I’ve spent a large portion of my life feeling guilty for being… quiet.
When I was little, this guilt didn’t really exist. I loved my imagination. I lived in the world of books, I played make-believe, I invented my own stories and plots. I spent a good portion of my free time running around in a Narnia of my own design. It was blissful, beautiful, and most importantly, it made me happy.
I didn’t know it then, but these were all qualities of an introverted personality.
And then something started to shift inside of me around the age of 9 or 10. This seems to be the age when we begin to hide who we are in order to become what is expected of us. We start to internalize social standards. Our imagination, still present, dims slowly — instead, we look outside of ourselves for examples of how to look, act, and feel. And if you’re living in a westernized nation today, a lot of what is pushed on us is something called the “extrovert ideal.”
So, it’s not easy being introverted — but it’s a personality trait that you can embrace once you give yourself permission to embrace it and the strengths it brings.
Introversion vs. extroversion
First, a brief explanation of introversion and extroversion might be helpful, as there are many definitions floating around out there in the world of psychology and self-help.
Although many people have a bit of both types in their personality, the easiest way I’ve found to figure out if you’re more introverted or more extroverted is simply to ask yourself what you’re doing when you’re recharging your batteries. Do you seek time alone to recharge most of the time? You’re probably more introverted. Do you need to be around people and socialize to recharge? You’re probably more extroverted.
Another way to think about the difference is to consider the level of outside stimulation you need to best function. Most introverts seem to require lower levels of outside stimulation. They have just the right amount of stimulation when they have coffee with a close friend or read a book. Extroverts tend to need more action, thriving on meeting new people and being around lots of friends. Remember, though, that these aren’t black-and-white distinctions — you can be a bit of both. We are all wonderfully and gloriously complex.
The U.S. is considered one of the most extroverted of nations, but still (depending on which study you’re consulting), up to a half of all Americans are introverts. That means that if you don’t consider yourself an introvert, you’re very likely to be friends with, dating, married to, or managing one. And that makes it very important to recognize, appreciate, and celebrate this beautiful personality style in a way that I think has long gone unacknowledged.
The extrovert ideal and the psychic childhood pain of an introvert
The extrovert ideal is a way to describe the value that our culture places on the traits an extrovert brings: to be great is to be bold and outgoing; to be happy is to be sociable and easy to get along with. The term was coined by Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. In this book, she defines it as “the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight.” Introversion, on the other hand, has become a second-class personality trait — inferior to its bolder, louder cousin.
The problem with this extrovert Ideal is that many of us feel that we are trying to conform to a standard that goes against the very core of who we are. As I became more self-aware as a child, I was never taught that it was okay to want to be alone for hours at a time — that it was okay to bring books to the family get-togethers and the holiday parties and want to read in a quiet corner while the others laughed and talked and played games.
There was nothing wrong with me, but I didn’t know enough to tell myself that. All I heard from the collective influence of my family, friends, and society was, “Go on Lauren, why don’t you talk more? Why don’t you want to play with the other kids?” My parents would apologize for my “shyness,” which I know now was not a fear of social disapproval, but really just a preference for less stimulating environments. I was applauded for “coming out of my shell” when I finally started joining group sports and clubs in high school.
But what about the very revolutionary idea that there was never any shell to come out of, and being quiet and reflective was a part of my core being? Maybe I wasn’t just “in my own head” — maybe I was a thinker.
As writer Anaïs Nin said, “Our culture made a virtue of living only as extroverts. We discouraged the inner journey, the quest for a center. So we lost our center and have to find it again.”
The power of introverts
Although it can take a lot of unlearning for adult introverts to reach a space where they can fully flourish and take pride in who they are, it is possible — and worth it.
Introverts are responsible for some of the world’s greatest ideas, art, and inventions. Van Gogh, Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt, Al Gore — all of these were contemplative folk who were fully aware of their inner world and were able to tap into the treasure trove of inspiration within. Though many of them were in occupations that are traditionally considered extroverted, they were able to accomplish ground-breaking work because of their introverted nature, not in spite of it.
There is a place for introverts in this world, and we need to step up and claim it. If you’ve ever felt guilty for just wanting to be alone to read or write or sip tea and think about life, it’s time to let go of that shame and embrace your introversion — to grow into the person you were created to be.