We humans are social creatures who very often rely on one another to survive. We as a species have quickly learned that we are much stronger in groups than as isolated entities which in turn has prompted us to adopt a “herd mentality” as our modus operandi. This has been true since the dawn of time when we once relied on one another to yell out audible warning signals indicating the presence of an onrushing predator so that others in our tribe could scamper away in time to preserve their lives. Being part of a community also allows us to benefit from the talents and abilities of others that we may not inherently possess. As an example from ancient times, the physically strong men in a given tribe would protect the women from dangerous animals and men from rival tribes in return for the women keeping a home and rearing their children. We have carried this practical exchange of valuable goods and services into our modern world as well. As a contemporary example, I didn’t create the MacBook Pro that I am using to type this article, but I am able to enjoy its benefits thanks to the bevy of intelligent Engineers and Designers at Apple headquarters, in return for a stack of cash. As we’ve gained more control over our environment, what started as a practical reliance on our fellow man has slowly morphed into a mixture of practical and emotional dependence on each other. We no longer need to worry too much about fundamental things like avoiding the neighborhood sabretooth tiger, and have started to obsessively worry about how much we are liked by the people around us. Many of us have become heavily emotionally dependent on our social interactions with people close to us… in some cases, overtly so. The degree to which each person depends on an emotional interaction with another person is roughly governed by where they emotionally place on the introvert – extrovert spectrum.
Introverts and extroverts lie at opposite ends of the personality spectrum, and are characterized by traits that are almost polar opposites of one another. Introverts are more inwardly focused on their thoughts, ideas, and feelings, while extroverts are more focused on the outside world and those around them. In a practical sense, you can spot an introvert as the guy or gal who would rather quietly work alone on a huge intricately detailed project than with a band of folks. An extrovert may work on the same scale and type of project but would almost certainly avoid doing it alone, preferring to have a band of collaborators and colleagues to work with. It is important to point out a couple of things about the introversion/extroversion personality dynamic. First, neither personality type is inherently better than the other… both personality types have their strengths and their weaknesses. Second, very few of us are purely introverted or extroverted, most of us fall somewhere in the continuum between total introversion and total extroversion.
Even though we as individuals are all hybrids of extrovert and introvert to varying degrees, the tendencies and behaviors of introverts remain amongst the most picked on and ostracized by society. Perhaps a good explanation for this is that most humans by nature are extremely social creatures, making it difficult for most to understand why someone would want to spend an evening alone reading a book or painting a masterpiece rather than at a boisterous nightclub in downtown San Francisco. Actually, and completely unbeknownst to the introvert, his or her extrovert friends might take this rejection of their invitation for a wild night out on the town as a personal affront! If this carries on for too long without the proper amount and depth of communication between extrovert and introvert, the extrovert may say some hurtful things in frustration or incessantly tease the introvert in an attempt to draw him or her out of their proverbial shell. This can cause irreparable damage to what could have otherwise been an amazing relationship between introvert and extrovert. The problem as with most things in life, is just a simple lack of understanding and/or awareness between both parties.
Being a bit of a loner myself, and having had the privilege of getting to know many others over the years, I have come to understand some major defining traits of my introverted brethren. Introverts aren’t bad or arrogant folks who think themselves too good to talk to the common man… actually, a lot of them rank amongst the most humble, sweetest, kindest, and most loyal people you’ll ever meet or befriend. Also, some of the brightest and most productive human beings that have ever walked the face of this planet have been some of the most introverted. Names like Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Michelangelo, Kobe Bryant, and Barry Lamar Bonds come to mind as loner geniuses who at one point or another suffered the ridicule of society because of their basic introverted nature and aversion for the small talk that extroverts seem to enjoy so much. The list below elaborates on some of the fundamental qualities of an introvert.
Traits of an Introvert
Introverts like you, just not all the time
Introverts would rather have 2 – 3 good/deep friendships than 45+ shallow ones
Introverts live in their own heads a lot, making them incredibly sensitive
Introverts can become obsessive with their work
Introverts gain energy through quiet contemplation, meditation, and solitary intellectual work rather than in a group setting with other people
Introverts aren’t necessarily shy
A common misconception about introverts is that all of us are shy misanthropes who are too arrogant/cocky to want to speak to others because many of us would rather keep to ourselves and work than spend energy interacting with people. The truth is that introverts do not have any problem at all with other people per se. It is just that being in large groups where political intrigues and battles can’t help but naturally rise to the surface, tends to drain introverted people of energy. And by that, I mean that being around people who talk a lot and enjoy drama literally makes us as tired as we would be after ~10 rounds of sparring with a decent boxer. This is why introverts have to pick their spots in terms of when and where they choose to interact with other people. So the next time your introverted friend refuses your invite to your not so good friend’s birthday party, you shouldn’t take it personally. Your introvert still loves you and your friends (provided you don’t keep intruding on their quiet time)… just not all the time like your more extroverted friends do.
Introverts usually have a reduced emotional need for people which means that they can afford to take extended periods of time to find the very best of friends that suit their temperament. I think this is a sticking point for many people who take it personally if the intriguing introvert they just met doesn’t seem to want to reciprocate the interest shown. Introverted people are naturally deep people which means that they take very little at face value. For this reason, they are very good at understanding the true character of a person despite what outward appearances may suggest. You can be sure that within the first few minutes of meeting, your introvert acquaintance would have immediately sized you up and concluded if you will be good or bad for each other. If he or she has decided you both would be bad for each other, you’ll probably get the cold shoulder no matter how many times you try to get them to come out of their shell. Remember not to take this personally… the fact that you and your introverted acquaintance aren’t good for each other doesn’t mean you aren’t any good… you’re probably just a wrong fit for each other. Consider the following… strawberry jam and chicken pot pie are two perfectly good foods, but they don’t go well together. That doesn’t mean that strawberry jam is horrible and/or chicken pot pie should be banned from every food menu known to man, it just means they are at their best when eaten with other things. This is the best analogy to apply when someone who we may want to befriend doesn’t seem to take well to the idea of friendship with us. Rather than childishly sulking and hurling curses at whomever it is, remind yourself that just because the introverted person doesn’t particularly want to befriend you doesn’t necessarily mean there is anything wrong with you. You’re probably just a bad fit for each other.
A preponderance of introverts in the world today are dreamers, creators and inventors. Introverts like to spend a lot of time alone partly because we get bored to tears and have our energy drained by the things our extroverted friends find exciting, but largely because being alone really allows us to explore the wellspring of creativity that burns from within. Introverts are very detail oriented which is why if you’ve seen one of Michelangelo’s sculptures, you’ve probably been baffled by how much better his work is compared to those of other masters from that same period. The attention to detail that introverts bring to their work is also many times brought into personal relationships. For this reason, if you harm an introvert by saying too many disrespectful or spiteful things, it is very likely that he or she will neither forget it nor forgive you regardless of if you meant what you said at the time or not. We definitely hold grudges… no question about that. This is not because introverts are mean or want to hold your offense over your head for the sake of making you feeling guilty, it is because we have a depth of emotion that is hard for other people who aren’t of the same ilk to fathom. That irritation that a regular person may feel is 1000 times amplified for a really introverted person. Consider this the next time you find yourself trying really hard to get an introverted person to be more “normal”. Introverts are already normal for the temperament they were born with! You don’t need to “fix” anything.
The reason why Michelangelo’s sculptures are light years better than those of his contemporaries is due to his complete absorption with the subject of sculpture. I mean this man would sneak into mortuaries and dissect bodies because he wanted to know how all the muscle and sinew in the human body really looked, and how they seamlessly bonded with skin. He never married or had any children… here was a man obsessed, sparing time for little else apart from drawing, painting, and beating the hell out of blocks of marble. Sir Isaac Newton’s intense fascination with the subject of light and how it affected the human eye once drove him to stick a pencil into his own pupil which promptly left him blinded out of that eye for just over a week. Michelangelo and Sir Isaac Newton are extreme outliers, but many introverts are pretty intense about their work which is the reason for the intense blood curdling rage you get from them when you interrupt their work.. intentionally or not.
Extroverted folks tend to come alive when they are in a group setting with lots of banter and small talk. These types may feel low and despondent when there is no one to talk to so they are rarely ever alone for too long. They thrive on being the life of the party and are excellent at entertaining others with jokes and light conversation. Introverts on the other hand, tend to gain energy from quiet contemplation and intellectual work. For some reason, spending hours with the guitar fills me with incredible verve and energy while spending a little over an hour at a cocktail party could leave me drained if I’m not careful. You will most likely find a typical introvert quietly hanging out in a corner booth with a few close friends at your company year end party rather than hobnobbing with everybody on the dance floor and making new friends. He or she has to do this to conserve emotional energy.
Many people think all introverts are painfully shy, but this is simply not true. The truth is that an introvert can be a real joy to be around if they are around a group of trusted people. As a matter of fact, a lot of the very best performing musicians and public speakers are actually extreme introverts in their day to day lives. These performing introverts seem to have an insanely rich and powerful emotional delivery that leaves a lot of us spellbound while they are performing. Once they are off the stage or the podium, they transform back into the quiet unassuming folks that love to disappear into their own private world of thoughts and ideas. Introverts aren’t necessarily always shy, we just value alone time a lot more than most.
In my relatively short life, I have noticed an “us vs them” mentality between extroverts and introverts. Extroverts often think we introverts are arrogant weirdos, while introverts dismiss extroverts as loud mouthed idiots who can’t seem to mind their own business. Needless to say, the adversarial relationship between the two personality type extremes helps no one in the end. The only peaceful resolution that can be had here is by a true and deep understanding of the other end of the spectrum from our own. Introverts need to understand why their extrovert friends want them to come to their birthday party even if it will be filled with loud people dancing to blaring music, and extroverts need to understand that their introvert can’t stay at said party for too long without becoming despondent. Meeting each other halfway in this manner is one of the ways that we can accommodate and learn from each other rather than resorting to name calling and other unsavory tactics in a bid to get the other side to “see the light”. A fair deal of patience is required by both parties in order to make this work because as far as I can tell, both sides of the spectrum believe they are in the right to their very core. Till next time my friends… take care of yourselves and each other. Also, be nice to your introverts… you might either end up using something they created, or working for one.
Oyolu B.C. Ph.D.
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