The Cambridge English Dictionary defines an introvert as “someone who is shy, quiet, and unable to make friends easily.” The way this comes across to someone reading the definition is that an introvert is someone who has a lot of faults and is inadequate or broken by design. This is certainly not the way we as introverts would like to be labelled, do we? Merriam-Webster, on the other hand, improves this slightly and defines an introvert as “one whose personality is characterized by introversion; especially a reserved or shy person who enjoys spending time alone.” While this definition still comes across as someone who is not complete, it includes two keyword phrases: personality characterized by introversion and spending time alone. But, not quite good enough. Michaela Chung, an introvert author and the creator of a popular blog Introvert Spring gives a more rounded definition for an introvert. According to her, an introvert is not just someone who prefers calm, minimally stimulating environments and who gains energy from being alone but also someone who loves introspection, solitude and in general, being quite. As an introvert myself, I would second Michaela’s definition.
There is much more to being an introvert than just this definition. Introversion is an admixture of our innate temperament and our life experiences. While a lot of us give undue weightage to our genes, our inborn preference to introversion makes up for only 20% of who we really are. Yes, there is some research out there that may suggest that we are born introverted or extroverted – it might actually be encoded in our genes. While this is certainly the easy way out for someone to blame it on their genes, it’s not definitive. The remaining 80% of who we become is largely shaped by our life experiences growing up. Just take a trip back in time and see how many of these experiences can you relate yourself to being. Did your parents or teachers stop you from asking too many questions? Did your older sibling ridicule you over a question that had an obvious answer (in their head)? Were you being told that you are simply copying your older sibling? Were you told not to make noise when playing with other kids at the playground? Were you told to sit quietly in one place at someone’s wedding party? These were a few I could think of, but I am sure there would be many more such experiences that shaped our growing up years to become who we think we are today. We can be born with predispositions, but life experiences often influence and cement our actual personalities.
The Culture of Comparison
I grew up in a culture of comparison. I remember every time I used to return from school with my report card, I was asked 2 questions even before seeing my scores: “Who came first?” and “How much did they get?” This made me believe that I was not enough and there was something inherently wrong with me. Being quite naturally, I was never encouraged in social situations. My parents would even apologize for my quietness. Inside my mind, I always compared myself to someone I was not. This created tremendous social anxiety within me and I would not do anything else but study. I did not go to any post school activities or play any form of sports. I did not go for outings. I dreaded school picnics. I was such a misfit at school. I started feeling guilty for who I was. This culture of comparison had a condescending influence on my childhood and teenage years.
The Extrovert Ideal Belief System
Most of us, including me, also grew up in a belief system called the Extrovert Ideal Belief System. This belief system is characterized by the fact that extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style and that everybody should conform to that style. Extroversion is considered the norm. Introversion is viewed as inferior or even pathological. So, in a culture that is biased against introverts, we are constantly pressured to act like extroverts. Under this belief system, many introverts grow up feeling out of place and unwanted. This Extrovert Ideal belief system has deeply permeated in our culture.
Myths about Introverts
While on this topic, let me introduce some common myths about introverts.
- Introversion is an inferior personality type.
- Introverts are broken and need to be fixed.
- Introverts are depressing people.
- Introverts are rude and socially awkward people.
- Introverts can’t talk.
- Introverts hate people and people time.
- All introverts are shy.
- Introverts want to become extroverts.
None of these statements above are even 1% close to being called true, yet it is the prevalent belief in our society. They are myths! But, all of us introverts grow up to these misrepresentations so much so that they themselves start believing in them. For example, being shy is the fear of social disapproval, whereas being an introvert is more of a preference for environments. So while an introvert can be shy, not all introverts are shy and both introverts and extroverts can have this trait. Just because an introvert hates small-talk does not imply he hates people. An introvert’s lack of chitchat is often misinterpreted. We usually prefer one-on-one interactions over large groups and crave for more meaningful connections than the superficial small-talk. Introverts are not socially awkward people. On the topic of social awkwardness, Susan Cain, the author of Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking explains: “Introverts may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while wish they were home in their pajamas. They prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues, and family.”
Accepting your Gifts as an Introvert
With all that’s said above, it is not normal for us as introverts to grow up feeling out of place and need to be cured. While the introvert-extrovert divide happens to be the most fundamental dimension of personality it is important to understand that introversion and extroversion occur on a spectrum. It is not absence of one that leads to the presence of the other personality trait and no one person can be a pure introvert or a pure extrovert. I interviewed Ninad Tipnis, who is an eminent architect, an interior designer, an avid runner and the founder of JTCPL Designs, for my second book, Make It Happen! When I asked him whether he is an introvert or an extrovert, he simply responded by saying that he was “selectively” introvertish and extrovertish. He believes that everyone is an introvert as well as an extrovert and that choice depends on the set of people they surround themselves with in that particular moment. And as Dr. Marti Olsen Laney, America’s foremost authority on introversion, puts it across through her research and work that your genes make the choice, but they can make you flexible, too! When we understand this idea, we embrace the fact that neither ends of this continuum are superior, and as an individual, we have a choice to be selectively outgoing and gregarious and then return to our sanctuaries of solitude to recharge. Being an introvert is a gift and introverts can be successful in any walk of life. The next time you are thinking that you are nobody because you are an introvert, think of the most amazing and successful introverts like Albert Einstein, Rosa Parks, Bill Gates, Steven Spielberg, Marissa Mayer, JK Rowling, Warren Buffett, Michael Jordan, Elon Musk, Mahatma Gandhi and Barack Obama. As introverts, they are enough. And so are we, we are enough! Our “Introvert” label shouldn’t prevent us from our contribution and service to the world. Don’t put too much stock into it. The world needs us to bring balance to it. It needs more deep thinkers, more listeners and more thoughtful, contemplative people. That’s where I play my role. And you too can!