We live in a culture that privileges extroverted traits. (Think: assertiveness, talkativeness and sociability, to name a few.) And this can make it pretty darn challenging to be an introvert in the United States.
“There’s an extrovert expectation that’s imposed on children from the time they can walk and talk,” says Beth Buelow, author of The Introvert Entrepreneur: Amplify Your Strengths and Create Success on Your Own Terms. “Among the first things we look for are social skills… When certain benchmarks aren’t met, parents and teachers start to worry that something is wrong… But there’s also the possibility that the child is more introverted and simply needs space to develop his or her social skills in a different way.”
This tendency to define extroverted traits as “normal” and introverted characteristics as “abnormal” doesn’t end in childhood. “These extrovert expectations extend to adolescence and adulthood, with a near constant pressure to be social, participate in endless extracurricular activities (often involving teams and lots of people), and popularity being valued over work ethic,” Buelow continues.
The pressure to demonstrate one’s worth through being assertively vocal extends throughout the workplace, political and social landscapes. “Culturally, we put extroverts front and center on television and online,” says Buelow.
But the privileging of extroversion over introverted traits comes at a cost, for both introverts and everyone else. Here’s how to reclaim your introversion and take care — even in our extroverted world.
What Sets Introverts Apart
“Introverts listen more than we speak, so we’re typically less vocal than extroverts.”
“The key difference between an introvert and an extrovert lies in where we get our energy from,” says Michaela Chung, Introvert Coach and author of The Irresistible Introvert: Harness the Power of Quiet Charisma in a Loud World. “Introverts gain energy from being alone, and lose energy in stimulating environments such as crowds and social settings. Extroverts, on the other hand, gain energy from being out and about and socializing. This is why introverts prefer to spend more time alone, in quiet settings, while extroverts like to be where the action is.”
There’s a neurological basis for these differences, says Laurie Helgoe, a clinical psychologist and author of Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life is Your Hidden Strength. “Introverts experience more cortisol arousal [in the presence of] external stimuli,” she says. Introverts’ brains are also aroused by more subtle stimuli, while extroverts are more attuned to obvious stimuli. What this means is that “introverts have a lower threshold for stimulation,” says Helgoe.
Additional differences between introverts and extroverts crop up in the way they communicate, says Buelow. “[Introverts] listen more than we speak, so we’re typically less vocal than extroverts,” she says. “[Introverts’] communication style — at work and home — is more introspective, and we do best if we have time and space to think things through, rather than being put on the spot.” Meanwhile, says Chung, “extroverts are known for carrying fast-paced conversations with fewer pauses.”
Of course, none of this is to say that introverts are always reclusive and extroverts never have thoughtful conversations. “We all exist on a spectrum and have both types of energies within us. Introverts need people, and extroverts need solitude,” says Buelow. “What’s worth noticing is your default and where you do your best work.”
The Many Strengths of Introverts
“Introverts have many innate strengths, such as intuition, creativity, focus and observation.”
While it’s easy to make comparisons between extroverted and introverted tendencies, Helgoe stresses it’s important not to conceptualize introversion as merely the lack of extroverted traits. For example, extroverts often get characterized as active while introverts are labeled as passive. “But it’s more accurate to say the introvert is reflective,” says Helgoe. “It’s not the absence of action.”
When we stop conceptualizing introverts as “failed extroverts,” it becomes easier to see the many strengths that introverts bring to the table.
“Introverts have many innate strengths, such as intuition, creativity, focus and observation,” says Chung. “They are deep thinkers who bring a wealth of imagination and insight to the table. An introvert’s ability to spend time alone, and actually enjoy it, is also a gift.”
Buelow adds, “Introverts may exhibit several of these positive traits, all of which can be extremely important in the workplace and a relationship:
- Ability to focus and develop a depth of understanding
- Comfort with independent thought and action
- Capacity to listen and connect with people on an intimate level
- Calm, steady presence during turbulent times
- Willingness to put other people and their vision in the spotlight”
Helgoe points out that all of these traits are seriously needed in a capitalistic society that thrives on competition, speed, superficial soundbites, hyperbole and so on. “This is a world in need of more introversion,” she says. “And it’s here.” We just have to start affirming it.
Self-Care Practices for Introverts
One of the best ways to affirm the value of introversion and its related traits is to encourage introverts to practice self-care. If you’re an introvert who feels easily overwhelmed in extrovert-oriented situations, you’re not doomed to a life of anxiety. It just means you’ll need to adopt some strategies that can help you cope. Here are six great options.
Seek out alone time. “Start by weaving pockets of solitude into your day,” says Chung. “Add a few moments of silence to your morning. Sneak outside for a breather during social events. Have an electronics-free evening. Doing any of the above will fortify you against overstimulation.”
Similarly, Helgoe suggests cultivating daily practices that allow you to retreat, such as journaling, looking out the window, taking an evening walk, or simply focusing on your breathing. She also recommends that introverts go on solo retreats every once in a while to further replenish.
“There’s nothing wrong with your Happy Hour being reading a book by the fire or walking in the woods with your dog.”
Affirm your own needs. “Introverts [often] struggle with the restraints of social etiquette,” says Chung. “Many people believe it is rude to want to be alone when there is laughter and ‘fun’ just around the corner. What they don’t understand is that the things extroverts define as fun are often draining for introverts.” But it’s important for introverts to learn to let go of guilt over needing to be alone and instead focus on embracing their own needs and nature.
To that end, Buelow says, “You don’t have to make excuses or make something up to justify your choice. Say, ‘It’s been fun, I’ll catch you later.’ Or ‘I’m enjoying listening more than talking right now.’ Don’t apologize to others if you…leave early or don’t feel really talkative.”
“It’s so reflexive to apologize for making an introverted choice,” Helgoe says. “But there’s nothing wrong with your Happy Hour being reading a book by the fire or walking in the woods with your dog.”
Assign yourself a role at social events. “Having a sense of purpose often makes introverts feel more comfortable in social situations,” says Buelow. “Volunteer to do something to help with the gathering, such as take pictures, prepare or serve food, monitor the music, greet newcomers at the door, take care of people’s coats… something that gives you an easy way to connect with people without the pressure of starting from zero. Don’t work the whole time, though! Think of using the role as an icebreaker to warm you up to the room and the people in it.”
Find outlets for expression. “One of the challenges for an introvert is to continue to be thoughtful and expressive,” says Helgoe. Since many social situations may not include space for introverted expression, it’s important for introverts to seek out avenues for expressing themselves on their terms and timetable, whether that’s art, creative writing, yoga, athletics, or something else entirely.
Diversify the way you work. “Workplaces that put an over-emphasis on everything being done in teams might not be leaving space for introverts to contribute,” says Buelow. “It’s best if there’s a communication culture that uses [a] combination of teams, small group, solitary work, and time for reflection and written processing.” If you’re the manager, implement changes that will allow introverts to bring their strengths to the table. If you’re an employee, talk to your manager about changing up the structure of work at your office.
Don’t assume the grass is greener. “Introverts sometimes assume life would be better or easier, or that we’d be more successful, if we were extroverts,” says Buelow. “In my experience, extroverts have their own stereotypes to overcome, such as being perceived as too talkative, hogging the spotlight, too loud or abrasive, not being good listeners, or always needing attention or validation. In fact, I’ve heard some extroverts say they wish they were introverts!”
So try not to obsess over how much greater your life would be if you were a born extrovert. You’ve got plenty going for you as an introvert. And even if some things come less naturally, know that you can learn how to navigate any situation in a way that suits your personality and energy levels, says Buelow. It may just take some practice.
When you honestly and unapologetically affirm your own introverted traits and needs, you pave the way for other introverts to do the same — and for extroverts to treat you with the respect you deserve.
“We teach others how to treat us, so there’s responsibility on both sides to speak up around needs and to listen and respect those needs,” says Buelow.
“Introversion is not an affliction, but rather an advantage,” Chung says. “The sooner you recognize this, the more quickly others will follow suit.” Don’t be surprised if, once you start honoring your introversion, you realize you’ve been surrounded by like-minded introverts all along.