When people ask what I do and I reply that I work with introverts I am surprised how often I hear back the comment, “I used to be an introvert, but…,” and the person then proceeds to explain how they managed to transform themselves. As I listen to them speak, I invariably get the sense that they feel as though they have overcome an impediment that was holding them back.
I believe that the statement and assumptions that underlie it arise out of a misunderstanding of what introversion is. I don’t doubt that the person who I have spoken to has overcome something that was holding them back, but I’m sure that what they have overcome is not introversion.
For me two assumptions are present in this statement. One, that introversion can be fixed, and two, that if you do fix it, i.e. are no longer an introvert, life will be better. Let’s examine these two assumptions.
First, introversion is not something that you grow out of. You either are an introvert or you are not. What you might be is shy, a social anxiety. This might overlap with your introversion, but it is not the same. Extroverts can be shy. Shyness is something that you can work on and with time overcome. Introverts have no problem meeting new people. They can show up for parties, even if their tendency is for more intimate gatherings. After a lot of socializing introverts find a need to retreat and recharge in their own company. Introverts who find social events draining can increase their capacity for social mingling. I’ve offered a couple of solutions in this article, however that does not take away who they are and their preference for quieter gatherings and time to refresh themselves.
This need for alone time is sometimes misunderstood as the person lacking confidence, being shy or a loner, i.e. something that is wrong with the introvert. Or, with the introvert moving away from the group, the group members can find themselves thinking that the introvert perceives that something is wrong with them. However this is not about anybody doing or thinking anything wrong, it is about the introvert doing what they need to do - take some alone time, some quiet time, to recharge, think, process. An introverts’ mind is wired to need that solitary time. To take a more prosaic example, no one thinks twice if someone excuses themselves to go to the toilet. There is a need and someone is taking action to fulfill that need.
One could also look at the issue of overload. We all hit times when we just need downtime. Life - demands, noise, what we can deal with - just get too much and we just need to take a time out. For an introvert who spends a lot of time in their head, that threshold is lower than for extroverts. With a lot going on, perhaps at a party, the need to take some time away, leave early can cut in before others. As an introvert, though, I have been the last to leave a gathering on more than one occasion. The trick? Usually I have got into a conversation with one or two people - the party has just turned into a small gathering, much more manageable!
Moving onto the second issue, implicit in that assumption is that introversion is something that one would want to get over. That those who are introverts are in some way lacking; not bad people, but that their situation in some way puts them at a disadvantage - so look for ways to move on if you can. In listening to the person who asked me the question, I am always left with the feeling that the person feels as though their life has moved on to something better now that they are ‘no longer’ an introvert. From my side I am left with the unspoken question, “Why would anyone want to get over introversion anyway?” I believe that this simply comes down to misunderstandings, fed by cultural conditioning, of what works in the world today and the introverts place, or lack of in that world. To be born into a culture where the extroverted nature is dominant the message that one hears from a young age is that if you want to get ahead, you are better off being one way rather than another. However, with a third to fifty percent of the population being introverts, that is a lot of people to look down on, and probably includes family members, friends and work colleagues (you might be surprised to find out who the introverts are in your life). We both, extroverts and introverts, have skills, qualities and strengths that can benefit each other and the world in which we live in. Reaching out and exploring and learning about those strengths is a stronger and more beneficial place to come from.
So if you find yourself saying, “I used to be an introvert, but…,” catch yourself and ask yourself what it is that you feel you have overcome. You probably have grown in who you are as a person, but no longer being an introvert is not what has changed. You are either are an introvert and still are, albeit with different social skills, or never were in the first place.