Saturday, May 23, 2009

Understanding Introverts

I must admit, I was a bit of a social misfit as a child. I much preferred individual projects over group activities. Oral reports filled me with fear and dread. I wasn’t interested in team sports, and going to parties really didn’t excite me. I often wondered what was “wrong” with me. I really didn’t feel like the term “shy” fit me. I didn’t act like many of the shy kids, who hid behind their mothers or spoke in a whisper. From the outside, nobody could tell I had these “issues,” but I was often labeled “stuck up” or “haughty” because I didn’t join in.

When I got older, I would spend hours alone in my room, playing my records and writing stories. If I heard company arrive downstairs, it was agonizing to drag myself out of my room to join the crowd. To this day, an invitation to a party or gathering doesn’t fill me with joy. Repetitive conversations drive me insane. I usually force myself to go, and I have a good time once I’m there, but I’m always relieved when it’s over and my social calendar is blank again.

Then, one day, I read a definition of the word “introvert” written by Carol Bainbridge, who writes’s “Gifted Children” column. It was a “Eureka!” moment for me. Here’s what she wrote:

Contrary to what most people think, an introvert is not simply a person who is shy. In fact, being shy has little to do with being an introvert! Shyness has an element of apprehension, nervousness and anxiety, and while an introvert may also be shy, introversion itself is not shyness. Basically, an introvert is a person who is energized by being alone and whose energy is drained by being around other people.

Introverts are more concerned with the inner world of the mind. They enjoy thinking, exploring their thoughts and feelings. They often avoid social situations because being around people drains their energy. This is true even if they have good social skills. After being with people for any length of time, such as at a party, they need time alone to “recharge.”

When introverts want to be alone, it is not, by itself, a sign of depression. It means that they either need to regain their energy from being around people or that they simply want the time to be with their own thoughts. Being with people, even people they like and are comfortable with, can prevent them from their desire to be quietly introspective.

Being introspective, though, does not mean that an introvert never has conversations. However, those conversations are generally about ideas and concepts, not about what they consider the trivial matters of social small talk.

Introverts make up about 60% of the gifted population but only about 25-40% of the general population.

(If you’d like to read her definition of an “extrovert,” click here.)

Carol Bainbridge had described me to a T! Now I know why I am “different”: I am an introvert.

Just this week, I read an article called “Top Jobs for Introverts” by Woodrow Aames. He wrote, “Despite seeming quiet or withdrawn, introverts are just as interesting, creative and valuable to the workplace as their extroverted counterparts.” Like Carol Bainbridge, he said, “Introverts are often associated with shyness, but the trait is often not the case. According to Swiss psychologist Carol Jung (who invented the term in the 1920s), an introvert is simply more concerned with the ‘inner life of the mind’ and in solitary activities than in the society of others. They have a keen interest in solving problems, working creatively in solitude, and designing solutions without distractions.” He continues, “Introverts make up just a quarter of the general population, however they’re said to make up 60 percent of the population that is considered ‘gifted.’” He then went on to list a few jobs that are well-suited to introverts, such as computer software engineers and accountants.

It made me wonder if choosing to be a writer and editor was a good choice for me. The answer is “yes” and “no.” The writing part is perfect. It’s a solitary activity. I’m perfectly happy sitting home alone, working on my computer, trying to create the next “masterpiece.” But the promotional part of writing books is torture for me. Ask me to do an interview or give a presentation, and I’m filled with dread and a desire to go to the nearest exit!

I’ve been thinking about my “introverted” traits a lot lately as I’ve watched one of my five-year-old twins develop. For instance, we were at a gymnastics place the other day with his classmates, and he kept to the side of the gym. He just couldn’t bring himself to join in. None of his classmates were strangers, and he had been to this place before, but when the instructor yelled, “Everyone get together,” he just couldn’t bring himself to do it. If he had been alone in that gym, he would have played to his heart’s content. But in a big social setting, he was filled with angst. The same thing happened when we signed him up for soccer. He’ll play ball at home, but had a hard time joining the team.

As a parent, of course, I get a little embarrassed when this happens. The other parents’ children are out there playing and having a good time, while mine sits on the sidelines. But when my son comes to me after one of these events, all I can do is hug him. I understand. He’s an introvert, like me.

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  1. Lovely. I get it. I too fit, but didn't realize it. Definitely something to think about with the kids as they choose to join or not join activities.

  2. Anonymous7:03 PM

    Hi Susan,

    Loved the post. I've gone through all those same feelings my whole life too. I wanted to be a physicist. I had a vision of being stuck in a lab investigating the universe with no human distractions. Well funny thing is life ended up taking me another direction. I'm a kung fu instructor. Somebody who has to get up in front of a crowd and perform. It took me many many years to really be comfortable with this. As soon as I'm done teaching though I go back to myself. I guess this must be a lot like stage performers who take on a different persona but are in fact terrified of a crowd. I can say it is totally energizing though. Feeding off the excitement of the class.

    Strange thing I guess. None of my students would ever guess how introverted I am. I guess they never really notice that right after class when the conversation starts I fade into the background.

  3. Getting married and having children would seem to be a strange thing to do for an introvert, but there are all different types and levels of introversion. I agree that introversion is not the same as shyness, but it is possible for someone to be introverted and shy at the same time (and even extroverted and shy at the same time).


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