Holiday Self-Help: Maintaining Your Emotional Equilibrium

How knowing your psychological type can help keep you in balance this season.

Posted Nov 28, 2013

Now that the holiday season is here, it's important to try to keep things in balance psychologically. Sure, this festive time of year is an extravert's dream: constant socializing, parties, travel, etc. On the other hand, it can be an introverted type's nightmare for exactly same reasons. But even extraverts can get too much of a good thing. This is why, whatever your personality type may be (do you know it? see my prior post), some quiet time, self-reflection, prayer or meditation can be helpful. And while introverts struggle with the socializing of this season or celebration, it forcibly offers the (at times distasteful) opportunity to venture out of their self-imposed shell and work on developing and practicing what psychiatrist C.G. Jung referred to as their "inferior function," namely extraversion. Whatever type you happen to tend toward, since no one is entirely introverted or extraverted (see my prior post), the secret to surviving the holidays intact--and maybe coming out more whole than before--is balance. And the most basic holiday balancing act takes place between the polar opposites of extraversion and introversion, action and inaction, doing and being, waking and sleeping.

C.G. Jung defined introversion as a basic way of being-in-the-world which is opposite to extraversion. Introversion involves the inward movement of libidinal or life energy and a valuation, preference for and focus on interior over exterior reality. Sleep is the primal form of introversion, a state in which we temporarily but regularly withdraw almost totally and often involuntarily and unwillingly from the outer world and journey to the fathomless depths of the mysterious inner world. Indeed, temporary paralysis during REM sleep pretty much precludes us from physically interacting significantly with the external environment or acting out our dreams. Many Americans, the majority of them extraverted types, tend to severely devalue sleep. Living as we do in such an extremely extraverted culture, most of us suffer from a chronic insufficiency of sleep. Some studies indicate that people today are sleeping less than they did several decade ago, and that sleep deprivation is a risk factor for serious physical conditions including heart disease, atherosclerosis, obesity, insulin resistance, diabetes, and suppression of the immune system. In addition, sleep deprivation and resulting drowsiness play a part in traffic accidents and other dangerous mishaps caused by human error.

Of course, from the extraverted perspective, sleep and dreaming seems a total and utter waste of time. Why spend eight hours each day sleeping, wonders the extravert, when you could be doing chores, seeing people, making money, traveling, accomplishing goals, etc.? Given the choice, most extraverts probably would never sleep if that were humanly possible! But from the introverted view, sleep is a welcome and requisite retreat from the outer world. Sleep is a specified time for just being rather than doing. For yin rather than yang. While there are no scientific studies on this subject of which I'm aware, I would venture to speculate that introverted types both prefer and need more sleep than extraverted types. (For any psychology graduate students or sleep researchers reading this, my hypothesis might make for an interesting thesis or dissertation.)

Another potential and typically unconscious resistance to sleep and attending to the dreams that visit us during sleep is twofold: fear of the unconscious or the unknown, and fear of death. When we are fearful of the unconscious and what it might contain, sleep will be avoided as much as possible. Sleep is like entering a different, foreign land fraught with danger and discovery. Not everyone wants such unpredictable nightly adventures. Sleep also resembles death. Each night, we die to the outer world, and each morning we are miraculously reborn. It requires a voluntary relinquishing of control, a willing letting go of outer reality, and a complete surrender to unconsciousness. Individuals with excessive death anxiety, for example, dread sleep for this very reason. Like the famous "Energizer Bunny," they just try to keep going and going until sleep can no longer be avoided. (This tendency to frenetically flee from sleep can be clearly seen in the phenomenon of mania or hypomania, after which the biploar patient "crashes and burns.") But their unconscious death anxiety constantly pursues them like some harassing demon, sometimes appearing during sleep in the form of frightening nightmares. What we run from during daylight always haunts us in the shadowy darkness of night.

Moreover, lack of sleep can cause a transitory mental state known by the French term abaissement du niveau mental: a significant reduction of consciousness, in which ego defenses are weakened, rendering us more susceptible to the unconscious and the influence of our personal complexes or neuroses. Sleep deprivation induces this state, sometimes causing or exacerbating symptoms such as anxiety, depression, mania, paranoia, irritability, anger or rage. Psychotic episodes can also be triggered by sleep-deprivation, particularly in those already prone to experiencing them. Hence the importance as regards mental health, even for hardcore extraverts, of getting enough of the compensatory, restorative, healing introversion sleep provides--especially during times of intense stress. While each person differs in the amount of sleep needed for replenishment, eight hours being about average, it is crucial to get sufficient amounts and adequate quality of sleep, and to do so on a regular, consistent schedule. Sleep heals the body, clears the mind, and restores the soul. Recent studies indicate that getting at least 7-8 hours of sleep nightly leads to losing excess pounds. In psychotherapy patients suffering from insomnia or hypersomnia--sometimes secondary symptoms of anxiety and depression-- regulating sleep pharmacologically or otherwise can be a crucial aspect of treatment.

But the ubiquitous experience of abaissement du niveau mental is always a double-edged sword: We may be more susceptible to our unconscious complexes and have a lowered threshold for frustration; but, at the same time, we are more closely connected with the unconscious, what Jung called the shadow (see my prior post) and its potentially positive, creative and rejuvenating energies. Dreams are a manifestation of this closer connection with the unconscious during sleep. And there is much to learn from our dreams--if we are willing to listen to what they might be trying to tell us. Of course, that would require taking what occurs during the almost totally introverted process of sleeping seriously. Paying close attention to and taking the trouble to write the dreams down, without, as Freud directed his patients, dismissing, judging, censoring or editing them. This is something strongly extraverted types have great difficulty doing. Indeed, I suspect that if we were to diagnose the psychological type of numerous scientists, psychologists and sleep researchers who insist that dreams are meaningless phenomena--nothing more than random neurological activity in the brain or mere reactions to physiological stimuli such as indigestion, heat or cold--we might well discover that these professionals are primarily extraverted types. (Here is another possible dissertation topic for aspiring psychology graduate students to consider.)

Introverted types, on the other hand, would be much more likely to attribute meaning and importance to their dreams, since dreams comprise part of their interior reality. Whether dreams always do have meaning, as both Freud and Jung believed, is debatable: I find it just as possible that dreams, though usually psychologically and symbolically significant, sometimes may not be. Or at least not discernibly so. In any case, Jung's premise in his classic book Psychological Types is that we tend to see and interpret the world and our experiences, both outward and inward, including dreams, through the special lens of our own particular psychological typology. How introverted types view both the inner and outer worlds is distinctly different than the extraverted viewpoint. This also applies, as Jung suggested, to various psychological theories and therapies themselves, which approach patients, explain symptoms, determine therapeutic goals, and define mental health or illness on the basis of their creator's own personal typology. 

So, if a little extra sleep helps you to feel refreshed and reinvigorated, that may mean you tend more naturally toward introversion. Or you could just be a very tuckered out extravert whose psyche and body are trying to tell you something terribly important: Slow down, spend some time with yourself, draw the curtains to close out the world for a while, and surrender to the replenishing introversion of sleep. Whatever your psychological typology, sleep--when not used excessively to escape problems and avoid life--can be beneficial. In psychotherapy, for the extravert, learning to value sleep and the helpful power of dreams is a way of counterbalancing or compensating his or her one-sided extraverted development. An extra hour of sleep, a nap, or maybe some meditation or mindfulness (see my prior post), or music-listening-- forms of conscious introversion--might be nourishing and therapeutic. For the introvert, sleep and dreaming is a welcome way of connecting to his or her true nature, and receiving the requisite energy, power and wisdom to be in the outer world more meaningfully, authentically and successfully. But introverted types need to participate fully in at least some extraverted activities in the outer world in order to maintain their own psychological equilibrium. (See my prior post on the dangers of excessive introversion.) As you enjoy your holidays this year, don't forget to try to stay centered, balancing extraverted behavior with a little introverted time, and introverted time with a little extraverted behavior. You might just enjoy the season even more!