect compliment to the experience of letting go with mindfulness meditation. Another potent form of “speaking shame” is journaling. Visit the International Association for Journal Writing (IAJW) for information and inspiration.

The bottom line is that there is nothing to be ashamed of and no one (in actual point of fact) to be ashamed. The Buddha was likely an introvert and he didn’t feel bad about it. He didn’t apologize, hide, or make excuses. In fact, he encouraged all his followers to become more introverted: to embrace silence, solitude, and a path to wisdom that knows that self-worth is not contingent on circumstances. 

Arnie Kozak, Ph.D., is a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry, University of Vermont College of Medicine and founder of the Exquisite Mind Psychotherapy and Meditation Studio.

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