On Being an Introvert

I am an introvert. Many people who know me shake their head in disbelief when I say so. After all, I can talk to most anyone, I am often an amateur comedian amongst a group of individuals, and I actually enjoy being social (until I don’t, that is). Many people, it seems, have a very surface level definition of “introvert.” An introvert is a shy person who doesn’t talk much. While shyness can be characteristic of an introvert, I don’t believe it is a necessary or intrinsic characteristic of introversion.

I have defined my introversion as having a “rich inner life” in contrast to shyness. Merriam-Webster refers to the introvert as someone who is “typically reserved or quiet” and tends to prefer small groups to larger ones. In most social situations, especially among people I don’t know well, I tend to listen and observe a good deal more than I talk. I have always favored having a very few close friends than several friends with whom the relationship is largely superficial. The introvert enjoys, and even needs, time alone. I value and need certain times of solitude.

Merriam-Webster also says that it was C.G. Jung who coined the terms extrovert and introvert, extroversion and introversion. Psychology defines introversion as:

The state of or tendency toward being predominantly concerned with and obtaining gratification from one’s own mental lifea personality trait or style characterized by a preference for or orientation to one’s own thoughts and feelings.

This is a fair description of me. Solitude and my mental life are also sources of energy and recharging for me.

This is not to say that extroverts are all noise and no brain (although I have known one or two who fit that description). I would say that just like introversion is not shyness but a focus on the inner life, extroversion is not boisterousness or merely being outgoing while having little intellect. How one lives one’s personality (extroverted or introverted) is largely due to character, the cultivation of virtue, and maturity. Following psychology, the real difference between extroversion and introversion is the individual’s primary focusing of their energy (and I would add time) on their inner or outer worlds. It is not only one’s navel that is an “innie” or an “outie.” It is also your energy.

When I was a teenager, I would go to our local mall for three intentional, self-conscious reasons: 1) To go to the bookstore; 2) To go to the record store; 3) To sit and watch people. That’s right folks. That is how exciting I was as a teenager. I liked to watch people and observe their behavior, mannerisms, and their conduct generally. Why? People have always fascinated me and I have learned a great deal from just observing folks out in public. The key is to watch people when they are just being who they are without self-awareness. The moment someone knows she or he is being watched, they become self-aware and slip into performance mode. In other words, people are most themselves the less they are thinking about themselves. You are most yourself when you are just being you, not performing for someone else.

I think my habit of just sitting down and watching people springs from my introversion. I want to know things. I want to understand things. People among those things. Do I judge people when I watch them? Probably sometimes. It would be difficult never to make a judgment about what you see, but judgment need not be understood in a negative sense. Often, I am delighted by them. I think people are basically good (despite all the evil in the world) and I see people do good things when they are unaware of being watched. Deferring to someone who was about to enter a store at the same time or picking something up someone dropped unawares to give it back to them. I often see people who are clearly anxious or stressed. In all cases, I am wondering “what’s your story?”

I suppose I really like people…from a distance!

Sometimes when I say that I am an introvert and people are surprised, they often say, “Oh, you are an extroverted introvert!” I disagree. I am just an introvert. I think the phrase “extroverted introvert” is based on the idea that the extrovert is outgoing and the introvert is not, so an introvert who can also be outgoing must be an extroverted introvert. I don’t think I have ever heard anyone say anything like someone is an “introverted extrovert.” What would that look like? An outgoing person who is shy?

To return to a basic definition of the words, an introvert is characterized as one whose energy is directed mostly inward, into their mental life, and an extrovert is one who directs their energy to the outer world. Each of us are either one or the other. If we accept the definition that what defines one as either and introvert or an extrovert as where they primarily direct their energy and find gratification, then perhaps we can say that regardless of our primary orientation (inward or outward), a healthy person should have some of both in their lives.

So, while I may have that “rich inner life” I mentioned, I should also turn to the world about me and open my eyes. I think my people watching, while motivated by my introversion (wanting to think about things), it is a kind of turning outward to let the world teach me things I need to know. Likewise, an extrovert draws energy and satisfaction from turning to the outer world, but such a person should also have times of reflection and evaluation. How much inner or outer you need will be determined and balanced by your own personality and needs, but I am convinced we all need a little of each direction.

Open up to the world around you. You’ll be the better for it. Turn inward for some honest introspection and self-evaluation. You’ll also be the better for it.

That’s enough for now. I need to go read a book.

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