Why ‘introvert’ isn’t a dirty word
Find out what it really means to be an introvert, why they don’t need ‘fixing’ and how to play to your strengths you you are introverted.
It seems to me that introverts are dealt a difficult hand from day one. The world we live in is designed around an extrovert ideal where we are constantly told to speak up, join in and be more outgoing. Even though I hope things are changing, introversion is rarely valued or encouraged, which is damaging to all of society, not just the introverts.
Even dictionary definitions have got in on the act:
- Introvert: An introvert is a quiet, shy person who finds it difficult to talk to people.
- Extrovert: Someone who is extrovert is very active, lively, and friendly.
Which group would you rather belong to? The extrovert group certainly sounds like more fun to be around. And this is part of the problem, if dictionaries can’t even get the definitions right – don’t even get me started on synonyms for introvert – there is still such a long way to go.
For the record, being shy and finding it difficult to talk to people has nothing to do with introversion and everything to do with social anxiety, which can affect anyone, introvert or extrovert alike.
What is an introvert, anyway?
So, before I go any further, I’d like to clarify what introversion is, and isn’t. It’s all about your internal supply of energy.
Some people find they are drained by social interaction or stimulating environments – even when they’re having fun – and need time alone to recharge (the more introverted); whereas others gain energy from being with other people or in more stimulating environments (the more extroverted). Ambiverts are people who gain energy equally from both types of environment. It really is as simple as that.
Introversion, extroversion and ambiversion are temperaments that we are born with and are likely with us for life. None is better or worse than the other. It’s simply the way we’re wired. Did you know that around 50% of the population is introvert? They are not the minority they can be made to feel.
It’s also helpful to remember that introversion-extroversion is a scale and everyone has a comfortable position on the scale. Sometimes you will adapt to a situation and find yourself behaving in a more or less introverted or extroverted way. Once the event is over, you will return to your comfortable position on the scale, which is what suits you and allows you to flourish. It’s as if we are all springs that can stretch when required, but will return to our original shape once the task is over.
Introversion is not something to be ashamed of or changed. It is something to be embraced. And yes, introverts are generally quiet – but not always. Context is key.
Introverts don’t need fixing
It is important to add that many introverts may not understand that they are introverted or pick up that there is something wrong with introversion, that they are somehow “other” or “less than”. This can mean that they may retreat from situations or act more extroverted than they feel comfortable with to fit in while constantly ignoring their need for restorative quiet. In the long term this can lead to an introvert hangover – yes really – and ultimately burnout.
During my teens, 20s and 30s I used to need to go to bed for a day or two every few months. I never really understood what was going on as I didn’t feel ill, but knew I could not continue at the pace I had been going. I now understand that I was experiencing an introvert hangover and I had burnt myself out by ignoring my need for quiet to recharge – and quite simply just to function.
I honour this need much better now that I understand my introversion, but it is still easy to push myself too far from time to time. This is one of the reasons that I think it is so important that people understand their temperaments and learn to work with rather than against them.
Introverts are not shy or anti-social
There are many misconceptions of introversion, the most common being that all introverts are shy, don’t like being with people and probably don’t like talking much either. While this may be true of some introverts, it can also be true of extroverts and ambiverts. You see the thing is that shyness and not wanting to be around others is linked to social anxiety, not introversion, and is a learned behaviour that can be changed.
All people are wired for connection, but whereas extroverts gain energy from being with others, introverts have a battery that is drained my social interaction. This can mean they limit themselves to smaller groups of friends, but they need connection to others as much as anyone else. They are introverts, not hermits.
Going into new environments, introverts will likely be on the edge of things, checking the lie of the land before joining in. And while chatting to new people or networking may not come naturally, there are plenty of ways they can make strong connections with others. In fact, networking is now something that I actively enjoy.
As an introvert’s social battery has a limited charge, it’s important to ensure time to recharge after – and even pre-charge before – events. I’ve always been very lucky to have a lovely group of friends, but at the end of a night out I am ready for bed as my battery is flat. I’ll have had a ball, but need to call it a night whereas others have seemingly limitless energy.
What introverts bring to the table
Have you ever had any feedback from managers along the lines of “Sarah is a quiet member of staff and could contribute more to meetings” or maybe your school reports were similar “Claire is a great student, but needs to speak up more”? Both these examples see an introvert’s quiet nature as something that needs to be changed and it imply that the amount a person speaks up is a measure of their value. These are other examples of the extroversion bias.
And this is a dangerous place to be because for real success and collaboration any team needs a mix of introvert and extrovert energy. Neither is better or worse than the other.
Because by focusing purely on how much someone speaks, you are missing out on what introverts bring to the table. They are the observers, the deep thinkers, the creative problem solvers, the people who notice what others don’t, excellent collaborators because being the centre of attention is not generally a position they will seek out. An introverted boss will more likely encourage their whole team than focus on the voices of the loudest.
Introverts think before they speak. It’s how they process information, which may be why they often don’t like to be called upon in a meeting (and probably didn’t like it in school either). It doesn’t mean they don’t have something valuable to say, but they just need a bit of time to think first.
Extroverts on the other hand speak to think and will be processing their thoughts and opinions while talking, which is another blow against introverts in most situations. Considered contribution is surely preferable to talking for sake of it.
What can you do to help?
While introverts may not have the loudest voice, as parents, managers and colleagues, we need to encourage and listen, to create spaces where everyone feels comfortable to contribute and can be heard. We all need to validate introversion and act as advocates for our children or colleagues and not explain away any perceived social awkwardness as shyness, when it might simply be introversion.
Introvert and extrovert alike it’s about understanding what introversion actually is and calling out misconceptions and myths at work, home and school. I surveyed introverts asking them when they discovered they were introverted and if it would have helped them to know sooner.
Most found out they were introverts as part of a personality profiling exercise at work. All said it would have helped to understand their temperament earlier in life; and even those who did know they were introverted as children, felt it was something that they needed to change about themselves.
Imagine living in a world where all temperaments were equally valued and where introverts were not constantly forced out of their comfort zones. And here’s the thing about comfort zones: being put under pressure to feel the fear and do it anyway is actually within an extrovert’s comfort zone. Extroverts enjoy and thrive on the adrenaline this produces.
Not so much the introverts. They function much better when they challenge their fear or discomfort a little at a time. Taking things step by step rather than rushing full steam ahead. Think more tortoise than hare. Remember, introverts can achieve anything they want to, but need to go about it in their own way. Extroversion works brilliantly for extroverts; introverts need an introvert-friendly way of doing things.
Recognise your strengths as an introvert
To all the introverts out there, recognise your strengths. They are valuable and your perspective on the world is needed. It is only now I fully understand my introversion that am I able to respect my own needs and my own temperament.
I am more confident in having boundaries and asserting myself than I have ever been in the past. I spent too many years thinking that there was something wrong with me rather than embracing my temperament and the value of what I can contribute. I am now able to manage my energy and my workload in an introvert-friendly way while helping others understand and embrace their introversion too. And introversion is a gift.
Sophie Morris is the UK’s leading expert on introversion in children and teenagers at Quietosophy®. Her passion is all things introvert and her mission is to educate people about what introversion really is (and isn’t).
Sophie supports introverted children, their families and schools with expert coaching, courses and training. Introverted children learn how their quiet nature can work for them, so that they can succeed on their own terms – without having to shout. Download her free guide for 10 Top Tips to be Heard – Without Having to Shout.
Photo by Elena Koycheva