Not your scene? It doesn't mean there's something wrong with you. Credit: Jerome Eno
The question: I’m a bit introverted and often envy my more outgoing friends. I want to connect with people, but often feel overwhelmed at parties and would rather sit in a café and have a meaningful conversation. Any advice?
Introverts get a raw deal in American society, which tends to encourage and reward extroverted behaviors – for example, talking vs. listening, gregariousness vs. introspection and the pursuit of happiness vs. the search for meaning.
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 half of Americans are introverts, but you wouldn’t know because, well, they don’t stand out as much. Introversion and extroversion occur along a continuum; some people are more introverted than others. It's even possible to feel like an extrovert on some days and more like an introvert on others, especially if you are in the middle of the continuum. And the brain is elastic, so it's possible to grow more introverted or extroverted as one ages.
Introverts are sometimes (but not always) shy, and they usually seek out more intimate social activities. You’re likely to find both introverts and extroverts at a party. But while extroverts 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 extroverted 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.
Like you, 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. 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 extroversion (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 extroverted world.
1) Pay close attention to what kinds of people and situations increase or drain your energy. Choose to engage in as many 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.
4) Let go of shame and envy. Comparisons only drain self-esteem and precious energy. There’s nothing wrong with you, and the world could use more really good listeners.