NOT UNTIL MY EARLY 50s did I make a startling discovery: Most of my close friends are introverts. As I brought up the subject with one after another, we spoke in low, confessional voices of feeling numb with fatigue following workdays or social outings we’d otherwise enjoyed, of frequent longings to retreat to a quiet place.
Why was I surprised? Why did it take me decades to figure this out? Because we are introverts, which means we don’t reveal ourselves by working through problems out loud or by talking much about how we think or feel.
Carl Jung, the originator of “psychological typology,” noted that different psychological types perceive the world and make decisions in different ways. Extroverts draw energy from engaging with the outside world and especially from being with other people; introverts need time alone to recharge.
“Extroverts dominate public life,” Jonathan Rauch wrote in a 2003 Atlantic Monthly article. “Look at Bill Clinton. They seem to come fully to life only around other people.” On the other hand, the introvert’s motto is, “I’m okay, you’re okay — in small doses.” His per- sonal recharging formula, Rauch wrote, is “roughly two hours alone for every hour of socializing.”
I identified myself as an introvert when I first read Jung in college, but thought little more about it for years. In my late 30s, that conclusion was reinforced by the “personality type” Myers-Briggs test, which a group of friends and I, living in Europe because of our hus- bands’ jobs, took in the hope of finding careers better suited to juggling with small children and our “trailing spouse” situations.
Thanks in part to the proliferation of such personality tests — Myers-Briggs is taken by about 2.5 million Americans each year and given increasingly by corporations to new job applicants — the terms introvert and extrovert have entered common parlance. Under- standing is another matter.
As Barbara Ehrenreich wrote in a Time magazine column about personality tests, “Their chief function as far as I could tell…was to weed out the introverts. When asked whether you’d rather be the life of the party or curl up with a book, the correct answer is always, ‘Party!’ ”
Then there are the pop psychology “type” tests in women’s magazines and self-help books that include blatantly stupid questions such as the extrovert indicator, “Do you feel annoyed with slow drivers?” — as if no introvert besides me is ever late and/or stuck behind someone lost in D.C. Typically, the book that question comes from — Malcolm Godwin’s “Who Are You? 101 Ways of Seeing Yourself” — paints introverts as “over-critical,” “pessimistic” and “anxious,” and describes them as feeling “unaccepted, unacceptable or simply inferior.”
It’s enough to make an introvert mad.
Jung cautioned that people tend to value their own psychological type the most. Extroverts in particular have trouble acknowledging the opposite tendencies. “You can’t be an introvert,” one of my most extroverted colleagues insists. “You have lots of friends.”
I first got in touch with my inner introvert when we moved to Washington and I began “career counseling,” a sort of moral support for my ever-changing job description, from mental health counselor to journalist to writing teacher, to name a few. At the time, I was trying to help my younger son, Oliver, overcome his learning disabilities. The professionals I met with in both cases kept talking and talking about what it means to be an introvert.
“Look at yourself, working at home, and then think about Oliver in school with people in his face for seven or eight hours a day,” Serena Wieder, the therapist working with my son, said to me. “Once he can organize his own time and activities, Oliver will do fine.”
Slowly, various conundrums of my life became clearer: Why, once I’d begun working at home, I dreaded the thought of returning to eight-hour-plus days surrounded by people. Or why, when friends urged me to share a spur-of-the-moment meal by saying, “You need to eat sometime,” I often longed to tell them, “No, thank you, I need to eat alone.” Any situation that demands a quick reaction is difficult for introverts; we need more time than extroverts do to reflect. So no matter how many times I silently repeat my mantra, “Don’t answer right away,” agreeing to lunch is often easier.
My greatest ongoing challenge as an introvert is arguing with extroverts, notably my older son, a high school debater. When Edmund told me about a last-minute debate trip that would prevent him from coming on our family spring vacation, I was speechless with dis- appointment and thoughts of our nonrefundable plane tickets. Over the next few hours, I pulled together my objections, we negotiated, I gave in on other demands, and Edmund joined the family plan.
Since my introversion epiphany, I’ve learned to sidestep back-to- back social events, because more than one in a row makes them all a wash. Even when begged, I fret less about saying no. And when something truly important, such as a high school graduation, takes over my life for days on end, afterward I spend hours behind a closed door with a thick thriller, guilt-free.
My enormous, extended and extroverted family still poses a challenge, especially on the small island where we converge for a few weeks every summer. My gregarious stepmother invites friends as well as family members to “come chat” on her king-size bed, where she makes everyone feel cozy — including me, though the mere thought of anyone coming to chat on my own private retreat makes me shudder.
But the family is making strides in recognizing its introverted minority.
Recently at the formal dining table in my parents’ house, my 4- year-old nephew sat eating cantaloupe pieces cut into sizes awkward for his small spoon. He stared up at his mother, my stepsister, who asked, “You want to go eat that by yourself, sweetie?” With a silent nod, holding the bowl in two plump hands, Gates wriggled down from the large chair and trundled out of the dining room. Such a thing would never have been allowed or even imagined in all my years at that table.
“Sometimes,” his mother said, in response to my glance, “he prefers to be alone.”
Special to The Washington Post
This appeared in The Washington Post, February 19, 2007.