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Episode 170: Introversion

Introversion has been on my mind a lot lately as I've had quite a few clients who are introverts but don't fully understand it and think that there's something wrong with them.
So today I want to go into a bit of detail about introversion to help you understand yourself better if you are one, and help you to understand others better if you're not.
Introversion and extraversion are 2 of the most basic personality traits. Extraverts are out there, centre of attention people and introverts are the opposite. That's it in a nutshell. In basic terms being introverted means you think more often than you speak. Being introverted means you get more enjoyment out of small groups of people rather than big groups.
It doesn't mean your shy, it doesn't mean you lack confidence, it's just that your brain works differently to an extraverts brain. Introverts can become shy or lack confidence but not because of the introversion, usually it's the fault of society for praising the extraverted chatty, social type of person.
By praising extraversion it gives the suggestion through society that not being outgoing and loud must mean that there's something wrong with you. You must be shy or have anxiety. When in fact they weren't shy and they didn't have anxiety. But they might easily develop those problems because they're trying to be someone that they find really tiring and are learning to worry about what people think of them because they feel so different to societal norms of what a human "should" be like.
Introverts get their energy from being alone and thinking. Because of this as an introvert you're less likely to be seen in society as much as the noisy loudmouth in the pub. So society becomes dominated by noisy loudmouths who might not be that skilled at critical thinking and not understand how the world works (Brexit).

But there will always be a spectrum, a sliding scale between extraversion and introversion because what makes someone introvert or extravert is a genetic disposition to how your brain uses dopamine You can even test for it at 4 months old quite accurately. Unless things get turned on and off throughout your life through epigenetics or drugs you can't really control how your brain produces dopamine. Extraverts seem to have a more active dopamine reward system than introverts do and so can be in stimulating environments without getting tired so quickly, or rather they don't notice that they're tired because dopamine masks it.
Whereas an introverts brain works slightly differently and so it takes less stimulation to tire you out. That doesn't mean that introverts don't like a party it doesn't mean they hate nightclubs. They might do, they might not. It might just mean they like a nightclub every now and again and are happy to enjoy a party, especially if they can go home when they're ready to.

The thing is we're shaped by our life experiences, if an introvert is brought up being told by friends, teachers, parents that they need to come out of their shell and speak up a bit more then they may well develop social anxiety, but if their thinking or creativity is encouraged at an early age then they'll probably grow up feeling confident in who they are and are more accepting of the fact that they really enjoy a meal out with just 2 friends rather than a house party with 15 of them.

But we cannot control our genes very easily and introverts have less activity in the brains dopamine reward network. It's something that they're born with, it's part of who they are. They still make dopamine of course, food does, it, sex does it, social status does it, money does it. But when an extravert has an expectation of those things and the reward system of the brain activates it makes them feel energised and enthusiastic whereas an introverts brain wouldn't activate the reward system as much. Now this isn't a bad thing, one Canadian study by Jacob Hirsh at the University of Toronto showed that having an extravert dopamine reward system would predict a preference for immediate gratification rather than delayed gratification. They offered people the choice of a small reward now or a larger reward a couple of weeks in the future. The introverts were more likely to plump for the greater reward and the extraverts went for the immediate reward even though it was smaller. So don't think that being an extravert is better or healthier or anything. It just IS. And the same for introversion, it's not something to be ashamed about. I think of it like the difference between sprinters and long distance runners. Usain Bolt is still the fastest man to ever run both 100 and 200 metres, but if he were to run a marathon, even in his hay day, he wouldn't have the stamina to beat anyone of any note. Because his energy would run out in 20 seconds like an introverts. But Haile Gebrselassie could run a marathon in 2 hours. Which is bloody quick and takes a lot of energy, consistent energy to get through it. Like an extravert.
Actually it's likely that extraverts and introverts get just as tired by the stimulation of the outside world as each other does. It's just that, because of the extra activity in the brains reward pathway, the extraverts don't notice, but the introverts do. They feel over stimulated quite quickly and need to recharge. Now an exciting and stimulating external world would help to recharge an extravert whereas the introvert recharges with their own internal world, hence the names EXTravert and INTrovert. EXTernal INTernal.

No one would come to therapy because they don't like Dubstep music or they wouldn't see a therapist because they wanted to learn to like 17th Century poetry because not liking Dubstep or Shakespeare doesn't mean that there's something wrong with you. In the same way people shouldn't come to therapy to "cure" them of their introversion. But they do. People do go to therapists and say that they need fixing because being an introvert is such a problem to them, but it's not. Its pretending to be extraverted that's the problem, doing things that they don't want to do but feel that they should in order to be accepted by friends and family. When they would be accepted anyway, just for being them. This is the problem. Not the introversion, but the worry about what other people think.

Introverts seem to have a bit more empathy. You can show them photos of different facial expressions and they'll do far better at matching them to emotions than an extravert would and I think this comes at an emotional cost, because being over energised, over stimulated by the outside world s well as having the ability to see more stimulation in the outside world is going to trigger the fight or flight response, the anxiety response a lot easier in an introvert than an extravert.
That could lead to multiple fears. A fear of judgment, a fear of failure, a fear of rejection, a fear of not being good enough. These are things to bring to therapy, or to work on, rather than trying to learn to override introversion and become an extravert.
If you're an introvert accept it, enjoy it. It can feed creativity, art, poetry, story writing. It's wonderful. And if you think that being an introvert is holding you back from something, you might need to dig a bit deeper and stop blaming it on introversion. Being an introvert doesn't stop people from applying for a job, or asking someone out, or becoming an actor or a singer. Johnny Depp is an introvert, so is Lady Gaga, it doesn't stop them becoming who they want to be. It didn't stop Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama from becoming presidents of the USA.
Introverts can still be confident, can still make good leaders and still be very happy. They just get their energy in different ways, they don't need 10 friends in a pub to feel included and part of society. They prefer more intimate, closer relationships. 3 or 4 very good friends that they would die for rather than 30 or 40 meaningless relationships. So don't blame anxiety on being an introvert, don't blame being single or unemployed on introversion. It's too easy to use it as an excuse for not pursuing something or growing and developing. Feel the fear and do it anyway as is so often said. Embrace being an introvert and indulge in the time you get to yourself. Pamper yourself with your books, in binge-watching your favourite TV programs. And don’t let anything hold you back from the things that make you happy.