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No, Being an Introvert is Not Like Having a Disorder - But it Can be Truly a Pain in The Ass

By Renee Lonner

We live in an overly extroverted culture and introverts need to know a couple of things while navigating it: First, you do not have a disease, you have an introverted temperament that you were born with. It’s neurological, biological, you can’t change it – nor should you want to. There are awesome benefits to being an introvert. That’s the good news. Second, you live in a wildly extroverted culture that spotlights, and values highly, traits you do not have and will never have, like impulsiveness, talking without thinking (same thing), disinhibition, self-centeredness, attention-seeking behavior, need I go on. That’s the bad news. The rest of this essay will focus on the bad news because it presents the learning opportunity here.

As a “seasoned” (seriously, that’s what they call it. Like we’re a roast ready to be put in the oven) therapist, I have spent many, many hours educating people about this temperament-based binary fact. With rare exceptions, you are either an introvert or an extrovert. If you are lucky, you are not at the end of the introversion scale and you like being with other people a lot – just not in large groups, not in stranger groups, not too often and never spontaneously. Show me the person who quickly says “yes” to an invite to a large party and I’ll show you an extrovert. This piece is not for you, you do just fine and I hate you. You can stop reading now.

As I say, I’ve provided lots of education to folks like me over the years. I even occasionally provide it to myself, and we shrinks call that “self-talk.” Such was going on in my head last weekend as I drove to my first literary conference as a book author, with my first independently published book in hand. The stakes could not have been lower (I had to breathe, walk and talk), but it made no difference. I was entering an unknown situation by myself and if I were to get any value out of the afternoon, I had to “self-promote.” The very concept makes me gag. When my stomach started talking to me on the Hollywood freeway, my first thought was: “Yay, great, I’m getting sick and I can go home! Hallelujah! I see the next freeway exit coming up in a half-mile!” Then came the other thoughts in rapid succession: “No, wussy, you’re not sick, you’re anxious. This is how you get in new situations. Deep breath, it’s an hour or two to behave like a normal human, it won’t kill you. These are writers and book people, do you think all of them are extroverts?” Deep breath, stomach much better. Turn off the GPS lady barking at me and turn on music, aah, I might live through this.

As a therapist, I educate my clients who see these responses in social situations as a disorder. It’s a disorder like your hair being straight or curly is a disorder. Few clients come in only for this issue, but it comes up often as introverts talk about their lives and their social functioning - particularly if their partner is an extrovert and he/she teases them about it. Such teasing often sounds something like this: “Sweetie, I don’t understand why you didn’t want to go to that party/dinner/event and then after we’re there an hour, you’re talking up a storm with, of all people, my boss! You make no sense!” 

You see, the odd fact about introverts is that once they feel comfortable and connected with one person in the room, they are fine. They can be open, talkative, and even funny. Until a stranger walks up to them and then all bets are off. Connecting with one person in the room did not suddenly make them gregarious.  Introverts feel depleted after they engage in large social settings and extroverts feel energized by the same event. So after intensely extroverted activity, an introvert feels the need to refuel and wants some “alone time.” An extrovert is planning their next party. 

These principles were clearly illustrated to me many years ago when I had the opportunity to interview the creator of the popular, 34-year-running, comic strip “Cathy,” Cathy Guisewite, for a writing project. As she was setting the meeting for several weeks hence, she said dryly that this is her common practice so she can pretend that the event will not occur. When I arrived at her office, she greeted me (a complete and total stranger) warmly and we talked for well over an hour. I understood both the scheduling far in advance and the long meeting – takes one to know one!

When we are children, behaviors related to introversion are often addressed by our parents. All children – make that, all humans – have issues they need to work on (throughout life, I might add) and parents usually identify the “shy” child early. My mother nearly paid me to make phone calls to initiate play dates, but I cooperated before we negotiated the payout amount. Introverts usually have a small group of close friends – and the quality of those friendships is often excellent. They do not want hordes of friends. Hordes of friends invite you to hordes of things, see the problem? A few close friends are just right. An example where the difference is more nuanced is the fact that most children are anxious before they make a presentation in front of the class – introverted children are just much more so.

The issues become more complex when one arrives at adulthood. Sometimes a career choice forces the introvert to develop an “extroverted persona,” which is quite a skill set. It’s a little like acting, a little like a role. This intersection of the introverted self and job/career expectations is often the place where people will seek out either a therapist or a coach. I have referred many clients for coaching when they hit this stumbling block and have referred them to books such as a classic on the subject, “Overcoming Stage Fright in Everyday Life” written by, of all things, a psychoanalyst. A Jungian psychoanalyst. Those Jungians understood temperament long before the rest of the professional world. Even the title is therapeutic as it sets the proper frame. 

On my one bout of working in corporate America – a bout that lasted 18 years – my boss and the owner of the company warmly and empathically challenged me to address my stage fright. After I told him that I loved all the other aspects of my new job but could not do the “speaking in public” part, he said “therapist, heal thyself,” laughed at his joke, and then sent me for coaching. To say I did not want to go is putting it mildly. It was transformative in terms of my being able to meet - and love – the challenges of my new job. And no, that training did not extend to my wanting to go to a party where I knew very few people. As I said earlier, think hair or eye color – being an introvert is hardwired.

Not everyone has a boss, friend or spouse who is so positively invested in their gaining tools to deal with introversion as it comes up in the workplace and in one’s career. Decades ago, my father (whose genetics are clearly at fault here!) found his introversion a pain in the ass at work and joined Toastmasters. He rehearsed speeches frequently in front of my mother and me and became president of that organization. For eons people have found ways to develop that persona so needed to live in the real world; however, the pejorative sound of “she’s an introvert” remains.

So I am here to tell you that introversion simply makes a different sound than the one that our too-loud and in-your-face culture makes. It is a different, more finely tuned, instrument in the orchestra. Be proud if you are in this group – you have internal resources to beat the band and are often superior at problem-solving and articulating those solutions. You probably will never run for public office, but you can write clever and snarky editorials about those who do.

— Renee Burns Lonner

Renee Burns Lonner is a consultant for television newsrooms and a licensed therapist based in Los Angeles. Prior to the pandemic, her published work was serious; the pandemic created the need for comic relief and last fall she published her first humor book, If You Give A Man a Tesla: A Parody

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