Introverts get a raw deal in American society. But there is nothing wrong with being a quieter, more reflective person. In fact, research suggests that pushing yourself to act against your natural disposition may actually be more harmful than helpful.
Generally speaking, introversion is defined by a preference for solitude, reflection, introspection, and the search for meaning. According to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) personality classification system, 50 percent of Americans are introverts, but you wouldn’t know because, well, they don’t stand out as much. Introversion and extraversion occur along a continuum. While some people lean towards introversion (including yours truly), and may even pass themselves off as extraverts in certain situations, others are further along the spectrum.
Introverts are sometimes, but not always, shy, and they usually seek out more intimate social activities. You’re likely to find both introverts and extraverts at a party. But while extraverts may float from one person to another, growing more lively as the night progresses, introverts will usually seek out meaningful conversations with one or two people and head home early, having had their fill.
There’s a scientific reason for that. Research on brain activity suggests that introverts take in more information than their extraverted counterparts and need quiet time to digest all their observations. That’s why they prefer to charge their batteries in solitude and feel depleted by lots of stimulation. Because they absorb more stimuli and process it more deeply, introverts often feel overshadowed by their more outgoing peers in professional and social situations.
Many of my introverted psychotherapy patients express a sense of inadequacy or shame because they don’t feel they are living up to American ideals, which tend to encourage and reward extraverted behaviors—for example, talking vs. listening, gregariousness vs. introspection, and the pursuit of happiness vs. the search for meaning. They feel pressured to “be happy” by being fun and social when, in actuality, meaningful experiences give them a far greater sense of peace and satisfaction.
I often explain to them that America has a strong cultural bias towards extraversion (think football). But this is not true everywhere. Some Southeast Asian and northern European countries favor such introverted qualities as silence, humility, privacy, and restraint.
Since we’re not living in Southeast Asia, here are some things you can do to thrive as an introvert in an extraverted world.
1. Pay close attention to what kinds of people and situations increase or drain your energy. Choose to engage in activities that increase your energy and minimize participation in those that deplete it. Don’t push yourself to do things you don’t enjoy just because you feel culturally pressured to do so.
2. Honor and respect your needs. Find ways to interact with friends and colleagues that work for you. At work, introverts often do better expressing their ideas in emails or one-on-one interactions than large meetings, because they don’t have to compete for the floor and can take the time they need to think through and express their complex thoughts. Socially, seek out one-on-one conversations or create group situations that encourage meaningful sharing.
3. Honor your unique contribution to a group. An introverted client of mine recently expressed her admiration for a fellow student’s outspokenness in class only to find that the colleague equally appreciated her quiet confidence and thoughtful remarks.