Monday, April 13, 2009
The Conceits of the Extravert (and the Introvert)
Several years ago I was out having a drink with a friend (we’ll call her Nancy). I don’t remember much of the conversation (it was a long time ago, and I was drinking), but I’ve never forgotten one thing she said to me. She looked at me, cocked her head and said sweetly, “I just think it’s sad that you haven’t done more with your life.” I was about 34 at the time.
I was speechless. What do you say to a comment like that? (Okay, well, “I'm gonna kick yer ass” is a gimme). Unfortunately, such was my sense of self at that time that instead of telling her to stuff it and walking away, I thought, “Gee, maybe she’s right...” And embarked on a[nother] mini-voyage of self-doubt and second-guessing myself.
Ironically enough, at that time I was actually feeling some surprised pride at the hurdles I’d leapt in my life-stuff I was afraid I would never be able to do. In fact, I had accomplished all but one of my life goals–huge things for me that had preoccupied me and weighed on me since I was young. I had gotten out of Montana and lived in a big city on the east coast for four and-a-half years, which had always been a dream of mine (I was convinced I was really a hard-core urbanite—okay, not so much); I traveled the world, which I had always believed was something necessary for me to really be fulfilled (pretty much turned out that way, too, but not for the reasons I thought); I had finally found a sense of home, a place where I felt I belonged (and remarkably enough, it was Montana, which I had been so eager to leave behind before); I had spent years patiently and doggedly unraveling all the weird, confusing, and painful stuff that had gone on in my family, and felt I both understood it and had made my peace with it; I had actually come to truly appreciate who I was, both inside and outside, and didn’t want to be anybody else (that was huge); and I had overcome a long-term, paralyzing fear of men. (My remaining–and number one–life goal was to find a mate. I’d wanted that since I was a little girl). My sense of wonderment over how far I’d come, and how much courage it had taken me to get there, made my friend’s comment all the more dumbfounding, and degrading. To have somebody piss all over that was deeply insulting.
Well, my side-trip into self-doubt was blessedly short (I eventually came to the conclusion, “Fuck that shit.”), and I’ve thought about that exchange a lot over the last couple of years. And other similar exchanges with Nancy. (We are no longer friends). It was pretty tempting to just label her as a kind of life snob, but I think our disconnects were more due to fundamental personality differences.
FROM WIKIPEDIA—“Extraversion and Introversion” (excerpts)
The terms introversion and extraversion were first popularized by Carl Jung … Extraversion is "the act, state, or habit of being predominantly concerned with and obtaining gratification from what is outside the self". Extraverts tend to enjoy human interactions and to be enthusiastic, talkative, assertive, and gregarious. They take pleasure in activities that involve large social gatherings, such as parties, community activities, public demonstrations, and business or political groups. Politics, teaching, sales, managing, and brokering are fields that favor extraversion. An extraverted person is likely to enjoy time spent with people and find less reward in time spent alone. They tend to be energized when around other people, and they are more prone to boredom when they are by themselves.
Introversion is "the state of or tendency toward being wholly or predominantly concerned with and interested in one's own mental life". Introverts tend to be more reserved and less assertive in social situations. They often take pleasure in solitary activities such as reading, writing, drawing, and using computers. The archetypal artist, writer, sculptor, composer, and inventor are all highly introverted. An introvert is likely to enjoy time spent alone and find less reward in time spent with large groups of people, though they tend to enjoy interactions with close friends. They prefer to concentrate on a single activity at a time and like to observe situations before they participate. Introverts are easily overwhelmed by too much stimulation from social gatherings and engagement. They are more analytical before speaking.
Introversion is not the same as shyness. Introverts choose solitary over social activities by preference, whereas shy people avoid social encounters out of fear.
FROM WIKIPEDIA—“Analytical Psychology”
The attitude type could be thought of as the flow of libido (psychic energy). An introverted person's energy is generally directed inward toward concepts and ideas whereas an extraverted person's energy is generally directed outward towards other people and objects. There are several contrasting characteristics between extraverts and introverts: extraverts desire breadth and are action-oriented, while introverts seek depth and are self-oriented.
So—you guessed it—Nancy is mostly extraverted, and I am mostly introverted (although neither of us is off the chart on either). And from listening to her commentary on my life, and the lives of the people around her, she has little use for the things that are important to introverts. In fact, I had heard her say that people (I’m paraphrasing here) who were predominantly concerned with achieving some sort of personal peace in their lives are cowards. That their self-exploration and “working through their issues”, etc., is nothing more than an excuse to avoid being active out in the world (in the way that she thinks is worthwhile, of course).
While a gross over-simplification, to some extent that is true (more on that below), and self-analysis paralysis is for sure a potential pitfall for the introvert. But I also believe it is true that the extravert’s preoccupation with other people, objects, and things out there in the world can be used as an escape to avoid looking inside themselves. If the introvert is a coward about the world at large, then the extravert is a coward about his inner world. For the extravert, I would suspect the idea of delving into one’s own psyche, exploring one’s own biases, resentments, buried grief or pain, fears, unconscious motivations, etc., is an uncomfortable idea at best, maybe a little baffling, exhausting, and possibly downright terrifying. And probably not very interesting. The extravert sucks at introspection. And that’s fine, unless those buried fears, misconceptions, biases, etc., are causing them to hurt the people around them, or themselves.
To an extent, everybody has an imperfect life, and an imperfect upbringing. We are all raised by imperfect people, some of them with emotional problems, and their own blind spots, wounds, biases, axes to grind, misconceptions, etc. Some people experience more pain in their early lives than others. Many people have trauma, loss, chronic stress and uncertainty, illness, or even abuse early on in their lives. Very few people (if any) are fortunate enough to be free of mental pain. The introvert and the extravert are going to deal with mental pain in different ways as they mature, and the way they manage this pain is going to determine the trajectories of their lives. Even those with nurturing, affirming early lives without a lot of baggage are going to have losses and disappointments to deal with at some point, too, and the introvert and extravert will have different coping mechanisms (each potentially healthy in its own way), which will play out in their lives much differently. (Not to mention very different strengths and interests). I’m not a psychologist (I’m a French major—don’t ask me why), but I am a homo sapiens, I’ve been alive and sentient (mostly) for over 40 years, and I’ve known a lot of people. I consider myself mostly introverted, and have had close relationships with both introverts and extraverts. So take the opinions below for what they’re worth.
Speaking from my own experience, the introvert is acutely aware of mental pain, and if it’s bad it can be damn near incapacitating. (By mental pain, I mean stuff like feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, grief, aloneness/loneliness, meaninglessness, shame, anxiety, despair, fear, dread, self-hatred, sadness and the like). For the introvert, mental pain is an in-your-face kind of thing and impossible to ignore, like violent stomach cramps. Pretty much all of the introvert’s energies and attention is just going to go toward standing up under that pain—trying to keep her head together, get out of bed, go to school, go to work or whatever, when she feels like she’s being eaten alive. Since her orientation is predominantly inward, that pain is always going to be under a microscope, right there under her nose. She’s going to pick at it constantly. Activity is only marginally effective as a distraction--there just isn’t enough energy left over to even pursue activities and the pain is too loud to be drowned out. And activity (unless it’s intellectual activity) isn’t that interesting for the introvert anyway. She prefers working with ideas and concepts, or impressions, feelings and perceptions. The only viable, long-term approach for the introvert suffering mental pain (well, this is the way it was for me, anyway) is to confront the pain head-on, feel what there is to feel, figure out what the hell it means, and try to uproot it, or at least disarm it. This can look like unproductive navel gazing to the extravert (and sometimes results in great art!), but the introvert is, in fact, attempting to save her own life. For the introvert, to understand the source of the pain is to conquer it, defang it. Trying to ignore it would only push it underground and force it out somewhere else in a different, perhaps more malignant form. And since the introvert is comfortable with her inner world, feels safe and at home there, is fascinated by all that goes on there, and is often analytically or creatively gifted, it’s going to be automatic for her to take this “navel gazing” approach to overcoming mental pain.
This is often a journey of years, if the early trauma was profound, especially confusing, or prolonged. The introvert might limp along for quite a while, treading water so to speak, before she finds the key to begin healing herself. Pervasive mental pain often starts at a very young age, and the introvert may not develop the insight to really work through it until she is an adult. Battling one’s inner demons is very demanding work, and takes a lot of time and privacy—thinking, writing (or painting or singing or whatever), weeping, ranting and raving, more thinking, more weeping, more writing. And even though it’s consuming, for the introvert it’s highly cathartic and definitely preferable to continued pain, and each insight brings a new burst of energy. Eventually the introvert comes through it on the other side in much better shape. But when the introvert is in the middle of figuring it all out, putting aside that task, and diverting energy to socializing, business ventures, or career development or something like that is extremely difficult, especially since those are often draining activities anyway for the introvert, even under the best of circumstances. There’s just not enough room, time or energy in her life for “conquering the world,” “making her mark,” or “networking.” She reduces the energy demands on her for life support, so to speak, to a minimum, so she can devote the bulk of her emotional resources to getting out from under the mental pain. If she’s reasonably functional, she’ll have a job and be supporting herself, but she will deliberately choose something fairly undemanding for her. “Career” is not a priority at this point—that would be putting the cart before the horse (hell, the horse is FUCKED UP, not going to be pulling anything anytime soon.) She won't have a large collection of friends-she'll have a few, deep relationships-and she might find it very difficult to begin or maintain romantic relationships. She may find her mate later in life than the extravert. On top of this, the introvert isn’t really drawn to the world of things and activities and people anyway, so professional domination, broad social contacts, public acclaim, acquiring wealth or possessions, producing consumable items, etc., does not really appeal to her. In fact, that kind of stuff is a real slog, a bore, and an energy drain. Yeah, she avoids it, you bet. What really energizes her and “scratches her itch,” so to speak, is applying her intellect to complex, probably abstract analytical problems, applying her intellect, empathy and intuition to unraveling psychological mysteries, applying her sensibilities and experience to creating a piece of art that means something to her, etc. You get the idea.
Even the relatively undamaged introvert is probably going to take his time launching himself in the world too. He doesn’t need activity for its own sake, and doesn’t really care about public recognition or pleasing other people, so is perfectly happy just exploring the things he’s curious about as the mood strikes him. (And sometimes that results in great art! Or great science.) And he’s going to do some reconnaissance first before he commits himself to some career or life cause—he’s going to hang back until he's sure of what he wants and is capable of, and he’s going to know what he’s getting into before he commits himself. Not in a hurry. And if he does dive into the world of business, or promoting, or “networking” or something more typically extraverted, it will be because he has to, in order to pursue some creative or intellectual vision—not because he likes that kind of stuff or is good at it.
So in terms of economic/commercial productivity, social involvement, public recognition, breadth of impact on humanity, cultural prestige, wealth accumulation, etc., the average introvert (i.e., not a prodigy in anything) is often going to trail behind the extravert. Introverts who have waded through a lot of mental pain are going to be especially “behind” in those areas. They will have spent their early lives simply frying other fish. However, by the time they are close enough to being whole to find their public place in the world, they will seriously have their personal shit together (even if they are starting at square one learning how to run a business or climb a professional ladder). Once free of the energy drain of mental pain, many introverts land on the scene with an unusual degree of wisdom and self-knowledge for their age, the compassion, tolerance and empathy that comes with suffering, insight into the inner workings of other people (because they had so much practice dissecting their own psyches!), an above-average degree of objectivity about their own passions, and a strong habit of thinking clearly and deeply about whatever situation they are in. And of course these are not traits that are generally valued in American/western society. They are not action-oriented, they are often not even visible, they don’t usually produce much income, if any, and they tend to slow the pace of action. Not impressive to most American eyes, although if polled, I imagine most people would say that someone just like this saved their bacon more than once, either through insightful personal advice, a cool head, or an empathetic ear. And of course, many lives have been touched through the achievements of introverts—scientific discoveries, technology, art, music, literature, philosophy, spirituality, psychology, etc.
And of course there are introverts who decline to ever take up a public place in the world, and become more and more isolated emotionally and socially, either because they simply don’t care to, or because they are just too broken to be able to function in a public context, or because, yes, they are, in fact, cowards. That’s a constant temptation for the introvert—to stay where he’s comfortable, inside his own musings and preoccupations, when in fact, it may be time for him to step out and stretch himself in the world. Pushing comfort boundaries and trying things outside his accustomed skill set can be very enriching for the introvert, when the time is right, and many introverts have priceless insights and talents to offer the world.
(SIDE NOTE: In fact, Carl Jung had an interesting idea about the evolution of the individual personality over time—he called it “enantiodromia”. Goes like this:
FROM WIKIPEDIA: “Enantiodromia”
Jung used [this] term particularly to refer to the unconscious acting against the wishes of the conscious mind. (Aspects of the Masculine, chapter 7, paragraph 294).
Enantiodromia. Literally, “running counter to,” referring to the emergence of the unconscious opposite in the course of time. This characteristic phenomenon practically always occurs when an extreme, one-sided tendency dominates conscious life; in time an equally powerful counterposition is built up, which first inhibits the conscious performance and subsequently breaks through the conscious control. ("Definitions,” ibid., par. 709).
In other words, it’s not uncommon for people to flip-flop later in life and head in the other direction on the introversion-extraversion continuum. (I’ve actually done this quite a few times already—not sure that’s normal... Right now I’m in my “ambivert” phase.))
Even though I’ve tested middle of the road on personality tests, I don’t really feel like I can speak from internal experience about extraverts. I have known quite a few, intimately, however. And from going through emotional crises with them, it seems they are much less aware than the introvert of how they are feeling at any given moment, find it more challenging to identify or describe what precisely they are feeling, and may be unaware of the real trigger for what they are feeling (in fact, if you’re an extravert reading this you might be thinking, “What is she talking about?”). It might be obvious to observers that the extravert is in the grips of a powerful emotion that seems out of proportion to the given situation, but if he is queried about why he is so angry/sad/etc., he will probably not be able to point to anything but the situation at hand. He may be surprised to hear that the intensity of his emotions seems excessive for the situation, and may be skeptical of the idea that perhaps what he’s feeling is really stemming from something else altogether. If he hasn’t expressed a given sentiment in conscious verbal thought, it will be virtually invisible to him, even though it may be plain to everyone around him what he really feels about something.
While the introvert suffering mental pain will withdraw, and curtail his activities and relationships, the extravert suffering mental pain will probably step up his socializing and other activities, to keep his discomfort at a manageable level and maintain his energy. A damaged extravert, like a damaged introvert, may be plagued by all manner of intensely painful feelings—self-doubt, grief, anger, anxiety, hopelessness—but the extravert will seek relief in the external world, rather than isolating himself. Those feelings may manifest themselves for him as restlessness, agitation, feelings of emptiness, or irritability. He will distract himself from this discomfort (fairly successfully) with other people, activities, objects, facts about concrete things—the things that naturally engage and energize him. This is his locus of being, where he feels at home, competent and in control. The damaged extravert’s “acting out” can be destructive/self-destructive, aggressive, dangerous or whatever, or he may be an uber-achiever. He may be a veritable whirlwind of activity—social activity, sports, family, volunteering, business ventures, hobbies, etc. The more pain, the more activity. Since he is gifted in navigating the external world, tends to have more natural self-confidence than the introvert, and has a great capacity for social activity, he may achieve very impressive goals at a young age in things like athletics, business, philanthropy, entertainment, politics, etc. If he is talented, he may achieve fame and fortune at a very young age, or he may have a very broad, concrete impact on people through philanthropic activities. These are things that are generally valued in western society—economic productivity, gregariousness, a can-do attitude, breadth of impact—and have led to revolutionary improvements in human beings’ quality of life over the millennia.
The extravert may also burn himself out at a very young age with alcohol or drugs, thrill-seeking, or risk-taking. As is his tendency, he may throw himself into new ventures without a great deal of forethought, and he may find himself in dire straits when things fall apart. This temptation to look without leaping may be especially strong if he is running from mental pain—he needs new activities to manage the restlessness, or emptiness or loneliness that drives him. If his achievement is driven by buried pain, grief, dread or whatever, it’s going to be very hard for him to slow down—nothing will ever be enough. He won’t realize he is overcompensating for buried feelings of self-hatred, or that all his frantic activity is an attempt to fend off a sense of emptiness in his life, or that his accumulated wealth is a pale substitute for love.
Even the relatively undamaged extravert is going to get a jump on the average introvert in the areas of economic productivity or mass impact, simply because he is more drawn to the concrete world, has more innate understanding of “how to get things done,” and can handle a lot more social interaction than an introvert can. He is going to have broad connections that will help him excel in business or his chosen field that the introvert will not have. His energy will be fed by such activities. And he will be much more comfortable jumping into something quickly, without feeling like he needs to know the lay of the land first—he can figure it out as he goes. On the flip side, his weakness in “plumbing his own depths” might get him stuck in something that doesn’t really suit him, or he may end up having several false starts because of a lack of forethought, or because he didn’t really know what he wanted. He may struggle with emotionally complex relationships (although many people will find him refreshingly “uncomplicated”).
The damaged extravert may be able to churn along for a long time before his buried grief and pain catches up with him. He may arrive at midlife with an impressive empire to show for himself (or at least a large and varied collection of experiences), and may know hundreds of people, but he may be emotionally immature. He may be in poor health because of overwork, stress, or overindulgence in food or drink. He may have failed at relationships because of his compulsive activity, or because of avoidance of difficult emotional issues. At this point, his usual pain management approach may no longer be workable—perhaps he has started having panic attacks, or has had heart attacks, or he has substance abuse issues—and he may have to look inside himself for relief instead. Because he has limited access to his inner world, and difficulty accurately identifying what he is feeling, he’s probably going to need the help of a good therapist. He will probably never explore his own core as thoroughly as an introvert, which probably isn’t really necessary, but he may uncover enough personal/family history to draw off some of the misdirected energy that was feeding his compulsive activity. When the grief, or anxiety, or anger or whatever is vented through its true channel, it doesn’t have to get vented through compulsive activity, and the extravert will have more control over whether or not to pursue a given activity. He won’t need to do it anymore to the same degree—he’ll do it more from enjoyment.
The introvert may judge a life lived this way as lacking “real” meaning (since the introvert is partial to ideas, concepts and feelings), or as just a lot of pointless activity. He may even judge such an extravert as materialistic, shallow, or cowardly (for refusing to deal with his “issues”). (This is, of course, incredibly egocentric and narrow, but in terms of insight and emotional maturity, the extravert—especially the damaged extravert—will probably trail behind the introvert.) But with all his activity, the extravert was, in fact, attempting to save his own life. He managed his mental pain through occupying himself with the things he enjoyed, and fed his soul with the things that gave him energy and made him want to get out of bed in the morning. And when the time was right, when he was able, he started his inner voyage. And maybe, later in his life, he is able to rebuild relationships, or start new ones, on a deeper, healthier level. And of course he may have amassed quite a bit of financial or know-how resources with which he can take care of his own, help other people achieve their goals (like introverts who are trying to find their way in the world!), or improve some practical aspect of daily human existence.
Of course some damaged extraverts never do this. They keep running until they burn out completely (and like, die), or acting out until they alienate everyone they care for, and they never develop any real insight into themselves or other people. Those personal demons are just more than they can stand to look at, or they simply choose not to. Some may just be cowards.
That said, most people are probably a mixture of intro- and extraversion. And most people have probably had reasonably benign upbringings, have a serviceable degree of emotional wisdom and self-knowledge, and can appreciate people who are different from them. My musings in this post were more spurred by dealing with people who were a little more rigid in their personalities than the average person.
APPRECIATING EACH OTHER
Extraverts and introverts can both become a little religious about their personality types, and get to thinking that their personal proclivities are some sort of standard for all of humanity, and that if they’re not personally interested in something it has no value, period. The militant introvert may label all extraverts as shallow, immature and grasping; the militant extravert may label all introverts as self-indulgent, cowardly, and lazy. Occasionally they will be right, but as a generalization it is ridiculous and tragic. A world composed purely of introverts would likely starve to death, and a world composed purely of extraverts would likely blow itself up. We need each other.
I had no problem with my friend Nancy being who she was—in fact, I found her fascinating and always looked forward to hearing about what new project she was working on. I admired her chutzpah. I even learned some things from her, and have tried to adopt a little of her audacity when I'm trying something that scares me. I wouldn’t have ever wished that she stop pursuing the things that really energize her. Personal fulfillment is a great treasure, and if you’ve found the way to achieve that for yourself, for heaven’s sake keep doing it. And while I always knew that she admired some of my traits, she didn't seem to be able to acknowledge the legitimacy of my life choices or my authority over my own life, and that was the kicker for me. She couldn’t distinguish personality from morality. In retrospect, I wonder if on some level she was afraid that acknowledging the value of my life accomplishments would necessarily require her to deny the value of her own accomplishments, which would be an unfortunate misconception to labor under. Hard to say.