Introversion means turning inward. But what about in relationships? What happens when you turn inward when you're upset?
Specifically, what happens when you turn inward because you're upset about what (or who) is out there?
Often, we think about introversion from a social perspective (see previous blog for an example), but one part of turning inward might simply be a function of how we self-express. Allport and Allport (1921) saw introversion and extraversion as indicative of how we self-express (or don't). This gives rise to styles of sociability, interaction with others and our environment, etc.
To answer some important questions about introverting instead of self-expressing, I spoke with Dr. Julia W. Felton about her work with self-silencing, rumination, and what is inside when we won't turn outward. She had some brilliant insights, observations, and a compelling theory about how many of the existing ideas on the topic may tie together to give us a better picture of women's relational styles and mental health.
First, rumination is a somewhat passive, offline process of thinking about the causes and consequences of your depression and how bad you feel. It actually serves to prolong the depression (Susan Nolen-Hoeksema has done some very influential work with this.) Felton explained to me that we can do something similar when we externalize this process. Amanda J. Rose's concept of corumination is rumination in dyads or groups: girls ruminate in groups. For example, if a girl's boyfriend were to leave her, she might discuss her emotional devastation, aspects of the breakup, and other such information with her female friends. They talk passively about it without exchanging any new information or, very importantly, without making any progress toward resolving the problem. Rather, they stay entrenched in the misery and support staying stuck there.
There appears to be a gender link. Felton cites Jeff Ciesla's work in which he finds that boys also coruminate, but they do so with female friends, not with male friends. Corumination appears to be a feminine social phenomenon: girls are simply socialized to handle problems in that way.
Girls are also socialized to preserve relationships, sometimes by holding back in their self-expression. Dana Crowley Jack's concept of self-silencing lends a scale with 4 subscales to measure how women self-silence to preserve relationships. They include care as self-sacrifice (putting others' needs before their own), silencing the self (staying quiet to avoid conflict), externalized self-perception (judging the self by one's perception of external standards), and the divided self (an angry and hostile inner self confronts the compliant outer self).
What I find most interesting of all is Felton's conceptual link: that rumination and self-silencing are not separate! Both can be traced to the feminine ideal of thinking about things, or overthinking things in lieu of action, and to the tendency to socialize girls to handle problems in a pro-relational (albeit self-sacrificing) way. Self-silencing and rumination can combine when you fail to self-express, think about it later, talk about it later with your friends, but do not become proactive or responsive in the moment. In so doing, the problem continues, dwelling upon the problem continues (and receives social support), and no positive movement is made toward resolution or moving on. She sees interpersonal relationships as critically important in the development of depression.
Perhaps the first step is in finding constructive means of taking time to think such that solutions are considered, and self-expression is never silenced. Turning inward is never a problem, except when it is a flight from reality and a retreat into an internal hell. Introverts may not interact as much with the outside world, but we should strive toward quality in these interactions, if not quantity.