It was a few years ago, when I was in high school, that I became interested in the mechanics of introversion. Up until then, introversion was a word I had dreaded. Not because of how aptly it described me, but because of all the negative connotations that seem to surround the word. The word has about all the charm as ‘wet blanket’ or ‘party pooper.’ And isn’t that what we all aspire to be in our teenage years? While I was never really in denial over being an introvert, proclaiming it to the world was a little difficult (or should I say very difficult?). That was, until I stumbled upon a goldmine of a TedTalk.
Titled simply, “The Power of Introverts” by Susan Cain, I was immediately drawn to watching it. Cain very simply and eloquently put across the numerous advantages that introversion can provide you with. But most importantly, she presented—maybe for the first time in my life—the idea that introversion is not a flaw! It is a way of being, and it most definitely does not need to be FIXED. This was life-changing for me. For the first time I thought that maybe I didn’t need to try so hard to be socially outgoing even when it was the last thing I wanted to do. Maybe it was alright to just enjoy the conversation around me, instead of racking my brains to try and come up with the next riveting story or hilarious one-liner to prove that I could be socially dynamic after all.
The talk impressed me so much that I didn’t even scoff when Cain advertised her book, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” at the end of her talk. Instead, I put it on my to-read list. Now it may have taken me a few years to get to it, but when I came up with the idea to write this article, I knew I had to read the book. And so I have.
There’s a lot of ground that the book has covered, conveyed charmingly by Cain’s simple and to-the-point writing, much like her talk. But this article isn’t a book review. So I’ll stick to the most important details.
Like I mentioned before, Cain put forward the powerful idea that introversion is natural and need not be fixed. This idea rooted itself in my mind because, through my own interactions, I know that there are people who believe that introversion can be changed or ‘fixed’ simply by going out and talking to people. Unfortunately, it’s nothing so simple—as affirmed by science. Research has shown that there is a genetic basis for introversion/extroversion. And as is often the case, natural biology has a way of justifying phenomena, doesn’t it?
Introversion And Biochemistry
Dr. Marti Olsen Laney, a researcher recognised as an authority on introversion, claims that introversion depends largely on brain chemistry. While it is true that upbringing can influence whether a child grows up to be introverted or not, she claims that introversion/extroversion is a personality trait that is one of the most strongly hereditary ones. Apparently, the correlation is so strong that children show tendencies towards one of these two traits from the moment they are born. And this all has to do with the brain’s receptiveness to the chemical dopamine, a characteristic that is handed down in the DNA.
Introvert brains and extrovert brains respond differently to dopamine—which stimulates the pleasure-centre of the brain and rewards people for pursuing external rewards—such that introvert brains have been found to be more sensitive to this chemical than extrovert brains. This means that the amount of this chemical in the brain which tends to make extroverts feel relaxed and ‘just right’ can often wear down an introvert leading to mental exhaustion. This may be why introverts are known to gain more pleasure from whatever is going on in their heads than from whatever is going on around them—the outside world is sometimes literally too much for our brains to handle.
However, this doesn’t mean introverts are opposed to pleasure or external stimulation. In fact, we love it just as much as extroverts. We just prefer our dopamine hits to be in smaller quantities. And this just means a different structure of socialising.
A friend of mine, who identifies as an ambivert who leans towards the introverted side, is part of NUS Stage, NUS’ drama club. Not only is she a member, she’s the president! Now, you may be wondering how it is that someone who is introverted could ever become president of a club that’s known for being effervescent and dynamic. But that’s because you are confusing introversion with shyness. It’s a common mistake actually. However, these two personality traits, while they may overlap, are in fact very different from each other. While introversion simply refers to how a person responds to external stimulation and how much of it they can comfortably handle, shyness is a fear of social judgement that is often (not always!) created through negative foundational experiences. As such, introverts may not always shy away from the stage or other such public pursuits. Some famous introverts, according to MBTI, are Julia Roberts, Nelson Mandela, Elon Musk, Lady Gaga and more. So clearly, not all introverts are quiet and stage-shy, and they too can, and have, succeeded in all fields of life.
Is The System Stacked Against Introversion?
However, introverts’ success is also dependent on the common practices and norms of the system they are a part of. And unfortunately, much of the odds seem to be stacked against them. Forget about the negative perception of introverts amongst the average person, even institutions seem to favour extroverts and their ways of working over introverts. For example, in school, class participation counts for about a third of our grade. This might seem like easy marks for some, but for introverts, this can sometimes prove a profound obstacle. My friend, the Stage president, confided to me that she doesn’t think that introversion is rewarded in the business school: “students are rewarded for talking a lot regardless of whether it is valuable. Quiet students sometimes just need time to verbalise their thoughts and this is not valued.”
Furthermore, the prevalence of group projects ensure that collaboration, and the ensuing awkward socialisation, is necessary for every module. And this usually entails negotiation of ideas and stifling of creativity to fit the group consensus, two things that introverts hate. But even more frustrating is the hours-long zoom calls that drain our social batteries and make us feel exhausted by the end of it. If you’ve ever been on a zoom call for 4 hours discussing statistics, regardless of whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, I am sure you know what I mean. And if you are an introvert like me, you might just find yourself scrolling through Pinterest instead of actually contributing, simply due to the overwhelming fatigue.
Now fast forward a couple of years to when you are starting your first job. You are now faced with the horrifying reality that is open-plan offices. For introverts, who greatly value their privacy and require a space to recharge to be at their best, open-plan offices may be a scheme worthy of Satan himself. Not only does it greatly reduce privacy in the office, but it also leaves you vulnerable to the whims of your colleagues, subjecting you to constant socialisation and noise like none other. In such a situation, is it any surprise that introverts, whose brains can only handle small doses of dopamine, would feel stressed and strung out by the lunch break?
So, in such a world, how do introverts survive, nay, thrive? We have seen it before, so it’s certainly possible. The key seems to be in knowing where your socialisation limits are and in carefully controlling your own exposure.
There are differences in dopamine receptivity even within introverts, and some may be more outgoing than others while other introverts may tend towards the quieter side of the spectrum. First of all, understand that it’s completely ok to not want to socialise at any given moment. It’s ok to regret taking someone up on their invitation (although it would be quite rude to flake on them, but you need not guilt yourself). Understand that sometimes you need to be by yourself and recharge alone, and this does not mean that you are antisocial or weird or a loner. Nor do you need to cave to the pressures of other people to come out and socialise.
But What Can Introverts Do?
But having said all this, if you do feel like socialising, you may want to pick a place whose ambience is comfortable to you. This may mean your living room or a cozy little cafe, and not a party. Introverts also seem to be more comfortable hanging out with a small group of people rather than a large party. So if you feel worn down hanging out with all your friends together and don’t understand why, then maybe try getting together with just 3-5 of them at once and see if this makes a difference. Lastly, introverts have also been shown to hate having small talk. Most of them prefer to talk about more profound or interesting subjects that stimulate their creativity. So if your friends don’t seem inclined to talk about more mentally stimulating topics than the everyday, maybe you could try initiating conversations about something a little less mundane than where you eat in school, or your weekend plans.
Now, I know this may make it seem like there are irreconcilable differences between extroverts and introverts which make it quite impossible to befriend one of the other type. But this isn’t true at all! Some of my closest friends are raging extroverts who are adept at being the life of the party. Personally, I find that conversations flow a lot easier when I’m talking to an extrovert than when I talk to another introvert. For example, I’ve sometimes had to wait months to become close with another introvert, but have achieved the same level of proximity with an extrovert in a matter of days. And this is undoubtedly thanks to their effort. As such, some introverts may find that extroverts’ outgoing natures perfectly complement their more reserved personalities making them very suitable friends.
But of course, others may find just the opposite to be true. My friend, while she has no conscious preference for introverts or extroverts, often finds herself gravitating towards introverts due to the similar energy levels they possess. She says that she can, “vibe with them better when it comes to conversations.”
At the end of the day, the real takeaway here for introverts is to find those people and situations that better suit their energy levels, and to stop feeling guilty for wanting to spend time alone or for not being loud and outgoing. And like Susan Cain said in her ted talk, I too would like to “wish you the best of all possible journeys and the courage to speak softly.”
A Note To The Extroverts
For those few extroverts who might have stuck around this long, please understand that your introverted friends may ask for some time away by themselves not because they don’t like your company, but because their brains are overstimulated. In fact, they probably LOVE your company and are beating themselves up about not wanting to hang out with you already.
It’s hard to explain the ‘introvert experience’ to someone who is not an introvert, but if I were to try an analogy:
Imagine you are running a marathon, and you’ve run for miles and miles and your muscles are screaming at you to stop and your bones are ready to collapse in exhaustion. But everytime you think of stopping there’s a well-meaning fellow marathon-runner who claps you on the back and smiles in encouragement as they run ahead with ease as if they’ve only run for minutes instead of the hours that you have. And now you can’t stop running because you don’t want to disappoint them…but the finish line is so far away and it never seems to get any closer.
That’s what social exhaustion is like, and hard as it is to say, the people who try to get introverts to go out and socialise when they don’t want to are just like that well-meaning marathon-runner. Your heart might be in the right place, but it’s not doing your friend any good. Sometimes, you just need to leave your introverted friend alone. And trust me, they will appreciate you all the more for it.