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What it really means to be an introvert (and how we’ll save the world)

What it really means to be an introvert

One of the most interesting offerings of social media in the last decade has been the endlessly expanding method of channeling inner-truth, the personality quiz.

We love quizzes telling us which Friends character we are, or what our favorite foods say about us, because we love to categorize ourselves, to break ourselves down into components to answer the great question of who we are in a single, clear bulletin. And very often, at the core of this singular statement about our true selves (and one of the most popular quizzes of all) is whether we’re an extrovert or introvert.

But while the introvert/extrovert quizzes do make us interrogate our inner truths in a thoughtful way, they are more about matching ourselves to stereotypical ticks; they focus on how extroversion and introversion look on the outside rather than what they mean on the inside. We tend to reduce extroverts to social butterflies, and introverts to bookworm loners. And yes, while being an introvert may mean that you enjoy your quiet time, it has far more to do with your tendency to be reflective, insightful, and observant.

The terms “introversion” and “extraversion” (which has somehow mutated into the word extroversion over time) were first used by psychologist Carl Jung at the start of the 20th century to describe the converse ways that people relate to living. According to Jung, extraverts are those who find fulfillment in the outside world. Being an extravert means that the life you actively live is what brings you gratification—you find meaning through the love of your family, the work you do, the joy of spending time with friends. Introverts, however, seek fulfillment in their inner world. Being an introvert means that your life draws meaning through the pursuit of inner harmony, intellectual achievement, seeing your true self reflected in your creative interaction with the world. 

Still, too many people get caught up in how introversion appears. Parents worry when their kids are “aloof”, new friends get uncomfortable when the other seems a bit awkward, romantic partners get frustrated when their lover pushes for a movie night over a big fun party. As a society we have learned to define introversion by these traits, and their negative stain has tainted the beauty of what being an introvert really is. And though being around the energies of others can make them feel distracted or overwhelmed, truly introverts are usually thriving in their own interior worlds.

So why is someone who is thoughtful in solitude called a cold and standoffish, but someone who is friendly and talkative not called gabby and obnoxious? Because, just as Carl Jung explained 100 years ago, Western culture inherently prefers and values extraversion. You might even say that we celebrate it, and are thus more intolerant of its counterpart. 

Of course, there is no right and wrong way of being. Believing that life flows from the outside in has just as much merit as believing it flows from the inside out. But as an extraverted society, we overemphasize what we draw out of the world around us. We are trained to strive for outer success, awards and accolades, and become dependent on these things in order to see ourselves as meaningful or important. And worse, when polluted with the ideologies of capitalism and consumerism, the extraverted impulse in society shifts our sense of meaning away from what we do or who loves us, and onto what we have.

And, as we all inevitably learn, no matter how big of a life we build around us, what’s inside us will never go away. In the end, it is often who we’ve become that has mattered the most.

So this is the gift of the introvert. While society strains to stamp meaning on itself on the outside, the introvert quietly peers inward. The introvert knows that material success is important and valuable, but it pales in comparison to how she relates to herself, her heart and mind. She knows that her moments of solitude keep her humble. She understands that her inner clarity offers more reward than any promotion ever could.

And it is with this gift, introverts, that we save the world. If introverts could encourage themselves to stay open, honest, seem proud of their introversion, we might be able to convince society of our value, to accept introversion as an alternate experience of living. And (maybe this is a bit too idealistic, but I believe it anyway) even inspire it to turn slowly inward as a whole.

To start, we need to rethink and reclaim what it means to be an introvert. It does not mean we are aloof or awkward. It does not mean we prefer books to parties, or that we hate small talk, or that we love our alone time. It means we know how to check in, and that we’re absolutely okay with checking out. It means we instinctively know there’s more to ourselves than how many friends we have or how full our bank account is (as well as how important that more is). It means we’re not afraid to question ourselves, and that our interior worlds are always vibrant. It means that we know that what happens in our hearts affects our lives just as intensely and directly as what happens to our jobs. And it means we innately know how to be sensitive, empathetic, and honest, qualities that the world is currently very much in need of.

So, my dear introverts, you could help the revolution in our culture to become more gracious, truthful, and balanced. Simply be honest about who you are. Don’t feel ashamed of your nature, and don’t allow our society to convince you it’s not the preferred way to be. Stand up for the need to seek solitude. Speak out about the difficulties of inner transformation. Give voice to the half of the world who may prefer to stay quiet, but has such an important message to share.

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