Why Declaring ‘I’m an Introvert!’ Limits Your Life

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As happens with many people, my life changed while I was at the DMV. The Brooklyn branch had interminable lines, but luckily, I had a copy of Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, in my bag, so in the hours I spent there, I was able to tear into introversion, and out of the extrovert ideal that had filtered my view of myself. Yes, it’s okay to want to stay in; yes, it’s important to regulate the amount of stimulation, social and otherwise, that comes into your life; no, making sure everybody at the party ends up liking you isn’t the biggest priority.

For me, and the two million other people that have read Quiet, the book was a revelation: not only a well-argued critique of the way American society prizes extroversion, but giant granting of permission to, as an earlier essay put it, take care of my introvert. Since the book came out, four years ago, introversion has had a “moment,” with a whole social movement burbling up around it: I Am Introvert, Hear Me Roar (Softly). But here’s the thing: while recognizing the many awesome aspects of introversion is indeed awesome, making “I’m an introvert!” the mantra by which you live your life can narrow the way you see and understand yourself.

This came up in The Psychology Podcast, a good listen hosted by University of Pennsylvania cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman. In the latest episode, he interviewed Cambridge University personality psychologist Brian Little, author of the fantastic Me, Myself, and Us: The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being.

“Some introverts are seeing themselves as nothing but introverts,” Little said, and doing so is to ignore the other four dimensions of the Big 5 personality schema. As a refresher, they are:

• Agreeableness, which speaks to your orientation to relationships. Agreeable people are described as warm, kind, and accommodating. They’re more likely to help strangers and avoid uncomfortable situations.

• Conscientiousness, which is about how you regard responsibility. Conscientious people live to dot every i and cross every t. They’re great with setting and attaining goals and keeping their lives organized, but with all that duty, the super conscientious aren’t necessarily the most innovative people you’re going to meet.

• Neuroticism is in need of a rebranding. It should be called emotional stability, since it’s a measure of how much stimuli overwhelms you (or not). It’s related to anxiety and worrying, and evolutionary psychologists will tell you that it’s really just being more sensitive to threats in your environment.

• Openness to experience speaks to how much you need to experience new things. These explorers are delighted at the finding of new information, whether that’s learning new things from reading literary-historical-philosophical-memoric essays, romping around remote vistas, or eating ridiculously delicious food.

Each of these qualities is a spectrum unto itself. Just as there are introverts and extroverts, there are agreeable and disagreeable, stable and unstable, conscious and unconscientious people. Nobody is just one of these qualities; all five of the Big 5 are present in everybody. So, Little says, glomming onto an identity arranged around one pole of the Big 5 is “dangerous,” since it “decreases our degrees of freedom to enact our lives and craft our lives in a way that will go down to our values, to the things that really matter to us.”

This rang in my ear, as when I spoke with Little for a story on personality testing two years ago, he said much of the same thing. “If you only see yourself as an extrovert or as one of those four-letter codes on the Myers-Briggs [personality test],” Little said, “you will have foreclosed on paths that might open to you if didn’t think in terms of types of people.” To identify as “introvert” is overly reductive, since there’s also all those rich gradients that further help articulate the many qualities of being a human being. To be an introvert with a lot of openness to experience is very different than one with low: The former will demand lots of time wandering around and reading lots and consuming lots of culture; the latter will love the familiar, the intimate, the patinaed.

It’s tremendously unfortunate and fatalist to think that your personality type provides an exhaustive script for your life. Indeed, other research indicates that if you ask introverts if they want to go to a party, they’ll say they’re not into it, but once they get there, they have a good time. On the podcast and in his book, Little talks about the importance of having big projects in your life, as they allow you to act away from your dispositions. The gregarious party animal, come finals time, performs the introvert and locks herself in the library to ace her tests; the people-pleasing, approval-seeking, highly agreeable employee learns to draw boundaries and act “disagreeable,” allowing him stand-up to his shit-talking, contemptuous colleague. And it’s huge part of Little’s professional calling: While he identifies as an introvert, he has a personal project in the form of fanning the flames of curiosity within his students, so he acts the extrovert in the classroom, since a circumspect, soft-spoken lecture at 8 a.m. isn’t going to serve him or his students. The point I take from it: To learn that being introverted is a good thing is liberating. And it’s even more liberating to know that you can act the extrovert, too.