From the tone of my column (The Dance of Therapy) one might be led to believe that I am an extrovert but it isn’t so. I am a proud, card-carrying member of the introvert’s club. In fact one of the reasons that I am so passionate and forthcoming in my writing is that because in person I tend to be rather shy in social encounters. But don’t take my introversion as a sign that I am a loner or that I don’t love connecting with people. I do. It’s just that interactions with others tend to deplete me and spending time alone tends to recharge me as opposed to the other way around.
My father classifies me as a “deep sea diver.” Deep sea divers are those of us who are not only introverted but who tend to reflect and relate on a deeper level and who aren’t as efficient at or as comfortable with small talk. Being this kind of person is both a blessing and a curse as it means that while we may experience intense feelings of joy, love, and awe, we also feel, to the same degree, the deep sadness of the world and of others around us. And it’s easy to take this on and to feel overwhelmed or overburdened.
We lived in an excessively extroverted country. Overstimulating, highly individualistic. The louder your presence, the more aggressive your pursuit, the more acknowledgement and typically, the more reinforcement you get for it. The faster your ability to process and act, the faster the response you will get and the more likely you are to be the first to get your foot in a door. That in turn can lead to to success, wealth, sex, all the things that we are taught to want and to value here.
So what happens to the introverts? The folks who like to observe, who take more time to process and respond. Where are they in all of this? We are there, to be sure. And there are a lot of us. From an evolutionary perspective, it’s important for a species to have a certain number that are acutely aware of their surroundings and interpersonal dynamics. Who are even hyper-vigilant. Who take time to assess the options before running off into battle and getting slaughtered. Who save their emails for a day then review and rework them before hitting “send.”
Generally introverts take more subtle platforms like writing and art and researching. But the problem is, it’s hard in this day and age to have your opinion heard and respected when you aren’t more “out front.” To sign an author on for a book deal nowadays, a publisher first and foremost will look not at the quality of the work but at how wide reaching their audience already is. So it’s easy for the introvert to slip into the background. I myself struggle with this regularly. I would like to be moderately successful and financially stable. I would like to reach a larger audience. I believe that I have value and something to contribute. But I really, really don’t like marketing myself. I find it embarrassing and awkward and frankly somewhat vain. But I do it. (Alyssa Siegel, Therapists.com) Now. In a way that feels reasonably authentic to who I am and what I am about. Because in order to reach the professional goals I have for myself, it has to be done.
In relationships, the introvert and extrovert make an interesting pair. It’s difficult for someone who needs to talk things out right then and there in order to reach a resolution and lower their discomfort to understand that an introvert needs time and space to sort out their thoughts and feelings and that that should not be interpreted as a rejection or avoidance. When I work with couples that have these different processing styles, I try to educate them each about the other’s and help them find a compromise or middle ground. This usually takes the form of a “time out” and an agreed upon date and time in which the issue will be revisited. Though some can, not every conflict can be resolved right then and there. Sometimes time and patience really is what’s needed and pushing forward will only make things worse.
I believe that regardless of your personality style, there is something to be learned from observing the other and understanding that ultimately they are probably trying to achieve the same thing that you are, they are just coming at it from the other direction. Neither is better or worse. They are both adaptive and healthy and have their strengths and their draw-backs. Introverts can often veer on the side of lacking assertiveness because they can be highly sensitive to the needs of others. And extroverts can get react too quickly, damaging potential opportunities and hurting relationships. They can also become overstimulated. They have a higher threshold but it happens.
The moral of this piece is then, like with everything else, don’t judge. We are all in this together and we all can learn from one another. And we could all benefit from an increased awareness and an occasional tweak.
Alyssa K. Siegel, MS, LPC, CGAC II
First published on Alyssa’s counseling blog on October 14, 2011.