To Susie [an extrovert], Charlie [an introvert] is ‘missing something’. He’s over there, hiding in the corner, in deep conversation with just one person [!]. He’s quiet, and the place is jumping. Susie would be bored to tears, if she were Charlie. But… she’s NOT Charlie!
Susie and Charlie have brains that are wired differently. The introvert prefers his internal theatre, and judicious doses of external stimulus, carefully chosen. Hence, he has fewer friends, prefers smaller crowds, and tends to gravitate to the periphery of a party.
The extrovert finds little stimulation internally, and craves much external variety and excitement. They are hence gregarious, prefer larger crowds, and tend to be in the centre of the action.
Both states are personal preferences, and have to do with levels of brain stimulation.
- The cortex of an introvert is naturally highly stimulated. So, excessive external stimulation may lead to overload.
- The extrovert, on the other hand, is naturally less cortically stimulated, and so seeks external stimulation to add to what is missing.
There is a certain balance in the behaviour and desires of both extroverts and introverts. They are both seeking the same thing—an acceptable, balanced level of cortical stimulation. Nothing is broken, nothing to fix. How Zen!
The problem comes when we judge a person’s preference to be ‘wrong’ or in need of fixing just because they act differently from us. That’s one of the reasons why people sometimes end up dating their opposites and end up clashing.
Charlie, the introvert, is sitting around one day, deeply immersed in a project. He has a thought, “Hmm. My friend Susie, the extrovert, says I spend too much time by myself, and there are moments when I wish I was more social.” If Charlie was wise, he’d find a therapist and have a look at how to open himself to more experiences. But Charlie isn’t wise. So, he calls up Susie and asks her out on a date. She agrees, because:
- She thinks it might be good to slow down a bit, while…
- She fixes Charlie.
The model both are using: something’s wrong with the other person and must be fixed. As a result, both will collide repeatedly, over their different preferences. Don’t get me wrong, Susie and Charlie can be friends. But it’s tricky. The only way it can work is if they monitor their cortical stimulation [which will be somewhere between not enough and overload] and find their own point of comfort. When the introvert is getting too much or the extrovert too little, it’s time to call it a night.
Introversion is misunderstood [except by other introverts]
- Introversion is often mistaken for shyness. But it’s not the same. Shyness is a label for the anxiety felt when thinking about interacting with others. Introverts are not anxious. They simply prefer their own company. Many introverts are excellent public speakers, and willingly engage with the public as teachers or artists. Give them something that interests them, and they’ll gladly explain it, elegantly.
- Introversion is not standoffishness. People who tend towards introversion are not bored with others, nor do they think they are ‘better’ than others. Biologically, the introvert’s cortex is easily stimulated. To avoid overload, introverts limit their connection to the external environment to remain in balance.
- Introverts are interested primarily in their inner experience. While many introverts choose the helping professions such as that of a counsellor, it’s not because they love listening to others go on and on. I’m rather high on the introversion scale. I tell my clients that I do what I do in order to learn about myself. I’m interested in what I’ll come up with in response to my client’s issues. Here’s the thing: the introvert is not reacting to a dread—introverts do not feel a sense of social discomfort. The introvert is acting according to personal [and cortical] preference.
Introversion is not a flaw [neither is extroversion]. It’s a preference. All you need to remember is that introverts are already well stimulated—so you relate the best with them by providing a minimum of drama. And the extrovert? They need more, more, more! Take ‘em dancing! When it comes to preferences, there’s no right, no wrong. Just different. And as the French say… vive la difference [long live the difference]
Being an adult is about acceptance
When we relate with someone who is different than we are [read, everybody], there are two paths open to us—the Zen path and the normal path. The normal path is to look at the differences, and declare the other person ‘wrong’. The Zen path is to look at differences, and say, ‘Interesting variation’. The adult path is to be curious, and to enjoy variety.
In Zen, we say, “It is as it is.” Judgements add drama. How someone appears [how they act] is how they are. But, it doesn’t mean they are broken. Your job is to sort yourself out. This is the work of a lifetime. Others around you need your respect, not your advice, not your “Do it my way so I can fix you” stuff. Actually, life is quite simple, until we start messing around.
This was first published in the May 2012 issue of Complete Wellbeing.
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