Over the last few years, we've heard a lot about the critical differences between introverts and extroverts. We all heaved a collective sigh as we read personality descriptions, thinking, "that's me!" But like many personality stereotypes, these aren't very useful for understanding ourselves.
Illustration: Jim Cooke
The idea of introversion and extroversion has been a hot topic for years now. The way most media frame it, you'd think there's an ongoing war going on between the two groups. You'll find countless essays about how introverts can be leaders, speakers and more despite a world that's working against them. The same goes for extroverts. Yet, all this self-identification doesn't get us anywhere. It traps us in stereotypes and makes us feel like we need to behave in a certain way, when in fact few of us fall into the extreme binary of introversion and extroversion. When you self-identify with one personality type, you're at risk of ignoring your body and brain's actual needs, and that's not useful for anyone.
The Real Difference Between Introverts and Extroverts
There are a lot of misunderstandings about what introversion and extroversion actually mean. To many people, being an extrovert means you're outgoing, and being an introvert means you're shy. Or maybe you see introverts as homebodies while extroverts are out chatting it up with strangers on the street. Maybe you think introverts are sensitive while extroverts have a thick skin. None of those stereotypes are correct, so let's set the record straight before we get further into the weeds.
Introversion and extroversion are aspects of personality coined by Carl Jung in the early 20th century. Since then, they're often included as parts of personality scales like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Shyness and being outgoing don't have anything to do with it; it's more about where we get our energy from. In fact, the differences are pretty simple:
- Introverts get exhausted by social interaction and need solitude to recharge.
- Extroverts get anxious when left alone and get energy from social interaction.
That's it. There's nothing about shyness, being a homebody or how adventurous you are. Both types can be social, both can creative, both can be leaders and so on.
Countless studies show differences between extroverts and introverts relating to clothing choice, sexual behaviour and more. The problem is these studies show a correlation between brain differences with introversion and extroversion, but don't show that the brain differences cause introversion or extroversion. We still don't know exactly how that works. For now, our friends over at io9 have a great breakdown of many of these studies if you're interested.
People Don't Usually Fit Into an Introvert/Extrovert Binary
We love putting ourselves into categories. If we can be identified with a label, we can rally behind that label. As a result, countless listicles and personality quizzes exist to peg us introverts or extroverts. The problem is, most of us fall somewhere in the middle, displaying behaviours of both. Jung calls people who don't fit into either extreme ambiverts.
It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that a binary scale of human behaviour isn't completely accurate. This isn't a video game, where we clearly fall into the category of "good character" or "evil character". Introversion and extroversion are part of a scale. Just like political affiliations, most of us don't fancy ourselves one extreme or the other.
As you can likely guess from the name, ambiverts tend to drift between introversion and extroversion depending on context. For example, you might feel like you draw energy from time spent with one specific group of friends, while another drains you. These days, despite what listicles would have you believe, psychologists view introversion and extroversion as a spectrum where we all tend to amble between the two extremes.
That isn't to say people don't lean more toward introversion or extroversion, of course. We do. But personality science isn't exact. There are a number of different factors that inform our personalities. From brain structure to personal history, we need a myriad of spectrums to understand a person as a whole. Knowing which introvert or extrovert traits you have is part of a much larger puzzle, and it doesn't help you predict your behaviour without the rest of those pieces.
Personality Type Isn't a Disorder or an Excuse
You don't "fix" introversion or extroversion. A personality type is not a condition or a disorder for you to remedy. Introversion is often equated with negatives like shyness, anxiety or narcissism. Extroverts are often called shallow, bad listeners and overly energetic. For the most part, none of these traits have anything to do with introversion and extroversion.
For example, it's a common assumption that introverts hate people and that makes it OK. That isn't introversion, it's just being an arsehole. Extroverts can hate people too. Introverts can also enjoy talking to people and can have great social skills, just as extroverts are capable of enjoying a beer by themselves at a bar.
Furthermore, when you self-identify with an extreme binary, you tend to use that personality type as an excuse, or even to ignore your own needs. For example, everyone needs time alone, but if you self-identify as an extrovert, you might feel guilty about using that excuse to stay home Saturday night. Conversely, if you self-identify as an introvert, you might pass on social outings because you think you need that alone time, when in fact some time out with friends would do you good. I'm just as guilty of this as anyone else.
Introversion and extroversion aren't disorders that need fixing, but they're also not crutches to lean on. If you fancy yourself one way or another, make sure you gain some useful insight from that and use it moving forward. You don't have to change your behaviour, but when you understand your actual needs in that moment, you're better off.
It's Not "Better" to Be Introverted or Extroverted
We all want to be a part of the winning group, and depending on which way you think you lean, you're going to think that's you. There's a lot of back-patting on the internet that claims that both introverts and extroverts (and heck, even ambiverts) are the best at everything. These are great for Facebook where you can triumphantly say that you are the best and everyone else is the worst, but it's not useful in any other way.
Introverts are not better than extroverts or vice versa. For example, there's an ongoing stereotype that introverts are more level-headed, creative, intelligent and refined. If you fancy yourself more extroverted, you're probably pretty annoyed with these types of claims. Don't worry: there's no real evidence any are true or that they're caused by your personality type.
That said, there are communication struggles between people who lean more toward introversion or extroversion, but neither is better or worse than the other. We all differ from each other in countless ways and it doesn't just come down to an extroversion-introversion spectrum. Dealing with people is tough sometimes, so we put labels on each other to make it seem a little easier.
You can be an extrovert who likes to daydream and reflect deeply on idea. You can be an introvert who loves talking to people. You can be an assertive, loud-talking introvert. You can be a sensitive, socially awkward extrovert. We need to shed the outdated and self-diagnosed notions of binary personality because it's not useful for understanding who we really are.