False Dichotomies 2: Intro/Extroversion

This is the second in a two-post series about false dichotomies. To read the first (much heavier) post about sexuality, please click here. This post deals with constructions of introversion and extroversion.

I could broadly be defined as an extrovert. Like a bad best man’s speech, I’m now going to include the dictionary definition of the term:


 

Noun: An outgoing, socially confident person.
1. Psychology A person predominantly concerned with external things or objective considerations. (OED)

 


 

Popular wisdom also has it that extroverts gain their energy from social interaction, whereas introverts lose energy in social situations and need to ‘recharge’ in private:


Noun: A shy, reticent person.

1. Psychology A person predominantly concerned with their own thoughts and feelings rather than with external things. (OED)

 


 

So we largely define extroverts as socially confident and outward-looking and introverts as socially reticent and inward-looking. Broadly, this is fine as a way to describe how we generally behave, as long as we don’t lose sight of the fact that introvert and extrovert are just words to describe collections of traits. They aren’t a binary that everyone must conform to, and not everyone can be neatly described as one or the other.

 

I, for example, am pretty extroverted. I host open mic evenings, I perform, I’m loud and confident and I thrive in social situations. I get sad if I’m alone too much and I’m quite prone to feeling lonely. However, in many situations, because of my anxiety (more on this later), I also occasionally fear large crowds and crave solitude. I often enjoy solitary pursuits, such as writing creatively, reading books and gaming. I also like going to the cinema or theatre alone and enjoy quiet nights in by myself. If I socialise relentlessly I feel ‘burnt out’ and need a cave day to recover. I’m very inward looking and contemplative. Depending on the day, my mood, my mental health – a whole host of factors, actually – I could be described by a stranger as fitting either role perfectly.

 

There’s a strange trend online of self-described introverts writing about introversion as if it’s a virtue. It’s not a negative thing – it has no intrinsic worth, it’s just a group of traits united by a word, same as extroversion. There’s a definite introvert superiority complex that seeks to portray introverts as the only people with complex inner lives, as wan, tea-drinking bookworms in comfy jumpers being quiet and special, and extroverts as unsophisticated, loud, drooling apes.

 

It’s bizarre, frankly, the same sort of inferiority superiority complex that leads to mean-spirited ‘nerd pride’ sneering at people who engage with popular culture and play sports. It’s very high school, as if extroverts are some imagined jock populace, strutting around braying, bouncing basketballs and threatening you with a swirly.

 

Introversion is also regularly conflated with anxiety. Delving into the plethora of listicles about introversion (for people who apparently don’t like to talk, they sure like to talk about themselves), here are a few traits popularly imagined to belong only to introverts:
only introverts

 

  • Being so nervous about socialising that you sweat heavily (Number 12)
  • Being filled with dread re: answering the phone (Number 15)
  • Being afraid of answering the front door
  • Having panic attacks in social situations (Number 8)

I’m here to tell you that none of those are traits of introverts. They are symptoms of unhealthy levels of anxiety. They are literally aspects of a mental illness/disorder. By attributing them only to introverts, two things are being done:

  • All introverts are being described as mentally ill, even if they aren’t (and self-described introverts may fail to seek medical help because they think it’s just part of introversion)
  • Extroverts are assumed not to have any of these traits or problems, which leads to anxiety problems in people perceived as extroverted going unnoticed or to people assuming that an extrovert doesn’t suffer from anxiety

I’m what would broadly be defined as an extrovert, but I have severe anxiety and have experienced all of the things in the bullet list many, many times. My problems are not less important, and I am not less emotionally fragile/more robust, just because I appear to be confident and fun.

Here are some things that introverts online regularly describe as ‘introvert’ activities:

 

These things – reading, relaxing, thought – are not the sole preserve of introverts and to suggest they are implies that they think extroverts are, what? Unthinking, loud social animals who don’t read books and just bellow whatever comes into their head at all times? This is the problem that comes from creating a false dichotomy: the idea that some things are for certain people and not others. If I’m an introvert and I’m thoughtful, then as an extrovert you aren’t.

The reading thing crops up over and over again, and it’s telling of a larger problem: instead of simply describing ways people gain/expend energy and the size of groups they prefer, it’s tying the idea of intellectual superiority into introversion.

Here is a popular (see the notes!) example of this superiority complex in action:

inty1

(in which extroverts are made out to be giant toddlers with no social awareness. also we turn lights on a lot?)

Here’s an example of introversion being pathologised. It’s fine to say “I don’t have much social energy right now”, of course, but I think the hand-wringing pleas for acceptance are often a bit much. Introversion isn’t a mental illness, it’s just a preference with regards to interaction. Everyone should be treated with respect, of course, but I challenge you not to laugh at bit at people talking about being introverted as if they’re discussing like, being gay or something.

inty2

(this one is WILD. just fucking interact with your parents you dweeb. imagine saying the sentence “how do i deal with my extroverted dad?” without laughing)

 

inty3

MTM0Njg4NDI0NDcxODYwNDk4

(because only introverts make art – via the eyerollingly annoying ‘introvertdoodles‘)

It ends up feeling sort of like this online (via Tumblr):

tumblr_mjvl2fKYfi1r8u6jqo1_500

People aren’t wholly introverted or extroverted. And as this article at Psychology Today goes into, it’s actually harmful for us to cling to notions of ‘what we’re like’ as people – it hampers our growth and restricts us from growing and changing. The idea of a set personality that we maintain through life is a self-construction that inhibits development. The article is a bit Buddhist for boring old secular me but ties into a lot of concepts with regards to identity and consciousness that ring very true. As it says:

“Knowing the patterns that make up our personality can be a useful shortcut for working through the affect of any given moment. The pattern can become a reliable cue to let go of an identification that is giving rise to discomfort, dissatisfaction, or distress. Beyond this cueing function, there is not much of value in the pattern. 

This is a radical statement and one that contrasts with the valorizing of the introvert personality. I believe it is important for introverts to recognize their strengths and engage in good self-care. However, all beings—introverts and extroverts alike—will have to move beyond the label of self, personality, and story”. 

In summary: ‘introvert’ and ‘extrovert’ are broad terms to describe traits, rather than binary definitions of how all people function in society. Some people need more time alone to reflect and gain energy, and some people prefer more social contact, and both are of the same moral worth. Introverts aren’t inferior to extroverts, but they also aren’t (as the dominant online narrative would have it) intellectually superior, more emotionally developed beings who have any right to sneer at or feel better than people broadly defined as ‘extroverts’. Stop being mean jerks, everyone.

 

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Author: Eve Moriarty

Eve Elizabeth Moriarty is a poet, performer, compère and full time human being. Expect bad jokes, literary overthinking and the sort of navel gazing you'd expect from a girl with a My Chemical Romance tattoo.

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