You see it on Facebook all the time: “10 Things Introverts Do at a Party”, “How to Tell If You’re an Extroverted Introvert”, “Things All Introverts Hate”. We love to categorize ourselves, to break ourselves down into components to make it easier to answer the question of who we are in a clear bulletin: “An extroverted introvert with an old soul, who should live in Portland, will die at 64, whose spirit animal is a horse, and is really Mulan at heart.” (Sorry, Facebook quizzers, I had to.) I understand the urge to discover these slots we fit into, but too often they are fake, vain, and distracting from the real question. These posts are not really about what it means to be introverted, but rather about matching ourselves to stereotypical introverted ticks. They focus on how introversion looks on the outside rather than on the inside, which—coincidentally—is what introversion is all about.
To know what introversion is truly about you must know its history. The terms introversion and extraversion (now somehow mutated into extroversion) were first used by psychologist Carl Jung at the start of the 20th century to describe the two ways that people experience life. According to Jung, extraverts are those who find fulfillment from the outside world. Being an extravert means that the life you actively live is what brings you gratification; you find meaning through the love of your family, the work you do, the joy of spending time with friends. Introverts, however, seek this same fulfillment from their inner worlds in their personal, mental, and emotional life. Being an introvert means that your life channels its meaning from who you are; you find that meaning through achieving inner harmony, in bettering yourself as a partner or friend, in producing work that reflects your talent and intent. Yes, being an introvert may mean that you enjoy your quiet time, and that you sometimes avoid social interactions, but more than that it means you are reflective, insightful, observant, and focused.
Still, too many people get caught up in how introversion appears in the real world. Parents feel worried if their child is quiet and keeps to herself, labeling her aloof. New acquaintances are frustrated when the other person acts uninterested or uncomfortable, calling him awkward. As a society we have learned to define introversion by these traits, and their negative connotation has poisoned what being an introvert really is. Really, introverts are thriving in their own interior worlds, and being around the energies of others can make them feel distracted or overwhelmed.
So why is someone who is thoughtful in solitude deemed aloof, but someone who is friendly and talkative not called obtrusive? Because just as Carl Jung warned 100 years ago, Western culture inherently prefers and over-values extraversion. We celebrate extraversion and are thus more intolerant of its counterpart. Similar to marginalized groups who constantly deal with microagressions (“Well, you’re just a girl”, “But you sound so white”, “I absolutely couldn’t tell you were gay”), introverts are always being chastised for their nature and told, “Stop being so antisocial. Get out of your own head and enjoy life!” And that’s exactly what they’re doing, just not in the way society likes.
Of course there is no right and wrong way of being. Believing that life flows from the outside in has just as much merit as believing it flows from the inside out. But as an over-extraverted society we can sometimes seek too much from the world around us. We are trained to strive for the amazing apartment, the lovely family, the perfect job—all the pieces that slide together to make the American Dream. If we fail to collect them all we will feel like (inevitable) failures, and often when we do get everything we still feel unfulfilled. So we fill the void by collecting things, buy into the frenzied consumerism; or instead we seek fulfillment through the plastic success of obsessive social media culture (since the more you are liked, followed, and subscribed to, the more successful and loved you must be).
It’s the overvaluation of extraversion that has made this whirlpool of seeking outer fulfillment while getting more and more lost in the paradoxical abundance and lack we have created. When can we take a breath? When will we finally be able to turn off the outer world and tune into the inner one? There, could we find the elusive fulfillment we’re all searching for?
If we shift the paradigm to balance both natures, we will begin the movement toward equilibrium. If introverts were open, honest, and proud of themselves, we could begin to accept them for what they are, and the good they offer society. More of us would begin to steer away from over-consumption and our social overdosing and learn to take time for silence and reflection.
To start we need to rethink and reclaim what it means to be an introvert. It does not mean we are aloof or awkward. It does not mean we prefer books to parties, or that we hate small talk, or that we love our alone time. It means we know how to check in, and that we’re absolutely okay with checking out. It means we instinctively know there’s more to ourselves than how many friends we have or how incredible our job is (as well as how important that more is). It means that although humans are social animals, we are proof that that’s not all we are.
YOU, introvert, could help begin the revolution in our culture to learn to seek what we need in what we already have. Simply be honest about who you are. Don’t feel ashamed of your nature, and don’t allow our society to convince you it’s wrong. Be truthful when someone asks why you’re not coming instead of making up an excuse to avoid the judgmental stare. YOU being open will tell the world that being an introvert is okay, in fact it’s wonderful. YOU can change the stigma of looking into your soul. YOU show that inner meaning is important. YOU, introvert, prove that it does matter who you are.