I was asked a really fundamental question today; “Do introverts know that they are introverts?” The short answer is some do, and some don’t.
Some people, like me, will have known only too well that they are very different from friends and colleagues but are likely to have concluded over time that the ‘difference’ is not good or even acceptable. I’d spent years wondering why I didn’t fit in, why I listened more than I talked, why I enjoyed my own company, why I took myself to bed early as a child so that I could read before lights out, and why being the life & soul of the party didn’t appeal to me. Actually, more than not appealing, trying to be louder, more visible and chattier was exhausting! I could not sustain the effort needed for any real length of time, and certainly not as long as some of my colleagues.
The real insight for me came back in the early 80’s when I completed an assessment as part of a leadership programme and the result showed that I was an introvert. Suddenly, the difference that I’d noticed made more sense.
But lets begin at the beginning.
We are fairly used to hearing talk about introversion these days but there is still much misunderstanding. In common usage, we mistakenly think Extraversion is about being outgoing, talkative and fun whilst introversion is about shyness and a lack of confidence. And we need to understand the damage that those labels and categorisations can do in the short and long-term.
Actually, our understanding of Introversion and Extraversion is informed by Jungian psychology and in this context relates to the processes by which we charge our mental batteries.
According to Jung, Extraverts are stimulus hungry, constantly seeking interaction, active experiences and change in order to be energised. They literally need energy from the world beyond themselves; a bit like a solar panel absorbing energy from the environment in order to recharge their own batteries. It can also be an ongoing process.
Introverts on the other hand are over-stimulated so are focused on, and sustained by, the rich world of thoughts, ideas and personal reflection. So, for the Introvert, experiences and ideas are satisfying in and of themselves meaning they generate a peaceful and calm energy from their internal world. This explained why I enjoy being on my own; reading, dreaming and reflecting. With Introverts, its more like noting that the ‘low battery’ warning light is flashing on our personal dashboard, indicating a need to power down for safety and survival. What’s needed is the opportunity to quietly plug yourself into a socket in the corner of the room until replenished.
For introverts, batteries are unpredictable though. They are drained at different rates by different things and when that warning light comes on, powering down in inevitable, wherever you are. This is one of the things that Extraverts find confusing.
Both Introversion and Extraversion are available to us and indeed necessary for healthy functioning. And yet we have a preference in much the same way as we do for left or right handedness. Try crossing your arms, look down and see which arm is on top. Uncross them and now try to cross them the other way. You probably found that more awkward but doable! This is preference. It is the manifestation of these preferences that can be the cause of misunderstanding, tension and even conflict.
There has been a rise in popularity of the term Ambivert to represent those who don’t really associate strongly with either Introversion or Extraversion. The implication here is that Extraversion and introversion are different ends of a spectrum, as might be explained by a trait theorist and meaning that Ambi literally sits ‘in the middle’. Whilst this can be useful in some situations, when working with Introverts to help them see that their behaviour is not only normal but a source of strength, just using the term Ambivert doesn’t explain the whole story. So, from a type theory perspective, Introversion and Extraversion are completely different and mutually exclusive because as already mentioned, they relate to the processes by which we charge and drain our mental batteries. Dan Pink, a well-respected journalist wrote that Ambiverts “know when to speak up and when to shut up, when to inspect and when to respond, when to push and when to hold back.” I would assert that so do Flourishing Introverts. What is common here is that the way they are using the term Ambivert points to behaviour but not to the processes of energy recharging. The reality is that we can all display flexibility in our behaviour but the way we recharge is much more fixed.
Once you know that you’re an Introvert, it’s time to find out what type of Introvert you are.