Recently I met with a young man, a professional in a scientific field, who was concerned that his shyness and introversion were hurting him in his profession. Even in a field where hard data is analyzed and replicated, he felt that his personality or ”nature”, as he described it, was hurting him. He preferred to listen and observe in meetings rather than fight for air time to speak. He was not the first one to propose ideas or champion his own projects. As a result, he got negative feedback from his boss because he didn’t “speak up.”
In another situation, an associate recently commented that she felt she was not good in large groups, didn’t know how to make small talk, and was slow and careful about initiating friendships. As a child she was constantly reminded to play with others at recess, when what she really wanted was to sit quietly and make up stories in her head. She felt inadequate because she did not have as many close friends as some of her peers.
My reaction to talking to both of these people was a feeling of sadness. Both are wonderful, interesting, talented people, but they are comparing themselves to more vocal individuals in our society. They are getting feedback that their personal characteristics are not as valuable as those of extroverts. Extroverts are other-directed and can be gregarious, and may even like being the center of attention.
I was also reminded of a book that I read called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. Ms. Cain defines introversion as “temperamental inner-directedness.” Introverts are people who are usually “quiet, cerebral, and can tune in to their inner worlds and the treasures to be found there.” They are often mild-mannered and are more comfortable with their internal thoughts and feelings than with social conversation and cocktail parties.
There are many introverts who have contributed a great deal to our society. Ms. Cain cites writers, inventors, composers, and physicists. The co-founder of Apple, Stephen Wozniak, is a classic introvert. He is quoted in the book and encourages those aspiring to creativity to work by themselves. He believes that the best designs and inventions come from one person, not from a committee.
Obviously, there are others who might say that the best results come from groups of people working together. And there are many ordinary introverts in the world who may never be famous. The truth is that the world needs both those who thrive on inner reflection and analysis, and those who can go out and talk easily to others, thriving on the stimulation from interpersonal interaction.
In academic, business and social environments, we have become a country that values and champions those who speak the loudest. Being an extrovert has become the ideal in many ways, as we look to charismatic leaders and talkative salespeople, and believe that being more outgoing will make us more successful. But we cannot dismiss introverts and must remember that they too can be successful and influential.
Below are some things to consider:
● It is OK for children to be introverts. A child who is a keen observer often has a lot to offer. Don’t bring them to therapy just because they are not as loud or interactive as their sister or brother. (If a child is unhappy and feels extremely uncomfortable in social situations, and expresses a desire to change, then therapy may be appropriate for Social Anxiety). Introverts are usually happy just as they are.
● Adults who are introverts can learn to interact and speak up when necessary. An introvert can be a great public speaker, but also value the soothing environment of quiet music and a good book.
● Schools design classrooms for extroverts, especially in the elementary grades, where most classes are set up for the children to work in pods or groups. School administrators rarely give a thought to the introverted child who is more comfortable with his own personal space and with working alone. Encourage your local school administration to think differently.
● Learn to be comfortable with who you are. Don’t let the expectations of others – family, teachers, bosses, society – push you to go against your personal grain. Remember that it is not just OK to be an introvert, the world needs you.
All material contained on this blog is for information purposes only. This information is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional psychological advice. Always consult a qualified professional prior to utilizing any of the information provided in this post.