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The Introvert in an Extrovert World

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“Our culture made a virtue of living only as extroverts. We discouraged the inner journey, the quest for a center. So we lost our center and have to find it again.” ~Anais Nin

Who we are constitutionally and temperamentally is the essential foundation for who we become. In this process of ‘becoming’ the vicissitudes of life often derails us from our authentic Self. At the core level, this longing to experience and know one’s true Self is what brings people into therapy. As Nin suggests, the inner journey reflects the impulse to remember the center we’ve lost sight of. In therapy, teasing through one’s history, genetic pre-dispositions and generational patterns so as to strip away maladaptive defenses and ameliorate debilitating symptoms, is a courageous effort to reclaim one’s constitutional essence. Yet often, there are stigmatizing cultural judgments about certain constitutional differences. Hence, the clients I work with who are instinctively contemplative, sensitive, quiet, cerebral, often struggle with the notion that their natural proclivity for introversion is equivalent to being fundamentally impaired.

The reification of cultural ideas about personality is reflected in an ideology that delineates what constitutes socially acceptable behavior and what deviates from that norm. Although extraversion and introversion span a continuum, in western society introversion has always been viewed as inherently flawed. This sentiment was loudly echoed in 2010 when the American Psychiatric Association considered citing introversion as one of the criteria for schizoid personality disorder in the clinician’s diagnostic guidebook, the DSM-5. Due to controversial opposition this proposal was dismissed, however it’s consideration clearly suggests that we live in a culture that pathologizes introversion, and accordingly deems extroversion as the barometer for mental health.

Psychoanalyst Carl Jung and the Myers–Briggs Personality Inventory suggest that everyone contains varying levels of introversion and extroversion. The spectrum of introversion/extroversion connotes degree of orientation in contrast to the typical conceptualization of these traits as polar opposites. Jung viewed introversion as energy creatively directed toward the inner subjective world of thoughts and ideas, whereas Freud believed that introverts were emotionally stunted because they were neurotically driven towards the delusional world of fantasy. Additionally, whereas Freud saw the subconscious as solely a container of infantile repressed material, Jung contended that the subconscious has a ‘higher mind’ that lends itself to creative processes. In a nutshell, the introverts pull towards the inner world is characterized as pathologically regressive by Freud, and creative by Jung. Given the contemporary consideration by the APA to cite introversion as a diagnostic criteria for schizoid personality disorder, one can surmise that the Freudian perspective of introversion as a pathological regressed state, continues to permeate societal views. The notion that introverts are eccentric oddballs while extroverts are well-adjusted comrades continues to infiltrate the American cultural consciousness.

While introverts make up a smaller demographic within a culture that places a higher value on commanding personalities, their contributions to creativity, philosophy, and innovation is far-reaching. Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts, shared in an interview with Scientific American, “In our society, the ideal self is bold, gregarious, and comfortable in the spotlight. We like to think that we value individuality, but mostly we admire the type of individual who’s comfortable “putting himself out there.” Our schools, workplaces, and religious institutions are designed for extroverts. Introverts are to extroverts what American women were to men in the 1950s -- second-class citizens with gigantic amounts of untapped talent.” Indeed, Forbes pictorial of the worlds most famous introverts, which included the likes of Darwin, Einstein, Chopin, Gandhi and Eleanor Roosevelt, illustrates Cain’s point that the emphasis on the extroverted ideal often obfuscates the much needed quiet wisdom and gifts of the introvert.

Irrespective of collective disapproval and denunciation, achieving psychological wholeness necessitates self-acceptance. For introverts, the alienation from one’s own nature is influenced by cultural condemnation. Nevertheless, to accept the self one is challenged to embrace the parts which have been repudiated and shunned. Defying cultural censure is a critical step towards being true to one’s unique identity. Paradoxically, as we undergo maturational changes we organically become more introverted, as the second half of the life cycle is characterized by the cultivation of meaning and purpose. While core traits remain constant, a turn towards the introspective interior world accompanies the ageing process. It is a time for reflection and creative inquiry. Perhaps at this juncture the introvert, who has been challenged to define her own path and intuit what is resonant with her authenticity, finds greater ease transitioning into this developmental stage. Here gestation with one’s thoughts becomes ‘normalized’, and devotion to constructive use of solitude becomes permissible. She no longer has to conform to conventionality. She may not harbor the pervasive fears of loneliness that afflict her more extroverted counterparts.

The strength of the introvert's inward nature is reflected in the words of Albert Camus who wrote, “The tragedy is not that we are alone, but that we cannot be”. One can only hope that a shift in cultural consciousness will allow extroverts to avail themselves of the introvert’s acumen, so that a greater appreciation for a rich contemplative inner life can occur.

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