Unless you’ve been entirely absent from the Internet for the past year or so, you’ve no doubt noticed that we’re pretty obsessed with the idea of introverts and extroverts lately. For quite some time, there’s been a deluge of listicles rattling off the differences between introverts and extroverts and telling us which of our favorite celebrities fall into each category.
The trend is accompanied by what you might call an introverts’ rights movement. Books expose the ways our society may be biased towards traits and qualities associated with extroversion. Introverts are being encouraged to be proud of their personalities and recognize the unique role they have to play, rather than feel they must change in order to succeed.
Despite all this attention, many people still have a skewed idea of what we mean when we say someone is an introvert or an extrovert. This is nothing new, but for the sake of clarity, I’ll summarize it here: whether someone is considered an introvert or an extrovert depends primarily on where they get their energy — from other people or from being alone. To oversimplify tremendously, extroverts tend to charge their batteries through socializing, while introverts get a similar kick from quiet time by themselves. It’s not about being the center of a room versus a wallflower, though. Many actors, musicians, politicians, and other public figures identify as introverts.
When all this started becoming popular, I was thrilled to go through checklists and find myself described almost perfectly by every item in the “introvert” column. As a writer and an only child, I have always been happy being alone, but I discovered that there were many other aspects of introversion that I wasn’t aware of. I despise small talk, for example, but I love getting wrapped up in a long discussion about something substantive. As I started to make my way into the business world after college, every technique I learned for networking or selling myself seemed incredibly phony and disingenuous. Turns out, that can be sign of introversion, too. I realized that there wasn’t anything wrong with me just because I got bored of parties long before other people did or hesitated before answering the phone, even if I knew who was calling.
The problem with labels of any kind, though, is that it’s easy to become defined by them, instead of the other way around. I started using my newfound introvert pride as an excuse to avoid socializing or to rebuff idle chit-chat about the weather or something equally vapid. When my three-year relationship ended last year, it seemed to me that both of us had fudged our personality types somewhat in order to meet in the middle, and that had resulted in an incompatibility. For me, embracing my introversion meant not having to socialize on anything but my own terms. I didn’t have to talk to you if I didn’t want to, because I was an introvert, and there was nothing wrong with that.
But the reality is, sometimes I’m a little extrovert-y. On occasion, I do experience that “high” that extroverts get from a wild party or a night out with friends. The realization that my preference for solitude doesn’t make me antisocial was a good thing, but using it as a reason to crawl further inside my own head and avoid socializing even more, wasn’t such a great idea. Recognizing my introversion meant I didn’t have to try to change my nature. Instead, though, I became a slave to it.
There’s been plenty of discussion about introversion-extroversion as a sliding scale, just like almost every other aspect of human behavior. Ask any psychologist, and they’ll probably tell you that most people show some traits of both introversion and extroversion. But the huge explosion of popularity has encouraged many people—like me—to pick a side, and I’m sure I’m not the only one whose outlook on their life changed as a result.
I now know that I shouldn’t conform to some arbitrary framework for my personality. Small talk may bore me, but often there’s no avoiding it, and occasionally, a conversation about the weather may turn into something much deeper and more worthwhile. I’ve learned that highlighting my strengths while networking isn’t false or braggadocious, even if it usually feels that way to me. Sometimes, you have to think like an introvert while acting like an extrovert.
Assuming that everyone falls into one of only two categories is just as restrictive as idealizing the qualities of extroverts alone. Everybody has a unique combination of introvert and extrovert traits. This discussion shouldn’t just be about appreciating the equally valid ways that introverts can contribute to society. It’s important to understand that we can’t even begin to presume how another person relates to and interacts with the world. So maybe it’s time to lay off the listicles and checklists and just be ourselves, rather than a category.