Sunday, August 2, 2009

Caring for your introvert...

reposted from the Atlantic

Do you know someone who needs hours alone every day? Who loves quiet conversations about feelings or ideas, and can give a dynamite presentation to a big audience, but seems awkward in groups and maladroit at small talk? Who has to be dragged to parties and then needs the rest of the day to recuperate? Who growls or scowls or grunts or winces when accosted with pleasantries by people who are just trying to be nice?

If so, do you tell this person he is "too serious," or ask if he is okay? Regard him as aloof, arrogant, rude? Redouble your efforts to draw him out?

If you answered yes to these questions, chances are that you have an introvert on your hands—and that you aren't caring for him properly. Science has learned a good deal in recent years about the habits and requirements of introverts. It has even learned, by means of brain scans, that introverts process information differently from other people (I am not making this up). If you are behind the curve on this important matter, be reassured that you are not alone. Introverts may be common, but they are also among the most misunderstood and aggrieved groups in America, possibly the world.

I know. My name is Jonathan, and I am an introvert.

Oh, for years I denied it. After all, I have good social skills. I am not morose or misanthropic. Usually. I am far from shy. I love long conversations that explore intimate thoughts or passionate interests. But at last I have self-identified and come out to my friends and colleagues. In doing so, I have found myself liberated from any number of damaging misconceptions and stereotypes. Now I am here to tell you what you need to know in order to respond sensitively and supportively to your own introverted family members, friends, and colleagues. Remember, someone you know, respect, and interact with every day is an introvert, and you are probably driving this person nuts. It pays to learn the warning signs.

What is introversion? In its modern sense, the concept goes back to the 1920s and the psychologist Carl Jung. Today it is a mainstay of personality tests, including the widely used Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Introverts are not necessarily shy. Shy people are anxious or frightened or self-excoriating in social settings; introverts generally are not. Introverts are also not misanthropic, though some of us do go along with Sartre as far as to say "Hell is other people at breakfast." Rather, introverts are people who find other people tiring.

Extroverts are energized by people, and wilt or fade when alone. They often seem bored by themselves, in both senses of the expression. Leave an extrovert alone for two minutes and he will reach for his cell phone. In contrast, after an hour or two of being socially "on," we introverts need to turn off and recharge. My own formula is roughly two hours alone for every hour of socializing. This isn't antisocial. It isn't a sign of depression. It does not call for medication. For introverts, to be alone with our thoughts is as restorative as sleeping, as nourishing as eating. Our motto: "I'm okay, you're okay—in small doses."

How many people are introverts? I performed exhaustive research on this question, in the form of a quick Google search. The answer: About 25 percent. Or: Just under half. Or—my favorite—"a minority in the regular population but a majority in the gifted population."

Are introverts misunderstood? Wildly. That, it appears, is our lot in life. "It is very difficult for an extrovert to understand an introvert," write the education experts Jill D. Burruss and Lisa Kaenzig. (They are also the source of the quotation in the previous paragraph.) Extroverts are easy for introverts to understand, because extroverts spend so much of their time working out who they are in voluble, and frequently inescapable, interaction with other people. They are as inscrutable as puppy dogs. But the street does not run both ways. Extroverts have little or no grasp of introversion. They assume that company, especially their own, is always welcome. They cannot imagine why someone would need to be alone; indeed, they often take umbrage at the suggestion. As often as I have tried to explain the matter to extroverts, I have never sensed that any of them really understood. They listen for a moment and then go back to barking and yipping.

(continued in comments...)


Ben Mack said...


Are introverts oppressed? I would have to say so. For one thing, extroverts are overrepresented in politics, a profession in which only the garrulous are really comfortable. Look at George W. Bush. Look at Bill Clinton. They seem to come fully to life only around other people. To think of the few introverts who did rise to the top in politics—Calvin Coolidge, Richard Nixon—is merely to drive home the point. With the possible exception of Ronald Reagan, whose fabled aloofness and privateness were probably signs of a deep introverted streak (many actors, I've read, are introverts, and many introverts, when socializing, feel like actors), introverts are not considered "naturals" in politics.

Extroverts therefore dominate public life. This is a pity. If we introverts ran the world, it would no doubt be a calmer, saner, more peaceful sort of place. As Coolidge is supposed to have said, "Don't you know that four fifths of all our troubles in this life would disappear if we would just sit down and keep still?" (He is also supposed to have said, "If you don't say anything, you won't be called on to repeat it." The only thing a true introvert dislikes more than talking about himself is repeating himself.)

With their endless appetite for talk and attention, extroverts also dominate social life, so they tend to set expectations. In our extrovertist society, being outgoing is considered normal and therefore desirable, a mark of happiness, confidence, leadership. Extroverts are seen as bighearted, vibrant, warm, empathic. "People person" is a compliment. Introverts are described with words like "guarded," "loner," "reserved," "taciturn," "self-contained," "private"—narrow, ungenerous words, words that suggest emotional parsimony and smallness of personality. Female introverts, I suspect, must suffer especially. In certain circles, particularly in the Midwest, a man can still sometimes get away with being what they used to call a strong and silent type; introverted women, lacking that alternative, are even more likely than men to be perceived as timid, withdrawn, haughty.

Are introverts arrogant? Hardly. I suppose this common misconception has to do with our being more intelligent, more reflective, more independent, more level-headed, more refined, and more sensitive than extroverts. Also, it is probably due to our lack of small talk, a lack that extroverts often mistake for disdain. We tend to think before talking, whereas extroverts tend to think by talking, which is why their meetings never last less than six hours. "Introverts," writes a perceptive fellow named Thomas P. Crouser, in an online review of a recent book called Why Should Extroverts Make All the Money? (I'm not making that up, either), "are driven to distraction by the semi-internal dialogue extroverts tend to conduct. Introverts don't outwardly complain, instead roll their eyes and silently curse the darkness." Just so.

The worst of it is that extroverts have no idea of the torment they put us through. Sometimes, as we gasp for air amid the fog of their 98-percent-content-free talk, we wonder if extroverts even bother to listen to themselves. Still, we endure stoically, because the etiquette books—written, no doubt, by extroverts—regard declining to banter as rude and gaps in conversation as awkward. We can only dream that someday, when our condition is more widely understood, when perhaps an Introverts' Rights movement has blossomed and borne fruit, it will not be impolite to say "I'm an introvert. You are a wonderful person and I like you. But now please shush."

How can I let the introvert in my life know that I support him and respect his choice? First, recognize that it's not a choice. It's not a lifestyle. It's an orientation.

Second, when you see an introvert lost in thought, don't say "What's the matter?" or "Are you all right?"

Third, don't say anything else, either.

Stephen said...

Thanks so much for this writing!

I always used to be the introvert trying to be an extrovert and it nearly killed me!

I found out these concepts a few years ago during counselling after the breakup of my marriage. I'd continued to see the counsellor for a while and explained to him how I didn't feel how I quite fit in. I discovered he was an intovert too and explained how being with people and socializing drains us and we need time alone to recharge. And how thats just fine!

Whats a difference its made in my life. Now if I go to a party or if I'm at a conference I have no problem excusing myself when I feel like leaving and going home or back to my room. Especially at conferences I have a much more enjoyable time, get more out of them etc....


kutyagol said...

Who speaks , one has the power seemingly.
Thank you for invitation to that site. I think you has right it can be an orientation and an oppression too to be able to recognise that we are an other kind of people than those who try to opress us. Tough in my opinion that attitude is depend on who are in our sorroundings, it is also true that it,s need a big luck to find the proper partner beside us. Thank you! Good Boy, Many Greetings!

Sheridan said...

Function follows structure. Or would it be more correct to say structure leads to function?

Interesting that introverts process info differently, according to brain scans... according to the author.

Thanks for the post, Ben. Illuminating, as ever.

kutyagol said...

Hi again! Now I have the power to be able to speak to you so that everybody can read it. At last, it is so good feeling. I,ll tell you why I have men to be oppressing, because those around me doesn,t like to listen to me, but I have to be a master listening to them if I want to remain in life. Accomodation is the secret of surviveing. Vica-versa. To learn nonagressive communication is our main task everyone of us and I have to start with myself, how I am feeling, what is my imagination, what I like, What I don,t like and I,ll never blame you, even though it is a big passion to me as you handle me. We can introvertals and we can crying and shouting lie a baby., but we need for understanding.How good is to be an actor and an actress to show up how we can feel in different situation. Thank you to be able to write out theese thinking from me. Anyway I think every of us has the both side in ourselfs more or less percent.Best of My Greetings for You!

kutyagol said...

Hey Ben! Introvert or extrovert thank you for that golden opportunity to speak to here at last. At least we introvert brand ourself. To be able to express any kind of thinkings and feelings in us, means one kind of richness of our human nature, because to be rich it is so good feeling, but only when we,ve experienced the opposite of it.
We have been created in order to live together with theese opposit qualities, but that is a little bit the question of philosophy which I wouldn,t like to excersise here. Have a Nice Sunday! Thank You!

addingvalue said...

Hi there, I'm curious...
When I go to parties I have an outrageous time reading books taken from my hosts book shelf. You know huddled up in the corner on a pile of cushions..

Is there a chance that I am also an introvert....?

Please don't tell me as I don't want to know..

cathey said...

Hi Ben,
I am curious why you sent this to me? I am diffently an introvert. I know I am. I do not fight it. I still sometimes wish I wanted to go to parties more but I don't so instead of thinging I am different I just accept it. My family says I am going to die alone. I love my family alot but they do not understand why I like being alone. I work full time and work in a job that is working with people all day. When my day is done so am I. I need quiet time. Thanks for your thoughts. Sincerely, Cathey

Ben Mack said...

Stephen, yes, Attempting to be an extrovert is excruciatingly difficult! We need our down time, we need our literal sense and we need our peace of mind to think things through!

Kutyagol I am glad you found solace in my words and that they appear to you as worthy of "good." Thank you!

Sheridan, yes... BRAIN SCANs are revealing many patterns of processing. It is the interpretation of these patterns that may tell revealing stories!

Addingvalue LOL... I won't tell if you don't ask! :-) Thank you for adding value to my comments. I am grateful for your Good Energy!

Hi Cathey, um... I sent it to you and 12k of my closest friends. Thank you for saying hi!

Much love,


MMMinka said...

hi Ben,
When I saw your interview with Harv' I thought to myself, "there is another one just like me, the posture, the gestures...
Before I used to run under the label of being shy... O.K. I guess
I'm shy. Until someone
said: "pffft... shy. Those people
are just arrogant.
Ah yeah, that must be it then! I'm arrogant.
Or maybe it's my lack of social skills. I'm German, "we have no
social skills!"

So, now that I figured out what's wrong with me, or rather you figured it out for me, I'm just wondering why there is only 25% of us and 75% of "them"
Do you think that perhaps we are
reproducing less?

Pam Hoffman said...

A friend loaned me a book called "The Introvert Advantage, How to Thrive in an Extrovert World" by Marti Olsen Laney, Psy.D. awhile back which helped me tremendously.

OH, she has a website:

I think I knew I was mostly introverted (everyone has aspects of both on a flexible continuum, not one way or the other, always & forever) though I knew little about how to 'take care of' myself because of that.

I do much better now and I recommend the book to anyone who wants to understand introverts better.

There is a section especially helpful for parents of one type with Children of the other type (they delve into the variations of each and strategies to help out).

I enjoyed reading your article Ben,

Pam Hoffman

Erkki Muhonen said...

i've gotta show this to my therapist;)

Diane said...

Hi Ben,
Sorry if I'm late but just got back from vacation.
Red you're email dated July 27,09 concerning Good Energy.

They probably can't see the energy but I'm positive that if all around the world people would get together and send good energy to Earth the result would be extraordinary.

Your asking if it can be seen from outer space. I say probably not. But one thing I can say, being a Master *Reiki (*Energy) I constently work with it. Being initiated 20 years ago I treat people and the result are very good. Energy comes from the Univers and good Energy gives phenomenal results.

As for being seen, I don't know but being felt definitely. But we never know, modern technology can do things that we never thought was possible.


Rick Aster said...

I think it is quite amazing when introverts can learn to entertain extraverts. Yet this is something that happens often.

The hidden secrets of Water said...

hey Ben
That was a really beautiful article and very healing to read. I never in my life have heard someone acknowledge this discomfort of feeling like your on the wrong planet we female introverts experience. And as far as the economy goes, so true 'bout the sway against this type. Maybe a different currency is in order, I always get the feeling that's net.