Inside Story

Just been reading The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World . Bells going off – or is that too extrovert? Maybe lights glowing!

We introverts may be a minority, usually unheard because of our nature, but we are not only OK but have a huge amount to offer. Without introverts there would be no writers, artists, inventors, poets, but there would be lots of committees and sales people.

Once, after speaking about the unappreciated introvert, a guy came up to me. “You have described my wife. I love parties, she hates them. What do we do?”

Actually quite easy: don't drag her out shopping all day beforehand. Let her have a quiet space. Park so you can escape and she won't feel trapped. Don't drag her around, introducing her to all and sundry. She will be happiest talking one on one, not in an excitable group.

I first stumbled on the research about 20 years ago after listening to Brian Little give a keynote. He was incredibly funny, but my main feeling was recognition and relief – it's OK to be different! I did more research and started speaking about introversion with my wellness students.

Introverts and extroverts have differently wired brains. Intros like me are hypersensitive to stimulus and spend our lives trying to damp it down. We get our energy, in Laney's words, from our “internal world of ideas, emotions and impressions.” Extroverts have tougher wiring and are constantly talking, back slapping, exclaiming, just to reassure themselves they are alive. They draw their energy from outside, partying, bungee jumping and revving up.

Contrary to most people's (extraverts make up 60-75% of the population) ideas, we intros are not self-centred egotists. I may spend a lot of time reading and thinking, but not about myself, although I am always aware of how and what I am feeling. I think it is in part that I am so interested in what it means to be alive and human and the only tools I have to translate this are my senses.

Although I knew what it feels like to be an intro in an extravert world, Marti points out that we are two physically different breeds. We both use different pathways in the brain, giving intros better long term memories, the flip side being we find recall slower and often get stuck for a word. We need more time to make good decisions, though how come my husband proposed and, after a long pause, I accepted on our 7th date?

We are more sensitive to noise and pain, though extroverts make more noise about it – rather like a man with a cold.

What other physical differences? Intros feel both heat and cold more, have lower body temperatures, low blood pressure, insomnia and have to watch their blood sugar. OMG, she has just described me! Including yawning a lot.

So how do we manage stress? Different strategies: in a typical intro-extra marriage, the intro (more likely a woman) should do the more isolated chores, like folding laundry or preparing vegetables, which are soothing and grounding; the extravert should drive the kids, toss a ball in the garden, off load his energy.

And driving home from work, classical music for the intro, rock for the extravert. What happens, though I find, is that I offer to do the chores that exhaust me, under the illusion I am sparing my extravert friends, who are resentfully dying of boredom as they fold laundry.

I have learnt to arrange my life, building in space and rest, where I can. To cut down external stimulus, plan ahead and give myself as much lead time as possible. I find it very hard when the kids are home and plans change by the minute; I am stressed when I don't know when we will eat, when there will be a break, when I can be quiet. Intros need to plan their energy, so I wilt when one more thing is unexpectedly crammed into a packed schedule – and they are restless when we don't have a smorgasbord of activities.

My dental hygienist was telling me about her serious, quiet daughter. “She needs to get put of herself, so we are making her work evenings after school at Baskin-Robbins.” Oh, no, you have just taken away the quiet space she needs to orient and revive herself after a hectic, rough-and-tumble day at school. Just as I, during a conference where I had been speaking, was not downstairs afterwards, schmoozing and back slapping, but happily curled up with a book in my hotel room.

Introverts are tossed into life with extroverts like balls in a dryer, lots of noise, movement and unexpected buzzers. The single most useful skill either can learn is to take a quick energy reading off everyone you meet and match it. Only 7% of any encounter is words, the rest is body language, tone and pace. Yet, what do we do? We talk – and when our prey withdraws, we talk faster, louder, more emphatically.

Please would someone stop the barrage and read my energy, pick up that I have been shopping for hours, my feet hurt, I have just had bad news, and the last thing that will make me want to buy anything is an eager extravert bounding up like Tigger, offering to help me. What would help is someone quietly there able to tell me where to find something – and please don't set off at break-neck speed, tossing gabbled, fragmented speech over your shoulder, leaving me to follow, dazed and bewildered by the lights and razzmatazz.

But the biggest thing is that we are OK. Because we like a quiet evening in with a book, we are not sad and lonely. Our lives are productive and meaningful and very content.


More info

The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World by Marti Olsen Laney PhD.

Brian Łittle on Oprah – link


About UntraveledRoads

Fascinated by life, looking for answers to chronic pain and finding unexpected gifts. Interested in people, ideas, healing and humour. I am very happily married with three children and a kitten. As English born immigrants to Canada, we have family spread overseas, a daughter in South Africa and one in England. We also run a charity in South Africa to educate black, rural South African Women. Our first girl from a rural township has just graduated as an accountant from Johannesburg University and got a good job in a bank.
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