For years, I exhibited all the signs of a textbook introvert. I refused to approach authority figures on my own or answer the phone at home when it rudely interrupted my thoughts. I brought books to parties and dinners, even when my mother pointed out that I was being antisocial. She felt sorry for me whenever I trailed behind other people or kept to myself in the corner of a crowded room. Not only was I introverted, but I was also painfully shy.
I’ve read more articles than I can count that nobly attempt to dispel myths that introverts are “shy,” “don’t like to talk,” or “always want to be alone.” Many more articles attempt to guide the poor misunderstood introvert through a society that favors extraversion. Among the general population, introversion is often associated with crippling shyness, lack of social skills, and solitude. The introvert is the proverbial turtle, ready to retreat into his shell without a moment’s notice. Thus, many teachers make the special effort to pull introverted students “out of their shells.” Amusing animal metaphors aside, people often forget that each individual is a human being with a wide spectrum of personality traits, skills, and dispositions, as well as a capacity for change beyond his identification of “extravert” or “introvert.”
I experienced such gradual changes as part of a process called “growing up.” Throughout middle school and high school, I encountered more and more situations that forced me to approach strangers and teachers. My outgoing (extraverted?) best friend showed me that talking to new people wasn’t scary at all. I participated in a performance group that encouraged me to be myself in front of an audience and bright lights.
Looking back, I see that I was able to employ the psychological principle that forcing a smile could eventually trick my brain into making me happy. Going through the continual motions of greeting strangers and performing in front of large crowds convinced my mind that I could indeed be bold, assertive, and outgoing. Nowadays, I have less trouble introducing myself to new people. I can now survive parties without any books, as long as I can have a meaningful conversation with someone.
Some things don’t change. I identify squarely as an introvert. I might groan when the phone rings or shut down when an environment gets too unfamiliar. People still describe me as “quiet” or “reserved,” and my heart races every time I raise my hand to speak in class. I live mostly inside my own head, answering numerous questions about my world that no one ever asked me. Some of these answers become long, unwieldy blog posts.
Being an introvert doesn’t make me any different from other people. I’m still lonely from time to time, especially when I’m home alone. Even when I was the “shy girl,” I still had animated conversations with my close friends. I’m always genuinely happy to find companions who share enough deep connections with me so I can let them into my personal bubble.
College is a constant reminder that I have to continually sharpen my communication skills while risking my dignity and overcoming my fear of rejection. There are tons of classmates to meet every semester and intimidating professors to face in office hours. It’s hard to pin down exactly how to achieve “outgoingness” when there are so many different situations to deal with. But as an introvert, I love knowing that I can draw energy and strength from my own introspection while putting on a bold, confident face when I need to.
Introversion or extraversion is not necessarily a choice, but a mental disposition. Being outgoing is a skill that takes practice. By making that distinction, I hope to stay grounded in my sense of introverted self while I still give myself the room to improve and change over time.
I acknowledge that in my haste to discuss the common personality traits associated with introversion, I never clearly defined the term “introversion” itself or discussed its usefulness as a label. So here’s an article called “What is Introversion?” And of course, there’s always Google.
Time to make my blog more interactive. What do you think of the introvert/extravert binary and its associations with the characteristics of being either “outgoing” or “shy?” Where would you place yourself on this spectrum? Do you even identify yourself with these labels?