The Inner Voice

Rethinking Introversion and How We See the World from the Inside

So You Think You’re an Introvert

Jung probably disagrees.

photo credit: Novella Photography, Matt & Paulette Griswold
photo credit: Novella Photography, Matt & Paulette Griswold


Well, I may never successfully pitch that as a reality TV show, but it's a question that a lot of people are asking. If you are one of those people, let's start by considering what introversion actually is.

Back in 1918, Jung did two very interesting things: he popularized the terms introversion and extroversion, and he conflated their meanings. Originally, introversion was meant to be the turning of libidinal energy inward to the inner object, while extroversion referred to turning energy outward toward the outer object. Then, he conflated the meanings of both terms in making the inner object necessarily the "self" and the outer object "someone else." Why does this matter? Because now we really don't agree on what introversion is. It's a battle that has been raging in both conceptual definition and in how we measure it, from the 1930s through the (famous-among-scholars) argument in the 1970s between Eysenck and Guilford. Now, people think about introversion as everything from shyness and a lack of sociability that looks like schizoid personality disorder to negative affect and reduced energy or excitement-seeking tendencies.

So what is introversion, really? The answer is not simple: it depends on whom you ask. Perhaps the best place to start is at the beginning, before all of the additional complications, back when the "classics" were first defining the term (and not merely being cited incorrectly for contributing something similar and inspiring, but actually unrelated, to the term's development -- e.g., William James, most notably).

If introversion is the turning of libidinal energy inward toward the inner object, we can't know what that means for a personality temperament until we know what, exactly, the "inner object" is. Is it the self? Is it our conceptualizations of the outside world? Perhaps a creative product that has yet to be shared with the world? There are many non-self inner objects. There are also many non-other outer objects. Where do outer objects become inner objects-where is that line?

Before this becomes a debate over the self versus the other, a topic well explored already by many philosophers of mind (including but not limited to Shaun Gallagher, Brian Cantwell-Smith, Andy Clark, Daniel Dennett, and others), let's consider a few very important facts in our definition of introversion.

  1. Introversion and extroversion are not clean inverses. When high levels of specific traits interact with others as manifested in a personality, it is not the same dynamic as when low levels of traits interact with others. That is to say, low sociability has many "trickle-down" effects and other secondary manifestations that may not be perfectly mirrored by high sociability.
  2. High levels of introversion do not imply low levels of extroversion, and vice versa. For instance, sitting quietly by oneself looking at the wall may occur if one is writing a sonnet, or simply because one is staring at said wall, and doing so quite blankly.
  3. As a result of the above, introversion and extroversion should be on two separate continua, not on one continuum.

This also creates what people may call ambiversion, which is both introverting and extroverting. But we have not yet addressed why you're probably not an introvert.

Jung pointed out that, statistically speaking, introversion and extroversion appear on a bell curve with most people doing both, though tending slightly to one or the other. People who are "introverts," who introvert significantly more than they extrovert, make up only about 2% of the population (and likewise for extroversion). He also considered this to be an imbalance that was indicative of an inability to fruitfully adapt to external variables, and he saw real introversion as a clinical condition. Think hikikomori.

So by Jung, you might not be an introvert, but that's okay: you wouldn't want to be. You probably do introvert, and extrovert, and you very likely have certain personality attributes that indicate your preference of one style over the other. We will explore in greater depth how introversion and extroversion work together in the dynamic that makes you you. We will also consider how the term can be used more precisely to describe your temperament and not to add to your confusion (and everyone else's!) in understanding you.

Jennifer Grimes is a research assistant at Wellesley College.


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