It is high time I finished the third leg of my three-legged stool. I wrote about the first leg, Depression (“What’s With That Blog Title?”) on May 9; I wrote about the second leg, Shyness and Anxiety (“My Three Legged Stool”) on June 1. I intended to finish the job long before now. Life intervened.
With apologies to my many followers waiting with bated breath for the completion of my stool:
The third leg of my stool is Introversion. Here’s what I wrote on May 9:
“Depression, shyness, and anxiety are disabilities to be managed. Introversion is not a disability; it is an innate part of who I am and is to be understood and embraced.”
I use the term Introversion as the psychiatrist Karl Jung (1875-1961) defined it in his seminal work Psychological Types (1921). He identified three innate aspects of everyone’s personality:
- How you get your energy for living (Introversion, Extraversion)
- How you take in information (Sensing, Intuition)
- How you make decisions (Thinking, Feeling)
In the 1940s, two followers of Jung, Katherine Briggs and her daughter Isabel Myers, identified a fourth aspect of personality:
- How you relate to the world (Judging, Perceiving)
They developed an instrument called the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to help people identify their innate psychological types. Today the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is one of the most commonly used and best regarded psychological instruments in the world.
I am going to cover here only the first aspect Jung identified, Introversion and Extraversion, because that is the third leg of my stool.
Introversion does not mean you are shy; Extraversion does not mean you are outgoing. There are shy Extroverts and outgoing Introverts.
As Jung, Briggs, and Myers identified Introversion and Extraversion, they are two different ways (or preferences) of getting your life’s energy. You are born with these preferences. They are both good ways of being. You do not change your basic preferences, but you can, at least to some extent, change behaviors associated with them.
Extraverts draw their energy from engaging with other people and their environment.
Introverts draw their energy from within themselves.
To identify which preference you have, you could ask yourself:
If you are stressed from a hard day, would you rather:
- Go out and unwind with friends, OR
- Go home to enjoy a quiet evening by yourself.
Here’s another situation you may find yourself in:
You are at a large party, and you know only a few of the people there. Would you probably:
- Circulate around the room to meet and talk with new people, OR
- Stay close to the people you know and talk with them.
If you are an Extravert, you probably would pick the first answer to both questions. If you are an Introvert, you would probably choose the second answer.
I say “probably” because for some people those choices might be reversed. Remember, there are shy Extraverts and outgoing Introverts.
I am a shy Introvert. I get my energy from within myself, and in social situations I’m more comfortable with people I know than with strangers.
Introversion and Extraversion can even be detected in how we move our bodies.
Extraverts, drawing their energy from the people and environment around them, tend to move more than Introverts, who draw their energy from within. Extroverts may tap a foot or drum fingers while sitting, or shift position frequently, or get up and stretch or move around the room. as if they are extending little feelers out to their surroundings.
Introverts usually sit more quietly and for longer periods and without as much body movement. Introverts also may smile less than Extroverts.
In the same vein, Extraverts tend to listen more expressively than Introverts. An Extravert listening to someone might lean forward, smile, give head nods, say “I see,” or give other facial or body signals that he or she is reacting to the speaker and giving reaction back.
An Introvert may do little or none of that, leaving the speaker wondering what the hell the listener is thinking.
Being introverted, I tend to be a stone-faced listener. That can be a problem with people who don’t know me, and was, early in my city government career.
My boss was the city manager, and I had a lot of contact with the seven city councilors. I had cordial relationships with most of the councilors, but there was one, a very extroverted woman, who did not like me at all. The city manager, who understood me very well, took me aside one day and did me the wonderful favor of explaining the reason for her dislike.
It was my stone-faced listening. She would talk to me and I would sit there giving her no visible reaction, which she interpreted as hostility to her and her ideas. (Truth was, being such an extroverted, dominant personality, she intimidated me. And when I’m intimidated, I do shut down.)
So from then on, when I talked with that councilor, I gave her lots of listening cues. I leaned toward her, I nodded, I said “uh-huh,” and “oh, I see.” Things gradually improved between us. Later, when I ended up working on a project for her that especially called on my skill set, she and I became friends.
I will always be grateful for my boss’s intervention early in my career on an aspect of introverted behavior I needed to change. It was some of the best coaching I got.
Afterward I took great care to develop my physical listening skills with my colleagues and friends, and I am much the better for it. In time, active extroverted listening became second nature to me, and many of the people who worked with and for me told me I had superb listening skills.
So this is an illustration that your preference doesn’t change, but your behavior can. I was and will always be an Introvert, getting my energy from within me. But I can change introverted behavior when it’s not working for me.
Toward the end of my city career I took training to qualify as an administrator and interpreter of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. I had learned so much about myself by taking the MBTI I wanted to learn more about type theory and share its insights with other people.
After I completed qualification, I conducted group interpretations at work to help people identify their types, and these sessions were always well received. There were always a few sceptics who resisted being “labeled,” but most participants felt as I had when I took the Indicator, that the MBTI helped them understand and appreciate why they were the way they were, how it was okay to be the way they were, and how it was okay for other people to be different.
I also did individual interpretations on request. Most of these individual sessions sparked great conversation on the fascinating differences in human behavior.
But one of them showed me what it must have been like to be that city councilor so long ago talking to me.
This was a person I didn’t work with directly but knew pretty well. He was eager to take the MBTI. His results showed a strong preference for Introversion. He was also a cop, and cops of course are trained to not show their emotions.
So there we were in my little office, and I was reviewing his MBTI results with him, and he was sitting there in absolute silence with absolutely no expression on his face. I couldn’t tell whether he found what I was saying incredibly insightful and helpful to him or the biggest bunch of crap he had ever heard.
Remembering the great favor my city manager did for me, I felt I owed him the same. I explained carefully and a little nervously (because again, his silence intimidated me) that he wasn’t giving me any reaction, either verbal or nonverbal, to what he was hearing. I said that was a good reaction for a cop, but not so good outside a cop situation where we were discussing something meant to benefit him as a person. Showing some reaction would be appropriate.
That opened him up–a little. After all, he was a cop. And it turned out he did like what he heard about his personality type. So it was a good outcome for both of us.
Okay, back to my Introversion.
Growing up, I knew nothing about Introversion or Extraversion or where I got my energy. I knew nothing about depression. I did know I was shy and anxious, and that wasn’t a good thing. I knew I liked to be alone a lot, and I thought that was a good thing. I still do. But now I understand that I do better if I’m not alone too much, as I was too often in the past. Some of my worst bouts of depression came when I lived alone. I’m living with a partner now, and I need that.
Learning about my psychological type also helped me understand why I had difficult relationships with my parents when I was growing up. My mother and father were Extraverts; my older sister and I were Introverts. My mother and I clashed a lot over privacy: As an Introvert I wanted lots of it,and as an Extravert and a mother she felt she had the right to know everything about me. There was a lot of drawer snooping and diary reading that led to anger and raised voices. As we both grew older, we learned to accept each other’s differences.
My final words on Introversion and Extraversion are that you are born with one or the other, and they are both good ways to be. The more you learn about these two ways of getting your life energy, the more you are able to embrace the strengths of your own preference and understand how you are different from people who have the opposite, equally good preference.
I was not able to embrace the strengths of my Introversion when I was younger because it was so pathologically entangled with my depression and shyness. Now that I understand my depression and shyness, I love being an Introvert. For me, it’s the only way to be.
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