What is an introvert?

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The concept of introversion-extroversion as a personality trait is one of the most universally accepted psychological theories, considered by many to be the single most important aspect of personality in terms of determining your life choices. Carl Jung developed the terms originally in his ground-breaking book Personality Types in 1921, but references to two distinct personality types have been around since time began – the archetypal ‘man of reflection’ versus the ‘man of action’.

Most theories hold that introversion-extroversion is a continuum which we are all on somewhere – there is therefore no such thing as a pure introvert or pure extrovert. So although our brains can do both, we all have an in-built dominance of one over the other – some stronger and some less so (those falling right in the middle are called ambiverts). It is therefore not something you choose and not something you can change. Of course introverts can learn to extrovert, and vice versa, but your basic type will remain the same. As such, acting against your type too often and for the wrong reasons can seriously affect your long-term physical and mental well-being.

Obviously there are many other factors that shape a person’s personality and so it goes without saying that each introvert will be different to the next. However, there are some basic characteristics that many introverts have in common which set us apart from extroverts.

The fundamental difference between the two types is biological – how much stimulation your brain needs to function at its best. Introverts are much more sensitive to external stimuli (i.e. what’s coming into our brain from the world around us) than extroverts – we need a lot less. Too much going on – e.g. noise, people, activity – and our brain quickly gets ‘over-aroused’ leaving us feeling tired and overwhelmed. As introverts therefore, we are constantly trying to reduce the level of stimulation we’re getting in order to calm down our brains so we can think straight and do what we need to do properly. Extroverts on the other hand need a lot more external stimulation to function well. Too little going on and their brains get ‘under-aroused’ leaving them feeling restless, bored and sluggish.

Closely linked to this is another difference – where you get your energy from. As introverts, we recharge our batteries by drawing on energy from within ourselves. So if our energy levels are low – because of too much external stimulation – we need to withdraw for a while, perhaps be on our own, do something quiet like read a book, spend time reflecting on our experiences. Extroverts however get their energy from the outside world, so they recharge their batteries by engaging with people, going places, talking, seeking excitement and activity. In our modern world therefore, it is generally much easier for extroverts to keep their energy levels high, as they only have to step out the door to get what they need from the world outside. For introverts however, finding that calm, quiet place to recharge just when we need it can often be much more of a challenge.

These differences often lead people to assume that ‘introvert’ is the same as ‘shy’. But this is not true. Shyness is primarily a fear of what other people think, which leads to a degree of anxiety in social situations. Although the two often do go together, it is also perfectly possible to be a shy extrovert as well as a non-shy introvert. Most introverts enjoy social interaction as long as it’s not too much and there’s time to recharge afterwards.

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