What it means to actually be an introvert

Jess Denham
·6-min read
Photo credit: Erik Madigan Heck
Photo credit: Erik Madigan Heck

From Harper's BAZAAR

I’m an introvert; a highly sensitive introvert, actually.

In fact, I’m an INFJ, the rarest personality type according to the widely-cited Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

But despite what that popular introvert meme, ‘Sorry I’m late, I didn’t want to come’, might have you believe, I love a good party. I’m the first on the dancefloor and the last to leave. I don’t celebrate when a friend bails on me and I definitely don’t hate people (well, for the most part).

On the face of it, I’m the epitome of an extrovert. What my friends don’t know is that the day after socialising, I really, really do not want to talk to anybody. I melt into my sofa, utterly immovable.

Contrary to stereotypes, not all introverts are quiet and shy and not all extroverts are loud and chatty. The difference between us lies in how we recharge our energy. Introverts are energised by chilled time alone, while extroverts are energised by being around other people.

Numerous psychological theories link introversion to how sensitive and reactive we are to our environment. In the Sixties, the German psychologist Hans Eysenck suggested that introverts need less stimulation than extroverts to reach a ‘set point’ of social arousal, causing an escape from overstimulation to be sought sooner. Eysenck’s theories have proved controversial among modern scientists but there seems to be some truth in this one. I know I reach a point, pretty quickly, past which any more noise might end me.

Thanks to American psychologist Jonathan Cheek’s 2011 paper on the ‘four meanings of introversion’, there are now thought to be four main types of introverts - social, anxious, thinking and restrained - with many introverts a mix of all four.

Social introverts, such as myself, prefer to socialise in small, intimate groups. They may come across as shy at times, but they do not struggle with social anxiety like anxious introverts, who tend to avoid other people entirely, possibly out of awkwardness, self-consciousness or a lack of faith in their social skills.

Photo credit: Angel Franco - Getty Images
Photo credit: Angel Franco - Getty Images

Restrained introverts often enjoy being around others but only once they are made to feel comfortable. They think before they speak and tend to live slow, deliberate lives. Thinking introverts are happy enough at social events but are often accused of being ‘away with the fairies’. They are typically introspective, self-reflective, analytical and imaginative.

Importantly, introversion and extroversion exist on a scale. Some people fall at the extreme ends. Others, sometimes dubbed ‘ambiverts’, hang about in the middle.

If you aren’t sure which camp you fall into, Dr Rachel Allan, a chartered counselling psychologist based in Glasgow, suggests considering where you feel most authentic and at ease.

Photo credit: Jamie McCarthy - Getty Images
Photo credit: Jamie McCarthy - Getty Images

“It’s important to be mindful of context,” she says. “Some of us are naturally more reserved yet may still be outgoing in certain scenarios. Gregarious, even.

“I can think of plenty of people who are highly confident, and are engaging public speakers, but consider themselves introverted because they feel like their truest self at the point of restoration.

“The biggest myth about introversion is that you can spot an introvert based solely on how they act socially or professionally.”

Susan Cain’s seminal 2012 book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, is often credited with stirring an introvert revolution and helping to erode the implicit - and often explicit - message that we should strive to be more extroverted. Yet still, what Cain calls ‘the extrovert ideal’ persists, particularly in the workplace.

Photo credit: Jason Merritt - Getty Images
Photo credit: Jason Merritt - Getty Images

From confidence to charisma, characteristics typically associated with extroverts have long been held in high regard. In contrast, sensitivity and seriousness have historically been viewed negatively and taken as signs of aloofness. It’s little wonder, then, that so many introverts feel the need to pretend to be extroverted in order to be noticed and valued.

“It can be important for all of us to be able to step into different roles and be relatively fluid but it’s usually not healthy to force ourselves into situations where we feel really uncomfortable purely because we have been conditioned to believe that being ‘extroverted’ is the better way to be,” says Dr Allan.

“Thankfully, we’re slowly starting to understand that introversion is not a shortcoming but a difference that brings many valuable qualities to our society.”

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

Fellow introverts will understand the unsustainable struggle of trying to keep up the extrovert charade. I enjoyed clubbing as a student, but the hangovers hit me harder than my friends because I was recovering from socialising and stimulation overload, as well as boozing. Every day I’d lock my door in halls for a while and not answer when they knocked, letting them think I was out so I could grab some precious recuperation time, necessarily alone.

By my final year of university, I was an out-and-proud introvert. On the train home for the holidays, I’d book a seat by myself so I could plug in my headphones and stare out of the window, listening to emotive music while reflecting on another term of early 20s boy drama. Yes, I was teased mercilessly for this highly uncool quirk, but the banter was always thrown about with fondness and taken on the chin.

I’m now 30. I’ve learned that people tend to respect those with the balls to put boundaries in place. Ditto those who can laugh at themselves. I also know not to socialise for more than two nights on the trot or jam-pack my calendar too far in advance. Doing otherwise simply does not work for me.

In short: if you’re an introvert, embrace it.

“Recognise that having quiet time, listening to yourself and doing the things that restore you are worthwhile activities,” says Dr Allan. “Challenge any stigma that might exist around accepting, nurturing and celebrating yourself and try to let go of any shame.”

Instagram is awash with oh-so-relatable accounts targeting introverts, from @introvertstruggles to @introvertdear. Many posts are funny in their observational honesty but be careful not to play up to a label, pigeonhole yourself and end up feeling lonely. It’s not obligatory to see yourself in every meme to be a ‘real’ introvert. You don’t have to prefer a night in with your cat to a night out with your friends and it’s not a requirement to own one of those ubiquitous sequin cushions reading ‘I fucking hate people’.

Photo credit: John Springer Collection - Getty Images
Photo credit: John Springer Collection - Getty Images

“If anything, introverts are the most likely to value deep and authentic connections with other humans, even if their preferred way of connecting differs to someone higher up the extroversion scale,” says Dr Allan.

“We all like to feel a sense of recognition and belonging, so it’s great if social media helps validate or normalise how somebody feels, but the stereotype that all introverts are recluses with disdain for people is unhelpful.

“Introverts can be warm and talkative. They can be characterful storytellers and captivating entertainers, but they will usually need and value reflection and restoration in the quiet.”

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