Misconceptions about Introverts and Extroverts
By: Alex DeWoskin, LCSW
Did you ever wonder if there was something wrong with you because you enjoy a quite Saturday night at home with some sushi and a good book? And, maybe you could do that three weeks in a row. I have a lot of clients come in and ask me if they’re withdrawn or antisocial. The first question I ask them is, “does it make you happy and fulfilled?” Quite often this answer is “yes”. This person is probably an introvert.
Now here is where the misconceptions come into play. People often think of introverts as people who are loners who are shy, wallflowers, and who really struggle with interaction with others. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. While there are people who are shy and struggle with interaction with others, this doesn’t make them an introvert by design. Many introverts are actually quite social, public, and successful.
Some are amazing performers or public speakers. A few surprising introverts: Abraham Lincoln, Bill Gates, Lady Gaga, Marilyn Monroe, Beyonce and Jay Z, Johnny Depp, Steven Spielberg, and get this…the founder of Facebook, one of the most public entities out there, Mark Zuckerberg…now there’s some irony.
An introvert is simply a person who is energized by spending time alone. This not to say they don’t enjoy time with others. But, too much time with others can be tiring. I am an introvert and love time with others, am sort of outgoing, can talk to strangers, and enjoy a good time out.
But, I need more alone time than the average extrovert needs. I like getting my energy from dealing with the ideas, pictures, memories, and reactions that are inside my head. I often prefer doing things alone or with one or two people I feel comfortable with.
I take time to reflect so that I have a clear idea of what I’m going to do in any given situation. I like to reflect on my thoughts, listening to music, read, watch movies, take long walks, and sit on my deck with a magazine just listening to the outside sounds. I frankly could do that for days. Then, I get a little itchy to go out and mingle. Being alone with my thoughts can be as restorative as sleeping and as nourishing as eating.
I have many friends who are extroverts, basically the opposite of introverts. They gain energy by spending a lot of time with others. They go out socially several times a week and often get a little antsy with too much alone time. They get energy from active involvement in events and having a lot of different activities. And are excited when they are around people and like to energize other people.
Research has actually found that there is a difference in the brains of extroverted and introverted people in terms of how they process rewards and how their genetic makeup differs. For extroverts, their brains respond more strongly when something pays off. It’s partly due to two crucial brain regions: the amygdala and the nucleus accumbens.
The nucleus accumbens is part of the dopamine system, which affects how we learn, and is generally known for motivating us to search for rewards. The difference in the dopamine system in the extrovert’s brain tends to push them towards seeking out novelty, taking risks, and enjoying unfamiliar or surprising situations more than others. The amygdala is responsible for processing emotional stimuli, which gives extroverts that rush of excitement when they try something highly stimulating that might overwhelm an introvert.
More research has actually shown that the difference comes from how introverts and extroverts process stimuli. That is, the stimulation coming into our brains is processed differently depending on your personality. For extroverts, the pathway is much shorter. It runs through an area where taste, touch, and visual and auditory sensory processing takes place. For introverts, stimuli run through a long, complicated pathway in areas of the brain associated with remembering, planning, and solving problems.
There are other characteristics of introverts and extroverts. Introverted people are known for thinking things through before they speak and being less impulsive, enjoying small, close groups of friends and one-on-one time, and struggling more by unexpected changes or last-minute surprises. Introverts are not necessarily shy and may not even avoid social situations, but they will definitely need some time alone or just with close friends or family after spending time in a big crowd.
Extroverts need to work harder to arouse their minds and bodies to the same ‘normal’ state that introverts might reach quite easily. This leads extroverts to seek stimuli in novelty and adventure, and to crave the company of others to maintain that steady state created more simply by introverts. Since people who are extroverted are energized by people, they usually enjoy spending time with others as a way to recharge from time spent alone focusing or working hard.
Now just to confuse matters, there are people who are Ambiverts. Ambiverts exhibit both extroverted and introverted tendencies. This means that they generally enjoy being around people, but after a long time this will start to drain them. Similarly, they enjoy solitude and quiet, but not for too long. Ambiverts recharge their energy levels with a mixture of social interaction and alone time. But, in life we almost all fall somewhere in between two extremes. And, there are benefits to both tendencies.
It is certain that we will come in contact with a variety of personalities throughout our lives, from extreme introverts to extreme extroverts, and everyone in between. Understanding and respecting the differences between these tendencies can help us get along with and have more effective communications with others and get the best out of everyone.