Introverts and extraverts – it may not mean what you think!
What is an introvert?
In practice, an introvert is someone who recharges by being alone or with a very small group of other people. An extravert is someone who recharges being around other people – sometimes a small group, but often the more the better since they draw energy from others.
Think of it this way – for extraverts, being around other people fills their tank, and for introverts being around people empties their tank (of course, this also means introverts tolerate being alone better and can entertain themselves more effectively than extraverts).
The world is actually about 50/50 introvert and extravert and evenly split across all gender, race, age, education, etc. segments of the population. This temperament is often expressed even as infants, and may have something to do with our natural dopamine sensitivity levels. It is a range of disposition, not a set point, so no two introverts are the same – no two people are the same.
*note here: most of the research has been done in the western world and norms for other aspects of personality are not as consistent across cultures, but this one seems to be!
It is true, though, that culture does tell us if extraversion is more valued than introversion – which it is in most western societies. We think being around other people a lot is a good thing, generally, and that might have to do with the need for social connection that all of us have.
Introversion is a broad personality trait, and can mean many things. This 2013 book was a game changer for me – Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking in terms of valuing my introversion and learning more about what it really says about me and the people around me. Introverts are experiencing a kind of “moment” – we did tend to function better with less social interaction, so the pandemic was not as traumatic for us in that way as it was for extraverts. Hopefully, this means that it will continue to be more valued and accepted.
Misconceptions about Introversion
Your stereotype (and, indeed, the Google definition) is that an introvert is shy and quiet. You might also have ideas about them being awkward, anxious, don’t like crowds, are daydreamers, or anti-social. These are not necessarily true, because these are emotions and stereotypes, not personality traits. So let’s tackle some of these:
Introverts are shy, quiet, or awkward
The whole world sometimes seems against you when you are an introvert, especially in school. Being quiet was kind of a red flag, not a neutral trait that was equally acceptable to being “outgoing.” That is changing a bit, because now we understand that forcing someone to act a certain way does not actually affect this aspect of personality, it just teaches people they cannot get it in certain situations. Introverts just have to learn to navigate a little differently and find ways to recharge, or find activities that are socially acceptable that we can lean on when we have had enough “peopling.”
Extraverts can certainly be shy, though it is generally less likely since they would have been born with a certain amount of interest in being social. They can be awkward, too, that just depends on the situation and their social facility.
Social skills are skills – all of us have to learn them. You can be born an introvert or extravert, but you are not born being shy or outgoing. An introvert can be great at networking or public speaking – when they do it, they just need some alone time to regroup. An extravert might be jazzed after a day of networking and ready to go to the next event.
I have learned how much down time I need, and I try to schedule that even when I am on a trip or around a lot of people. Some people judge, and I just tend to not spend much time with those people (if they are going to judge me for needing my down time, perhaps more than they do, they are probably going to judge other things and I just don’t have time for that).
Introverts are anti-social and don’t like people
So not true at all! Just because they need more alone time to recharge does not mean they don’t like you. It just means they need quiet. Some people need it to be creative, or to relax. I like to just hang out with my family and do the same things I do when I am alone, but it does not work to recharge my batteries if I have a houseful of people.
I admit, there are plenty of people I do not want to be around – but that is true regardless of my energy levels. It is rarely about how outgoing or quiet they are, but about a lot of other things like shared humor or interests, history, or some other connection.
Extraverts are just as likely to have people they dislike and don’t want to spend time around. They might talk more to other people about it. That can be positive (caring and open) or negative (gossip) – it just depends!
Another factor is that an introvert might not talk as much, which can seem like they are not interested in others or even rude. Really, we just tend to observe and take in information more than engage in small talk, which we tend to dislike because we don’t get much from it.
Introverts tend to be more anxious, especially around crowds of people
Again, this is more about other aspects of personality than introversion or extraversion. Anxiety is an emotion, and that happens to everyone. Sometimes we’re triggered by crowds or lots of stimulation. Sometimes it depends on what it is or how we are feeling that day – but that is not a personality thing, that is just a human thing. I have been to high energy events with a ton of people and smells and noise around me and had a blast – but I have also had times where being overheated in a train full of people gets on my last nerve. Either way, I am likely to be tired and need to recharge after, which I think is pretty normal. I think it’s weird when you are with people all day (like at an event) and then want to go out to a party like it’s your job.
We all have preferences, and that is A-OK!
Regardless, I do not consider myself an anxious person (except with public speaking and planes, but we can all understand those, right?). The stimulation level might get too high for me, and that might make me restless. I do not tend to like it when strangers sweat on me (like at a daytime summer concert where you are all squished together) so I might get a little short-tempered.. Maybe restlessness and annoyance look similar, but they are not the same as anxiety. And all of these emotions are just as likely to happen to an extraverted person and an introverted one.
Introverts in therapy
I can only truly speak to my own experience as an introvert and working with both introverts and extraverts, but I think introverted people often feel judged and think that they should be extraverted. None of the skills you learn in therapy or the emotions you have will be judged by a good therapist – that is not what therapy is for!
The skills I teach people, like assertiveness and boundary setting and listening, apply equally to both. This trait should have no bearing on your therapy experience, other than how it forms your own personal life experience. For everyone, therapy may involve dealing with aspects of your personality that you don’t like and learning skills to mitigate that. It might mean challenging your ideas about what it means to be an introvert. It might just mean learning your needs and preferences, like the amount of alone time, that you need to function well.
Therapy is all about how you are functioning in the world – or if you are. I often ask people to take a personality quiz, like the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator or the Big Five to get an idea about how they think of themselves. Often, the discussion about personality type leads to identifying things that need to be normalized or accepted and things that you can change. You can be fully functional in the world and be an introvert just as easily as an extravert.
I have worked with a lot of people who feel shame about this part of themselves, like needing alone time when their partner does not, or who struggle to ask for what they need in general. But asking for what you need is a skill, too, and just as likely to be experienced by anyone.
Sometimes, introverted people may have trouble opening up to a stranger – and that is also OK. It takes time to build trust and rapport, so we just both have to be willing to get through that. There might be a lot of different reasons for your reticence, and that is something we will talk about as your therapy moves forward.
In case you need more, here is an article about 4 ways therapy can benefit introverts.
As far as couples therapy, FYI – it can be a really useful thing to know about your partner, for all of those reasons we just talked about. A lot of couples work is about communicating effectively, and that set of skills are not really any different for introverts or extraverts – we all have to learn it!
Introverts as therapists
All of this is to say that being an introvert and a therapist is not especially unusual – the INFJ personality type is sometimes known as “the Counselor.” I don’t think it is my experience as an introvert, but my experience with accepting it, that might make me more attuned to it. I do not think it prevents me from working with extraverts at all.
I admit that groups take more out of me than individual sessions, and that my (relatively high) levels of introversion (or maybe some other personality trait) might make it easier for me to engage with certain types of clients because my energy feels different to them. But that is all about what works for the client, and preference.
Introverts are often more internally tuned, and observant. Clients often tell me that I notice things that other people don’t in sessions, or ask “how did you know that?” when I ask them a probing question or make an observation. We seek meaning, and tend to dive deep, so that tends to work well as a therapist. We don’t tend to like the spotlight, so we shine it on our clients. People tend to expect therapists to be calm, so being quiet and observant fits into that stereotype.
This is one take on being an introverted therapist. I agree with a lot of what she said. I have a similar experience of learning to use my energy more effectively as a therapist.
There is a difference for me, though, because I grew up in a house full of introverts, and it was normalized early on. My mom gave me the test (they use it in lots of workplace training) when I was 13, and my type has remained the same my whole life (INTJ, in case you are wondering). No one acted like it was weird at home, so I did not see it as a negative unless someone told me it was negative. I have lost track of the number of times someone told me “you don’t seem like an introvert” and meant it as a compliment.
Being introverted is normal. Depending on your life experiences, it might not feel healthy to you, but it might help to talk about it. I will not think negatively about you if you identify as an introvert (or an extravert). I will use my skills, as an introvert, as an observer, as an intuitive person and as a therapist to help you reach your true goals.
If you’re and introvert looking for a therapist and would like virtual therapy, let me know!