We all probably know an introvert.
Introverts may prefer some music in the comfort of their own home with a good book to keep them company on their days off. They like to hang with friends, but only a few at a time, in seclusion. They go to public spaces grudgingly and hate making a show of themselves – not that they can’t be good at it.
Introverts prefer to direct their energies within, even if they’re capable of doing otherwise.
Extroverts, on the other hand, love to explore new friendships and engage strangers, amass connections and enjoy going to parties to spend their free time.
These are the extremes on each side of the spectrum, though. Introversion and extroversion are but two sides of an elongated slider on which we all fall in some form or fashion. We’re introverted in some ways and extroverted in others. Some of us may be more introverted than extroverted, and vice versa. And there are people who count so much introversion within themselves that the descriptor “introvert” becomes apt.
This becomes true to the point where qualifying for certain aspects of introversion but not others still makes you an introvert at some point. You can be emotionally introverted, yet still, enjoy going out with others. You can be a social introvert but be quite vocal about your emotions.
But there’s a bit of stigma around introversion. While the extrovert is seen as the partygoer, the chaotic teen with little regard for safety or consequence, they’re also seen as the leaders and outgoing personalities of the world. Introverts, on the other hand, have a common history of being weird, and prone to mental issues such as depression.
Even now that introversion is becoming “popular”, it’s still largely misunderstood.
There’s Nothing Wrong with Introverts
Introversion is simply one end of a spectrum of major personality traits, specifically in the realm of expression.
Watch this interesting TED Talk: The Power of Introverts.
How we choose to portray ourselves in the world determines whether we’re introverted or extroverted, as per the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). Introverts tend to:
- Dislike too much social contact, considering it draining.
- Enjoy moments of solitude and self-reflection.
- Nest, creating a small circle of tightly-knit friends.
- They tend to be quiet.
- They dislike overstimulation.
- They’re self-aware.
Note that this doesn’t mean all introverts are extremely self-aware, or that extroverts are clueless as to their own behavior. These are traits that usually lean towards one side more than the other, they’re not automatically given personality traits based on whether someone is largely introverted or extroverted.
One of the biggest issues when discussing introversion is the tendency to write introverts off as shy. This is a misnomer.
Shyness refers to the amount of comfort or discomfort while in a social setting, often with strangers. If someone is very uncomfortable and self-conscious around strangers and has an issue with opening up to them, creating an awkward tension within their own mind, then that’s shyness.
Sociability refers to the amount of will or motive behind socializing with new people. Very sociable people will often enjoy the company of new potential friends, and love meeting others. Less sociable people are harder to get to and prefer to maintain a sort of exclusivity within their own circle of friends.
That doesn’t mean they’re automatically uncomfortable in the presence of a stranger, or that they have a huge amount of trouble speaking with other people they don’t know. They just prefer not to. There is a difference. You can be shy and sociable, or not very sociable but not shy at all.
Sociability isn’t necessarily the primary identifier for introversion and extroversion, but it is probably the most common. You can be a largely introverted person yet be quite sociable. You can be an extrovert but prefer to keep a small group of friends.
Other misconceptions with introversion are that introverts are aloof or arrogant because of their self-reflective personalities and tendency towards seclusion. This is because extroverts are far more common than introverts, and fail to understand the mindset of an introvert.
Certain estimates put the number of introverts versus extroverts at one to three – but that may be a very old an inaccurate representation. A more recent 1998 sample estimates a roughly 50/50 split in the United States. For the extroverts, out there, it’s generally easier for us to understand why we seek each other’s company than why we would ever prefer solitude.
But it isn’t that introverts prefer to be alone more often than not. No one chooses loneliness. Loneliness is a state of despair wherein we desperately need the company and affection of others. To be lonely is to not want to be alone anymore.
Introverts seek to be alone because it’s the best way to drown out the noise of everyday life and find those moments of inward reflection and thought. They can focus on the voices within, and be calm, without any unwanted stimulation. By and large, however, introverts are still social beings. They seek the company of spouses and loved ones, close friends, and family members. There may be times where they prefer to take a minute for themselves, but they won’t lock themselves in a room for a week to meditate on their feelings. An introvert’s social avoidance – or rather, the lower sociability associated with higher levels of introversion in people – is healthy. It allows them to remain mindful, keep a level-headed state of focus, and direct their emotional attention solely towards people whom they feel are worth their time and trust.
But there is a time when social avoidance can become a sign of a less wholesome mental health picture, and extreme introversion is no longer a personality trait, but a description of a mental health symptom.
Healthy and Unhealthy Social Avoidance
There is a clear difference between what can be counted as healthy social behavior, and non-healthy social behavior.
Fearing social contact is unhealthy. As humans, we develop a sense that our perceptions and experiences are viewed not only through the perspective we’re given by observing mother nature, but the complicated multifaceted perspective we gain over society through the interaction with different people.
Our understanding of the world around us, and existence as a whole is shaped by the many thoughts and views we’re exposed to over the course of our many years, early on more so than later in our life. The way we view ourselves is based on how others see us, and we form an opinion or concept of who we want to be and what we strive to accomplish based on role models and previous examples of behavior, real or fictional.
We thrive on social contact, we’re creatures that need each other’s company, stories and thoughts to live and live healthily. So to shun that means that something is deeply wrong.
The fear of others, especially in the form of agoraphobia or some severe shyness, is an issue primarily with a person’s self. It’s when we take such issue with ourselves that we consider ourselves not to be worth other people’s time, or when we feel so weak that opening up to others feels like a death sentence. Treating thoughts like that requires a clear understanding of the issue with that line of thinking, and an alternative, more positive and sociable perspective.
That being said, we can also live lives as people who prefer to ration and limit their social contact, preferring the company of a very specific amount of people, focusing on them rather than on making new contacts. This may be an example of low sociability, but it’s still healthy human contact and a kind of health social “avoidance”.
Of course, living in an echo chamber isn’t exactly healthy, either, but there’s a difference between keeping a tightly-knit circle of friends and restricting yourself to a specific, narrow line of thinking. We do live in the age of Google, the Internet, and near-limitless communication.
Your Personality Isn’t Illness
This ultimately brings us back to the point – the very important point, especially today in a world where we’re exploring and discovering an ever widening breadth of diagnoses and mental health symptoms, that your personality is just that: a personality. It isn’t a mental illness.
The line between what counts as a personal quirk and what counts as part of a symptom of a larger mental health issue at play is similar to the line you’d find between alcohol use and alcoholism. Enjoying a pint doesn’t mean you’re addicted to alcohol. Liking your own time alone or within an extremely small circle of trusted individuals doesn’t mean you’re prone to shunning the outside world and have agoraphobic issues.
What counts is the definition of how your personality defines your life: for the better or the worse. Introverted people prefer solitude, or chilling in the company of loved ones and very close friends. That does not mean they’re incapable of enjoying life because they enjoy it in a different manner than extroverted people do. Not wanting to attend a party or join into a rave isn’t a sign of depression.
Again: if your personality is part of a greater network of symptoms doing harm to you and your psyche, such as depression (with depressive symptoms like insomnia, lack of motivation, deep unhappiness and sorrow) or an agoraphobia (which is an irrational fear of public spaces and large crowds, not a tendency towards just not liking them).
If you see someone prefer solitude and choose activities like reading and listening to music over heading out with friends, it doesn’t immediately constitute a cause for alarm. While there’s a correlation between certain mental illnesses and severe introversion, you could similarly say that severe extroverts are compensating for their inner struggles by distracting themselves and jumping from engagement to engagement, friendship to friendship.
We need to stop judging people based on how they prefer to spend their time if it does no one harm. Mental illnesses have fairly well-defined symptoms that determine whether or not a diagnosis is real – and there are trained therapists out there specializing in diagnosing mental illness. The stigma against or towards certain personalities is only harmful to the development of secure, confident minds, and further constitutes the potential for children and teens in their stages of development to feel inadequate or uncomfortable with who they are.
We need to become more accepting of others, not more discerning towards them. The more we learn about mental illness, the more we should learn not to be quick to judge – mental illness comes in all shapes and forms and affects people with all sorts of preferences, and just because there’s some correlation between certain behavior and certain diagnoses doesn’t mean that there’s any level of causation from the behavior to the diagnosis – in other words, preferring time alone doesn’t lead to depression.
Stop Looking for the Perfect Model of Health
While the issue isn’t nearly as prevalent in mental health as it is in physical health, it’s important to stress the issue of individuality and what constitutes as health on a mental level.
People can be healthy, happy individuals and live lifestyles that many of us might consider completely unconventional. That may make them strange by our standards, but that’s about it. Being strange or weird doesn’t constitute a “greater issue” – it’s just being strange and weird.
Meanwhile, these same people might look at you and consider you to be strange or weird.
Some people love being alone. Some people can’t understand the concept or meaning behind sex and don’t want to pursue it. Some people feel they’re born into the wrong gender. Some people prefer tea to coffee. These may all be very unusual quirks to most people, but they aren’t harmful ones.
If we could all learn to help each other a bit more instead of working against each other for no reason other than intolerance, mental health would be a far lesser issue than it currently is. The world is complicated enough as it is, and there are plenty of issues worth getting angry about – how people choose to live their lives to achieve their own happiness – without widespread consequence to others or illegal action – is their business, and it’s our business to fight for their right to pursue said happiness.
Let’s focus on the real issues that plague us today, from abuse to stigma and discrimination.