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Introversion and the Energy Equation

We are most exhausted by an imbalance in energy expenditure.

For the most part, what we "know" about introversion is still more theory than fact. We talk about introverts losing energy in social interactions but what, exactly, is that energy? What is energy directed outward? Or inward? We know what we think we mean when we talk about such things, but how do you measure them in a way that scientists can get a grip on? Nobody has figured that out yet.

With that in mind, I learned of another interesting theory developed by Jennifer Grimes, a graduate student of cognitive sciences at University of Central Florida who started looking at introversion while she was an undergraduate at Wellesley College, studying under Jonathan Cheek.

Grimes wants to help pin down the energy model of introversion/extroversion proposed by Carl Jung (who also gave us the words introversion and extroversion). He proposed that introverts direct their psychic energy inwards and extroverts, outwards. And, as many of us still do, Jung put introversion and extroversion on a continuum, with extreme introversion on one end and extreme extroversion on another. But Grimes thinks it's more complicated than that and suggests that introversion and extroversion are cyclical. For example,she says, "If you think about planning and really putting together something in your mind, that could be argued to be introversion. But unless you act and channel the energy outward, it's not bringing to extroverted observable fruition the introverted plan."

Fair enough. Many of us concede that we can behave as extroverts when we choose and sometimes feel more introverted than at other times. And Grimes concedes that, "The extent to which we do each probably could be mapped on the continuum."

Even more interesting to me is Grimes' theory on the concept of being drained by social interactions versus energized by them. She suggests that the real issue is not just energy in/energy out but whether we get adequate returns on our energy investment. "You'll notice that there is a difference in how exhausted we are in dealing with different kinds of people," she says. "There are people who like to invest a lot of energy and get a lot back. Some people don't want to invest a lot and don't expect a lot back. The people who are deemed the extroverts in pop literature, the people who are social butterflies, what they get back on an interpersonal level is sufficient for them."

On the other hand, those of us who look for deeper connections are not satisfied by butterfly relationships. We invest a lot and require greater returns. Indeed. I can have a long, deep, intense conversation at a party and feel energized by it whereas an equal amount of time spent in shallow chit-chat just sucks the life out of me. Yet some quiet people, people who don't hold up their end of a conversation, also exhaust me.

"If what you're putting forth is not commensurate with what you're getting back, there's dissonance," says Grimes. And that dissonance is, well, exhausting.

And that goes both ways. As introverts, many of us have at some point been accused of being "too intense." Our intensity can be exhausting to extroverts, who don't put as much into interactions—but don't expect as much out of them, either.

As with the shyness/extroversion combination, there can be bad combinations of energy out/energy in needs. "People who don't want to invest very much because they're blocked but want to get a lot back will be quite draining for people around them," says Grimes. "They tend to like a big return but don't like making such a big investment. In literature, they have been referred to with some popularity as the emotional vampires."

So, is there a practical application to this theory? Perhaps if we enter interactions with this in mind, we can try to calibrate the amount of energy we invest in our interactions, intentionally putting less into those with people who seem to require less. Is that possible? Well, it's worth a try.


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Copyright 2009 Sophia Dembling