To help me come to terms with my shyness as a child, my mother explained that some people, including me, are crocuses who bloom in the shade and keep their petals closed, while others are sunflowers who draw energy from their surroundings. In psychological terms, these two kinds of people are known as introverts and extroverts. Most of us exhibit some qualities of both, but knowing our primary orientation may help us play up our strengths, cope with our weaknesses, and keep our personality types balanced.
Are You an Innie or an Outie?
The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), based on Carl Jung’s theories about psychological type preferences, identifies introversion and extroversion, among other qualities. In general, introverts find socializing tiring, while extroverts feel energized by interacting with others. That doesn’t mean that introverts are necessarily shy or misanthropic—in fact, they may be very outgoing—but they need time alone to recharge.
Brain-activity research has shown physiological differences between introverts and extroverts to add to the psychological ones. In a 1999 study published in Psychology Today, Debra Johnson, PhD, a research scientist at the University of Iowa, and John S. Wiebe, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Texas, used positron emission tomography (PET) to measure cerebral blood flow, an indicator of brain activity, in subjects a personality test had identified as being either shy or outgoing. While Johnson and Wiebe administered the PET scans, they asked the subjects to think freely, and the results showed clear differences in the brain activities of the two personality types. The introverts experienced increased blood flow in the frontal lobes, the anterior thalamus, and other structures associated with memory, planning, and problem solving, whereas the extroverts had more activity in the posterior thalamus and posterior insula, which we use to interpret sensory data.
Johnson and Wiebe consider their study added proof of the distinction between introverts and extroverts—inward versus outward focus. And, Wiebe says, “everything psychological in nature is, at some level, physiological in nature.”
But just because our personality types may be biological in origin doesn’t mean we’re destined to live as wallflowers or party animals forever. It just means that we have a particular orientation, a certain lens through which we view the world. By being mindful of that lens, we can develop some strategies to keep ourselves in balance between the two personality poles.
Extroverts: The Sunflowers
Extroverts make excellent managers, salespeople, and politicians. They’re gregarious and at their best in social situations, putting others at ease. Because extroverts draw their energy from the people around them, they seem indefatigable and vivacious.
But the flip side to being like sunflowers, soaking up energy from the outside, is that extroverts will wilt if left in the shade too long. Leave one alone for a few minutes, and she’ll reach for her BlackBerry almost compulsively. Boredom and loneliness are the banes of this personality type’s existence and may lead extroverts to destructive behavior just to break the monotony. They need to find activities—exercising, listening to music, gardening, and so on—that really engage them during the hours they spend alone. Solo activities don’t come naturally to extroverts, but an outgoing person can certainly learn to find reading a book enjoyable.
Extroverts have a difficult time in social situations in which they’re not the center of attention. They like to be the leader in relationships and to dictate their own terms. This tendency can cause them to clash with the people around them, especially with other extroverts. If you’re an extrovert, be conscious of this quality in your personal and professional relationships. Make sure you’re giving others room to be themselves without projecting too many of your own demands on any situation.
Because extroverts have such an easy time in social scenarios, they don’t understand that introverts don’t. “It is very difficult for an extrovert to understand an introvert,” write education experts Jill D. Burruss and Lisa Kaenzig, quoted by Jonathan Rauch in the Atlantic Monthly, but extroverts should try to be aware of others’ needs, especially the need for personal space. However, the main personality trait that extroverts need to be mindful of is their need for mindfulness itself. Extroverts tend to speak before thinking, a habit they often regret later. Before saying or doing anything, stop for a moment to check in with yourself and consider the consequences.
Introverts: The Crocuses
The common misconception about introverts is that they are all shy or aloof. Not only is that not the case, but the association is pejorative. Society uses words like guarded, loner, taciturn, and self-contained to describe introverts, words that connote misanthropy and closed emotions. For women especially, being an introvert carries negative implications. While men can get away with being the “strong, silent type,” Rauch notes that we are more likely to perceive introverted women as “timid, withdrawn, haughty.”
On the contrary, introverts can be very outgoing—they just need to break up their social interactions with time alone, or they get tired and moody. How much solitude each person needs differs, but the right amount leaves introverts feeling refreshed, revived, and ready to get back in the game.
Introverts need to be honest with others, as well as with themselves, about their need for personal space. Because of the social stigma that comes with being a “loner,” they tend to try to hide their desire to withdraw, exhausting themselves and frustrating those around them with their grumpiness. How much happier would they be if instead they acknowledged their needs and didn’t push themselves to socialize just because they thought they were expected to?
Not only would they feel better, but introverts at their best have a lot to offer the world. Just because extroverts tend to assume leadership positions most often doesn’t mean they’re the only ones with strengths in those areas. Forbes.com’s Jennifer B. Kahnweiler reports that 40 percent of executives identify as introverts, including Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. Barack Obama is one, too.
Introverts think before they speak and offer thoughtful, reasoned comments; they also tend to impress and reassure others with their cool confidence, and have a talent for written communication, which helps them to better articulate their positions and is an advantage in this age of online social networking.
A World of Hybrids
Most of us are neither entirely sunflower nor entirely crocus, but somewhere in between. The key to a happy life and healthy relationships is striking a balance between these two personality types and countering our strengths and weaknesses. Introverts don’t have to be loners; they simply need to recharge now and then. And extroverts will benefit from building up some reserves of their own.