Do You Think Being An Introvert is a Negative Thing?
If So, You Might Be Misusing the Term “Introvert”
When I was walking along the river trail near my house and I spied my neighbor, I might have whipped out my phone and pretended to be immersed in a conversation just to avoid chatting with her.
Okay, there’s no “might” about it. I definitely did that. In fact, I’ve done it multiple times with different neighbors.
Does that make me anti-social? Shy? Avoidant? Does it even matter that I made that quick decision to dodge what would probably have been a short, pleasant chat with someone I hadn’t seen in a while?
It actually doesn’t matter…Well, err…it COULD matter. It means nothing if that moment of theatrics with my phone passes like a blip on my (and my neighbor’s) day. But, if I’m haunted by self-doubt about my decision, berating myself about it later, or if it’s steering me away from things that matter deeply to me (such as stronger relationships with people like my neighbor), then it matters – in fact, it matters a great deal.
I often talk to life coaching or career coaching clients who know that I specialize in working with introverts (and that I’m an introvert myself) about their concerns about being an introvert. They worry that the term “introvert” is a judgment, a definitive condemnation and a hurdle to them reaching both personal and professional goals they’ve set for themselves.
Fortunately for them, being an introvert brings many strengths and opportunities that extroverts may not have. Learning how to appreciate the quiet power of introverts, and their unique set of “superpowers” is often key to restoring their confidence.
Introvert Personality Traits
While I completely understand these concerns about how introversion might be seen as negative, nothing could be further from the truth. Introversion is an innate personality trait, one that’s associated with our nervous system’s hard wiring – we come into the world this way – and it’s no worse (or better) than its counterpart, extroversion. Both terms are thrown around in general conversation in ways that cloud their meaning. Essentially, introversion includes three qualities:
- Process internally: we mull things over in our heads and generally plan and rehearse before we speak
- Refuel alone: we can get depleted by being in large groups and to refill our tanks, we seek time by ourselves; we also get ignited by ideas, emotions, and imagination
- Thrive on depth: we have an aversion to social chit-chat, preferring intimacy, and in general, we’re not as drawn to breadth (many people, many topics), but instead prefer to hone in on a few people and topics.
We all exist on a spectrum of extroversion and introversion, and different people and settings bring out varying dimensions of ourselves, but most people have a preference for one side of the spectrum (those in the middle are called ambiverts).
Introversion is often mistaken for other constructs such as shyness, poor social skills, lack of confidence, and hypersensitivity, and it’s helpful to distinguish these terms from one another because the approach to addressing them is different. But here’s the thing: all of these expressions can surface in tandem. They can definitely show up at the same time, so there are good reasons why these terms are used interchangeably. I’m pulling them apart in here in the same way I do with my clients so that we can explore them and decide together how to approach each of them.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, “anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 40 million adults in the U.S. age 18 and older, or 18.1% of the population every year.”
Anxiety, which is most of us tend to refer to as worry or stress, shows up in many forms including avoidance of triggers (such as travel or public speaking), and many people develop self-soothing behaviors in an attempt to mask their fear (eating, drinking alcohol, and smoking pot are just a few of these go-to coping mechanisms).
Anxiety can also show up in physical symptoms. For example, I tend to clench my jaw. Others might get headaches, have trouble sleeping, or find their shoulders elevate with tension.
We here at Growing Self support clients in identifying and addressing their anxiety through many mechanisms. We work with self-talk, mindfulness techniques (such as meditation), journaling, and other approaches. We’ve also learned to listen to our clients when they use other terms for anxiety such as panic, shyness, and perfectionism.
Being introverted does not mean that you need to be anxious. You can embrace your introverted self, and also feel peaceful and confident in who you are.
Introvert Social Skills
In a recent initial consultation, one of my career coaching clients was describing his result on the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory, one of the most well-known assessment tools that gauges where people fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum, and something that we often offer to career coaching clients here at Growing Self.
“My test results said that I’m an introvert,” he said, “but I don’t think of myself that way. I get along well with people, and I know how to work a room.”
We talked about introversion as a personality trait using the three characteristics listed above, and he started nodding his head with vigor. “I’m definitely an introvert,” he said. “I NEED alone time.”
Social skills are learned behaviors and often rooted in simple techniques, and I talk with my clients about them often, whether clients are introverts or extroverts, particularly when they’re in an active job search. Some of the topics we discuss include:
- Easy conversation starters
- The impact of eye contact (too much and too little)
- Gracious exit strategies (soooo important at events – none of us wants to be trapped talking to someone after we’ve exhausted easy topics)
- Smooth introductions (both of yourself and of others)
The truth is, if there’s a generalization to be made about social skills, I can defend the idea that introverts are often BETTER at social skills than extroverts because we tend to attune to others a deep level, picking up on social cues quickly, and using our listening superpower well in social situations.
If you just read the social skills section of this article and thought, Yeah, right, maybe some introverts are good at attuning and listening, but that’s not me, that’s a great segue to the topic of self-confidence.
Whether your self-doubt shows up around traits that are associated with introversion or other parts of your life, we all get caught up in taking ourselves down a few notches. Comparison is a reflexive human behavior, one that can result in inspiration and creativity or – at the other end of the spectrum – shrinking and withdrawal.
For all of us, belief in ourselves and our capabilities, aka “self-esteem” waxes and wanes depending on the situation, the people around us, and our experience and memories. Every single one of us suffers from bouts of self-doubt. Coaching and therapy aren’t designed to make you arrogant or a superhero. Instead, we want to explore whether you undermine yourself often, especially when you’re moving closer to reaching a goal you’ve set for yourself. And if so, how to stop. [Listen to “Create Self Confidence” for more on this topic].
High Sensitivity in Introverts
High sensitivity has nothing to do with emotional drama and everything to do with the nervous system’s predisposed response to both internal and external stimuli. People who are highly sensitive are also often called empaths and tend to feel things strongly. Someone who is a highly sensitive person (HSP) may have some of the following traits:
- React with aversion to sensory stimuli such as loud sounds, strong smells, and even tactile things (such as tags on clothing)
- Struggle with transitions (big and small), tight deadlines, and massive inflows of data
- Soak up others’ moods (both positive and negative) seemingly through osmosis
- Require extra time to wind down after a period of intensity or busyness
The term HSP was popularized by Dr. Elaine Aron, and she offers a self-test for those who are curious about whether they might fall under this umbrella, but she makes it clear that both introverts and extroverts claim this identity.
The term “empath” has emerged alongside HSP in recent years. Dr. Judith Orloff speaks and writes about this term (she offers a free online assessment, too), and she says that empaths share all of the traits of HSPs with empaths having additional traits, including:
- Strong intuition, which may include tapping into others’ energy or emotions
- Difficulty separating others’ emotions (particularly discomfort) from our own
Overlap of These Constructs = The Introvert Experience
I saw a photo on one of my social media accounts that truly made me laugh out loud. It was a picture of a party banner that – when tacked to the wall – says, “Please leave by 9.” That banner was made for me!
The banner also illustrates how an urge, an idea, or a behavior might fit into any of the categories outlined above, and until we explore its roots, we’re just left with assumptions. My love of that banner could easily be attributed to any of the constructs that I’ve outlined here. In fact, it probably stems from more than one of them at the same time. But when I can pull apart the various threads of my delight in that banner, it offers me insight into how I navigate the world and whether I’m moving towards or away from my deepest desires and values.
When you sit down with any of us here at Growing Self and explore whether and how introversion, anxiety, social skills, confidence, and high sensitivity show up in your life, it can take you closer to what you want to achieve in your life, too, whether that’s in your intimate relationships, your professional world, your health, or another part of your life where you find that you’re somehow giving up on yourself.
Even single one of these constructs (yes, even anxiety) has a benefit and a positive side in addition to places where they each trip us up. Knowing the qualities of your personality and your communication style is liberating and instructive. [For more on that, read: Using Self Awareness and Self Acceptance to Grow] Let’s talk about which of these categories feels familiar to you and how it’s showing up for you.
Your fellow traveler,
Maggie Graham, M.Ed., LPC, CPCC
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