Recently, while co-facilitating a training session, my colleague and I asked for a show of hands: “Who is an introvert?” A majority of hands rose in response.
Introverts ourselves, my colleague and I were delighted but astonished. This was a group of social workers and community advocates — people-persons, that is. And the U.S. is a nation of extroverts – idealizing the charismatic leader, the fast-talker, the risk-taker, the individual who can "work a room" or flourish in high-powered environments.
Or so we like to think. As a society we might idealize the extrovert, but at least a third (or half, depending on who you ask) of us are introverts. That means a lot of us are faking it.
I spent most my life as a pseudo-extrovert, hiding what author Susan Cain described as “a second-class personality trait” but one that goes straight to the heart of who I am.
For the record, I am not shy, cold, quiet or aloof. I am not a recluse or basement dweller. I don’t eat every meal alone or gossip with the flowers because I lack social skills.
I am talkative, excitable and affectionate. I crave deep connection with other human beings. In short, I am not anti-social.
Like a lot of highly introverted folks, I am good with people – incredibly sensitive, in fact, to the demands of social interaction. It’s just that you will never catch me saying: “Hey, you know what this calls for? A party!”
Parties can give my kind an introvert hangover – a soul-crushing psychological fatigue that sets in when an introvert has exhausted her limited supply of energy available for socializing.
There’s a lot of mythology surrounding personality temperaments, but the basic idea here is simple: “Introverts get exhausted by social interaction, while extroverts get anxious when left alone,” writer Ben Thomas wrote for Discovery Magazine.
An introvert gains energy by being alone; an extrovert gains it by being in large groups of people. Conversely, an introvert expends energy by being in large groups, while an extrovert expends it by being alone.
Depending on where you fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum, you need different levels of stimulation to feel good and most fully alive. Personally, I feel most fully alive when I have ample amounts of solitude.
This is the only cure for the introvert hangover. It’s not hiding, it’s healing.
Introverts are built for solitude. They have a rich inner life and are philosophically and spiritually oriented. Drawn to nature and the world of introspection, I find nothing more satisfying than contemplating the clouds or running my eyes over a page of witty aphorisms or meditative jisei (Japanese death poems).
While some people might see this as a form of detachment from the world, I see it as the opposite. In fact, I call it “worlding.”
Worlding is an intoxicating journey into my imagination where abstract pondering merges meaning, feeling and experience, and I can wrestle with the enormousness of life and my place in it.
It’s a deeply transformative act. Afterwards I feel restful and centered. This internal restorative practice is what allows a highly sensitive, easily overstimulated person like me to pour my heart into the world and commit myself to making it better.
The experts are still debating what makes me this way. Some combination of nature and nurture is at work.
But by coming to understand that I was partly built this way – that there are meaningful differences in an introvert’s nervous system and neural structures – it has helped me be compassionate toward myself and set healthy boundaries.
If you are an introvert, know that you are not alone. Your numbers are greater than you can imagine. And if you know an introvert, honor the deep ancestral desire in them for solo time. It’s not loneliness but freedom.
Michelle Ryder is a freelance writer living in Bonney Lake. She is one of six reader columnists who write for this page. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.