Introverts, Unite!

There's nothing wrong with wanting to be alone.

Posted Feb 13, 2010

I just finished reading Christopher Lane's terrific book, Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness, and it got me thinking about a lot of things: the cozy and disturbing relationship between the pharmaceutical industry and modern psychiatry; the pre-eminence of neurological over more traditional psychological explanations of mental phenomena; the effects of psychiatric drugs on a person's self, identity, judgment and character; and the stigmatization of introversion in modern society.

The last one hit hardest of all, for I am a classic introvert. My favorite time is that which I spend alone: reading, writing, or just thinking. I like most of the people around me—I have great friends, colleagues, and family—but I just don't feel a desire to spend a lot of time with them.

I wouldn't clasify myself as shy; to me, shyness implies a desire to socialize that is frustrated by some fear, anxiety, or reluctance. Most of us are shy in some circumstances; we each have a "comfort zone," outside which we feel uncomfortable. And there are some days when we feel more sociable than others. Of course, there are some people for whom shyness does impair their day-to-day life, and they could benefit from seeing a professional—but your average introvert is not necessarily one of these people.

For instance, consider the 16-year-old girl in Psychology Today's February 2010 "Unconventional Wisdom" column, who complains that her mother does not understand her lack of desire to socialize with friends. The columnist suggests that the girl may be depressed—just a suggestion, to be sure, but one which I felt was unwarranted, given the girl's description of her life, which reflects (at least to me) a well-adjusted young girl who happens to be less outgoing than most. A candidate for depression? Perhaps, but no more so than anyone else, and certainly not because she's an introvert.

Now certainly, introverts don't fit the norms of modern society. Look around you: everyone's on a cell phone, or a social networking site, or hanging out with friends at a bar, club, or the mall. (Let's not succumb to sample bias, though—you're seeing these people precisely because they're out in society. The introverts are all inside!) But we shouldn't confuse statistical norms with social or moral norms—just because a characteristic is uncommon doesn't mean that something is necessarily wrong with it. Left-handed people are relatively uncommon, but no one (at least nowadays) would seriously say that they're "flawed" in any way. But that what seems to be happening with introverts, who may be judged inferior because they don't fit the norm, even if their "condition" is causing no harm to themselves.

I don't want to overstate my case. As I said, certainly there are people whose shyness significantly impairs their day-to-day lives, and hopefully they will seek professional help. Might there be persons like this who deny they have problems, or don't recognize that they have a problem, and therefore won't seek help? Of course, but we should err on the side of trusting persons' judgment and their own choices regarding treatment, rather than risk imposing on them the judgment of an outsider, no matter how well-intentioned that person may be. (This is a recurring theme in my recent work; for a more political example related to the book Nudge, see this paper forthcoming in this book, and also these posts at my other blog). There's nothing wrong with wanting to be alone if that's what a person truly desires, and only that person knows him- or herself well enough to judge those preferences.

Until next time, I'll be in my room, alone—and content.

EDIT: I wasn't aware of it when I first wrote this post, but be sure to check out Sophia Dembling's blog, The Introvert's Corner, too! (Didn't mean to steal your post title, Sophia!)