Our current society is a breeding ground for extroverts. There’s nothing wrong with that except that it’s also a bit like a gas chamber for those of us who are introverts; in other words modern society is hard for us to survive in, unless we pretend to be who we are not, so we can be let out of captivity. But an introvert forced to interact constantly with groups of people, forced to ‘speak up’, to take part in all sorts of party mode activities, often feels exhausted to the point of near-death anyway. (Which renders us powerless, by the by.)
And I should know. Not only am I an introvert, but I’m in that even smaller category of introverts defined by the Myers Briggs Type Indicator as an INFJ. (If you’re interested in this particular personality profile, you can find more information here). Apparently we INFJs make up only one percent of the population so it’s particularly difficult to find others we really connect with, and have them sit quietly beside us and gently ‘be’. The inner life of an introvert is usually rich enough to not need much outside stimulation; in fact, too much outside stimulation can easily push us over the edge into stimulus overload. (I personally melt down when I reach this point, but that’s a personal facet of myself and not one to judge other introverts by.) The Myers Briggs is, of course, only one of many personality inventories but it seems to have stood the test of time and is still widely used.
However, this post is not about the Myers Briggs or any other personality test for that matter. It’s about the value of introverts in a society that does not currently value us. Introversion is not, by any means, the same thing as shyness. Shyness is derived from a lack of confidence; a fear of interaction, or perhaps a fear of judgement. The real difference between introverts and extroverts however, is that we derive our energy, creative and otherwise, from solitude; not complete solitude, of course, but large tracts of it. We need this time to get inside our own heads, think deep thoughts and as often as not, if allowed this quiet time, to come up with innovative solutions to complex problems. It’s also where our creativity comes from. I suspect that a lot of writers, though certainly not all, tend towards introversion.
Extroverts, on the other hand, derive their energy from interaction with others, preferably with lots of talking and movement. And while few of us would define ourselves as entirely introverted or entirely extroverted, most of us identify ourselves as more one way than the other. These traits, like most personality traits, are on a continuum and add to the richness of life. Our modern problem lies with the imbalance. In truth we need both introverts and extroverts, and everyone in between, but society values extroversion in a somewhat extreme way. Our education systems are set up to encourage our children to be ‘out there’! And a naturally introverted child can end up thinking there’s something wrong with her, much like I did myself as I was growing up. Our jobs require so much ‘teamwork’ that there’s barely a moment for solo thoughts to rise to the surface. The media pushes the display professions and presents for our entertainment a whole lot of loud, over-confident, ‘in-your-face’ characters who are action driven to the point of stupidity.
This problem of imbalance has arisen in our modern world for reasons much better explained by self-confessed introvert Susan Cain, in her enlightening and sometimes funny presentation as a TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) expert. Her video can be found here, and is well worth watching. She reminds us that all the great spiritual traditions have at their roots, a basis of introversion. Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha…all had their wilderness experiences and proclaimed their need for solitude. Gandhi too was a quiet, reflective man, who may have been in the limelight but he did so not to put himself on the world stage, but because he was a deep thinker who genuinely believed he needed to share his message with the world. And so he put himself ‘out there’, although he managed to do so in an unassuming, quiet and gentle manner. Another common misconception is that gentleness and strength are mutually exclusive, but the great human beings I’ve mentioned above, along with hundreds of others, stand as outstanding examples of gentle strength.
Susan Cain makes a number of salient points, one of which is that there is no correlation betweenthe best talkers and the best ideas. She also informs us that current research has found that introverts generally get better grades, which makes me wonder why our educational institutions continue to promote extroversion. Before you howl me down, I know a goodly number of extremely clever extroverts but that doesn’t mean the talents of introverts should be subverted. This is particularly true in the field of creativity, where a certain amount of solitude is imperative for the development of creative ideas.
The world needs us all – extroverted souls, introverted souls and those at every point along the bipolar continuum. The world needs harmony and balance, and this skewing in favour of extroversion is just one more way in which the harmony of life is being shaken to its core.