on November 23, 2014
There is a kind of stigma attached to the word “introvert.” There are connotations of being aloof, brooding and uninterested in other people, and just generally anti-social. I think of Ricky Gervais’ character of the self-absorbed dentist in the movie “Ghost Town.” The word “extrovert” has no such negative connotations, however, but brings to mind characteristics of being friendly and more of a people-person.
Even our dictionaries perpetuate this kind of thinking, as author Marti Olsen Laney points out. Introverts are described as being preoccupied with the self, lacking sociability, passive and even narcissists. Look up “extrovert” and you’ll find definitions and synonyms of a much more positive sort.
Our society is geared toward extroverts. They form the majority, outnumbering introverts 3 to 1. They are more vocal, thus amplifying their majority. And our culture in general values the bold and energetic over the quiet and reflective. Because of this, introverts may think that extroversion is the ideal to strive for. They may try to live their whole lives as extroverts, and when they fail, have to deal with feelings of shame and inadequacy. It’s exhausting to try to be something you are not.
Introverts have gotten a lot of bad press, says Laney, largely because they are misunderstood, even by themselves. One of her purposes in this book, then, is to level the playing field somewhat by clarifying the misconceptions and showing the positives of being an introvert.
She begins by showing that the primary difference between introverts and extroverts is in their energy source. Extroverts are energized by the external world, by activities, people, places and things; they are energy spenders. Introverts, by contrast, draw energy from their internal world of ideas, emotions, and impressions; they are energy conservers and can feel overwhelmed and exhausted by crowded social situations.
Nevertheless, introversion is not the same thing as shyness. Shyness is social anxiety, a lack of confidence in social situations, a fear of what other people think of you. It is a treatable disorder. Introverts are also not by definition anti-social; they’re just social in a different way. Socializing with many people, engaging in chitchat, “working the room,” they find exhausting. They prefer meaty conversations and find them energizing and nourishing.
There are actually significant physiological differences in how the brains of introverts work compared to those of extroverts. They have different blood flow pathways in their brains, and these pathways use different neurotransmitters. For extroverts it is dopamine, and they need adrenaline to make enough dopamine. Thus extroverts feel good when they have places to go and people to see. Laney refers to this energy-spending, sympathetic nervous system as the Full-Throttle system.
Introverts, however, use an entirely different neurotransmitter, acetylcholine, and are highly sensitive to too much dopamine, which makes them feel overstimulated. They utilize primarily the energy-conserving, parasympathetic nervous system which can be called the Throttle-Down system.
Laney contends that “It is my belief that these two powerful primary systems, the Full-Throttle (sympathetic) and the Throttle-Down (parasympathetic), are the basic foundations of introverted and extroverted temperaments.”
Introverts are not dysfunctional extroverts; their differences are physiological. Try as they might, because they need to think before they speak, process thoughts through a longer pathway in the brain, and have a need for depth rather than breadth, introverts appear to be generally slower than extroverts. They may well identify with the tortoise in the fable of the tortoise and the hare. “Although some of us may have tried to be hares our whole lives, we may not be aware of how much better we would feel if we slowed down.” The tortoise in the fable, after all, did pretty well.
Consider the tulip. “The tulip is an introvert among flowers,” we read. “Given the right conditions, tulips are hardy and bloom longer than many other flowers. But they won’t bloom at all if conditions are inhospitable. Introverts are like that, too.” And that’s nothing to be ashamed of. “Because of the way we are put together, we require a particular kind of care and feeding. We need to harness our energy, get the right rhythm, and implement our objectives while protecting our internal resources.”
“I sometimes think introverts were made for an earlier time in history,” Laney muses. “Life had a slower tempo then.” This is not just wistful thinking, but serves a useful purpose of pointing out that the dizzying pace of life in our day is not the norm for most of history which has preceded us, so if introverts have a hard time keeping up, perhaps the fault lies less with themselves and more with the expectations of our day. But given the reality of our hectic lives, introverts can nevertheless thrive if they come to understand some things about themselves and how they are wired.