Personality, a person as an embodiment of a collection of qualities, the visible aspect of one’s character as it impresses others
That’s the definition as per the Merriam-Webster dictionary, sounds simple, right? When defined so neatly into a couple of sentences it’s easy to forget how complex the issue of one’s personality really is, and the impact it can have on one’s own life. Your personality is more than what defines you as a ‘happy’ person, a ‘sad’ person, or an ‘emotional’ person. It’s more complex than simply our personal preferences neatly categorised into ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes’. Personality is what makes you, well, you. It can profoundly affect the course of your life, the decisions in front of you, the choices you make, even the outcome of that life. In fact, it’s such a complex topic that in this blog post I will focus solely on the two quintessential personality types that I feel are not only the best to categorize us if that’s what must happen, but also steer us in our life’s course. So, are you an introvert or an extrovert?
When I was a teenager I knew I was different, but it wasn’t until a guidance counsellor at school gave us a personality test that I first heard the word ‘introvert’. I was what you might call a bookworm, but it wasn’t exactly my love of books that made me different, it was my innate ability to lose myself in the words and become completely oblivious to the world around me that set me apart from my friends. I’ll give you an example, once, when I was fourteen, two older girls came to my classroom, angry, volatile and looking for someone to take it out on, their teenage problem was of course boy related and the whole scene ended with one girl throwing another against a wall. I sat not five feet away engrossed in Wuthering Heights and missed the entire show, though I was told it was good. At the time, I honestly thought I was a little bit weird, but your teenage years are the perfect time for that. Who wants to be like everyone else when they’re fifteen? Appearing quiet, sullen, and stand-offish when you’re a teenager doesn’t garner you any strange looks; if you disappear into your room for two days, who’s going to notice? The college years, however, are an entirely different story.
College is the land of parties and all-nighters where if you are a ‘social butterfly’ the opportunities to soar are endless, but if you are a little on the ‘quiet’ or ‘shy’ side you may just be a little too much work for some people. After all, college is only four years.
This is where my problem lies, the many misconceptions that shadow the ‘introverts’ in society. Over the years, I have been labelled as ‘shy’ ‘quiet’ and ‘unsociable’, none of which reflect my personality. I just simply can’t do ‘small-talk’, like a lot of introverts, I find it cumbersome. It’s far more likely when I join a conversation that I will hang back and listen until I feel I have something worthwhile to contribute. Introverts are often mislabelled as ‘boring’ but the exact opposite is true. Introverts are observant, reflective, and engaging, and they prefer deep discussions as opposed to talking about trivial matters. If you want to know how interesting an introvert can be, just ask them an intelligent question about a topic they feel passionate about.
All of these misconceptions operate under the assumption that ‘introversion’ is synonymous with being quiet while ‘extroversion’ is synonymous with being social and popular. However, neither of those definitions ring true and both personality types are grossly misunderstood negatively affecting everyone involved. An introvert cannot be classified by how ‘shy’ and ‘quiet’ they are any more than an extrovert can be defined by how ‘social’ they are. So if that’s true, and they definitely do differ, what is it that differentiates the two personality types? In the end, it all comes down to ‘energy’. Ok, so let’s talk science for a minute. The word of the day here is ‘dopamine’. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control your brain's pleasure and reward centres. Both introverts and extroverts have dopamine in their brains, but they each respond differently to it. An extrovert has a low sensitivity to dopamine, therefore, they require a lot of it in order to feel stimulated, whereas an introvert is highly sensitive to dopamine and it takes very little for them to feel stimulated. It’s the anticipation of doing something fun and exciting that triggers the dopamine ‘good feeling’ in your brain. In other words, anticipating a night out with friends, or a shopping spree is enough to release a hit of dopamine in your brain which in turn gives you the motivation to see the event through. What’s important is how both personality types go on to ‘recharge’, that is what ultimately sets them apart.
Let’s put it into context, everything is easier to understand when it has context. Imagine two friends, one ‘introvert’, and the other ‘extrovert; they enter a party and in each of their hands is a glass half filled with water, in this analogy the water represents their energy level which at the start of the party is the same. This is important because for introverts and extroverts the act of being social affects them differently. As the night continues and both friends have a good time, the ‘water’ or ‘energy’ in the extrovert’s glass will begin to rise as they experience their ‘hits of happiness’. The reason is that being social is how an extrovert ‘recharges’ their brain after a long day at work, or after focusing particularly hard on a project. Socialising affects their energy levels in a positive way. The introvert, however, experiences something different. Though they are having a great time and enjoying the party just as much as their extrovert friend, their ‘hits of happiness’ result in the ‘water’ in their glass decreasing as their energy levels begin to go down. It doesn’t mean they aren’t having a good time, that they are enjoying the party less than everyone else, or that they love their friends less. The act of being social simply affects them differently. For an introvert, too much of a good thing really is too much and often results in the need for some ‘down time’ in order to ‘recharge’. So with a sign on their life that reads ‘Do Not Disturb,’ they retreat inside where they can use silence and solitude to recharge their energy for the next party. When you have an introverted personality, spending time alone after a night out or day of socialising feels right for your dopamine-sensitive system.
Do you have a friend or partner that is famous for their ability to sit in a room full of people and ‘not listen’? Everything an introvert does in the outside world expends energy, and in the absence of a quiet place to go to replenish one’s energy, simply ‘zoning out’ will do. I’ve often been in the car with Chris who loves to talk while he drives, and if it’s been a ‘long’ day for me, I simply stop listening to him. He gets annoyed sometimes and I have to explain that it’s not that I’m uninterested in what he’s saying, it’s just that I need to be quiet for a little while. It’s one of the reasons I love social media, it allows me to socialise without actually having to talk to anybody.
My introverted personality is one of the reasons I turned to writing. When people ask me what I do, I answer “I’m a writer”. Other than my blog, and a book I’ve been working on for over a year, I’ve never been published. Yet, I’m still a ‘writer’ because for me writing is prescriptive, it’s how I process all of the thoughts in my head. I may not always be the most verbal person, and at times people think I’m quiet, even rude, but it’s just a case where there comes a point in the day when I’ve simply run out of words.
By the way, a professional in the field would tell you that it’s very rare for someone to fit perfectly into either category. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle as ‘ambivert’ the thing that differentiates us being whether we lean more towards introversion or extroversion. I’m by no means a professional, but that sounds about right to me. The characteristics of both personality types are also interchangeable. I may be an introvert, but I’m also a strong, confident, and career driven woman. Chris who identifies more as the extrovert in the relationship would be the first to admit that he hates public speaking as it makes him anxious. I, however, would have no problem giving a presentation in front of five hundred people, I just probably wouldn’t go drinking with them afterwards.
My personality is something I struggled with while living in Ireland. I was convinced that in order to get ahead in life, personally and professionally, I had to become more extroverted, and in the absence of any genuine feelings, I opted to ‘fake it’. It’s not a healthy way to live. You should never try to be anyone other than who you are, and never allow anyone to make you feel like you don’t deserve what you want. The misconception that I was guilty of believing was that an introvert can’t be popular. And everyone wants to be liked, at least on some level. I am a straight talker and I believe that everyone should have some principles, and have the courage of their convictions. If I feel strongly about something, then I will voice my opinion, even if it’s not going to make me very popular. I thought I was doomed to live the life of a ‘secondary’ friend, popularity reserved for those who were more ‘fun’ and ‘social’. But that opinion changed after moving to Korea. For one, Asians prefer people who are quiet and reflective. And two, I met someone who brings introversion to a whole new level. Until that point, I thought I was the most introvert person I had ever met. A six foot tall giant master of swords, he was known for locking himself away for days at a time reading history books cover to cover until the hunger pangs would get too much, then he’d finally send out a group message, “Meat, anyone?” The answer was, everyone! I’ve never known anyone so popular who works so hard to alienate people, and try as he might he cannot escape his friends, probably because he is one of the coolest, most genuine, and inarguably interesting people I have ever met! A self-confessed introvert, instead of struggling to change the parts of himself that other people don’t like, he chooses to embrace his personality type, and instead, he has learned how to quickly identify the people who are not good for him to be around, and then does his best to avoid them. Happy and in love, he now lives with his girlfriend in China. I asked him recently how he finds having someone in ‘his space’ all the time after having lived alone for so long. The answer is he loves it. The reasons are one, he loves his girlfriend, and two, he spent a large amount of his twenty-seven years learning how to not only be comfortable, but also how to enjoy his own company first. What effect did he have on my life? He altered the way I view not only other introverts, but how I view myself. I am far more forgiving and accepting of the parts of my personality I once considered to be flawed. We are two people that can openly admit to enjoying each other’s friendship, the basis of which is hour long conversations about work, life, and all of the above; the best thing about it being that we are separated by at least two continents. There is no pressure, and we’ll be friends for life.