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Nancy Okerlund
Volume 3, Issue 3, 02/12/09

Spotting Introverts

It's not that easy to spot an introvert. I say that because it was recently pointed out to me by an Introvert Energizer reader. She wrote in response to my suggestion, a couple issues back, that the Nobel physicist Richard Feynman was an introvert.

I have a superficial knowledge of Feynman from a book of his I haven't read yet. I glibly assumed that someone with his depth of focus – an introvert trait – would be an introvert. This writer, knowledgeable about Feynman, corrected my assumption and pointed me in the direction of information about him that certainly paints the picture of an extrovert – and makes me even more interested in reading my book.

I have several introvert friends who tell me people have a hard time believing they're an introvert. I periodically get that reaction myself.

Of course knowing whether somebody's an introvert or an extrovert isn't a particularly hot topic. No doubt everybody knows those two words and has at least a vague notion of what they mean. But it works not to know very much, because it's not a main way we identify ourselves.

Essentially, almost since the psychoanalyst Carl Jung coined the terms "introvert" and "extravert" early in the 20th century, introverts have had a bad rap. And American society is very extroverted. And until recently, research has suggested that the ratio of extroverts to introverts is 3 to 1. So from an introvert's perspective, it may be just as well that we aren't routinely identified. (Not my point of view, but a possibility. :-)

The research about how the brain works is changing the way we think about lots of things, including introversion and extroversion.

According to temperament research, based on our genetics we're born with a personal "set point" on the continuum between extreme introversion and extreme extroversion. Our set point is the place where we function best.

Philosophers and scientists have speculated about people's tendencies to be inward or outward-focused for many centuries, long before Jung presented his theory and coined the terms "introvert" and "extravert". But now science has documented that introverts and extroverts are a physical reality - it's not just an attitude or a state of mind.

As I've written in previous issues, those introvert/extrovert set points have to do with how our brains and nervous systems work. Introvert bodies are designed to function best with inward focus, extroverts' with the focus outward. Introverts get energized when we're focusing inward on thoughts, ideas, impressions, and drained when there's too much attention outward. For extroverts it's the reverse – they're most comfortable focusing on people and things.

But what's my point? Well…. it's not that easy to spot an introvert. After all, introversion may be a physical trait but the brain and nervous system are invisible. Plus, we're on a continuum – lots of variation possible.

Plus, introverts don't have a choice about focusing on the outer world (behaving like an extrovert) – it comes with being in a body. Plus, if we've got a lot of energy stored up, we may be acting like an extrovert because it feels fine. Plus, we may even be trying to be an extrovert because it's easier to fit in that way.

Plus, human beings are complex, multi-faceted. And it's easy to make wrong assumptions.

But I think my underlying point is that spotting introverts is a good thing. Including spotting ourselves as introverts. A few months ago I attended a gathering where I had many opportunities to talk about my work (coaching introverts). I was struck with how often people asked questions aimed at wondering whether they're an introvert – I wasn't expecting that much uncertainty.

(And it's not uncommon for people to think they're both extroverted and introverted, "depending on the situation". But the research suggests that, just as with being left or right-handed, everyone tends toward one side or the other of the continuum.)

I think spotting introverts is a good thing because our culture is long overdue on tapping into the potential of the gifts introverts have to offer. (Think quieter, slower, more thoughtfulness, for starters.) And spotting introverts is a good thing to do because being an introvert is no small challenge in the 21st century. The more conscious we are of temperament, the better we can work with the challenge. I'm all for making it a hot topic.

End of food for thought – on to a practical idea:

A Practical Idea for Introverts and Extroverts

Talk to someone you haven't before, about whether they're an introvert or an extrovert – find a way to have the conversation.

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