Introverts have gotten a bad rap over the years. Considering they make up one third to one half of the population, including many of our most gifted minds, this is as unfortunate as it is baffling.
Those on the more extroverted side are energized by social stimulation, with little need for down time. They value the outer world and social approval, and are more apt to conform with society.
Those closer to the introverted side, on the other hand, are drained by too much social stimulation which is why they require a certain amount of alone time in order to re-energize, or recharge their battery, so to speak.
This is not to be confused with being loners or anti-social, as most introverts certainly are not. They are simply more focused on the inner world of ideas and concepts, evidenced by brilliant minds like Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein.
So why all the flak? Psychologists and personality theorists have historically pathologized introversion, linking it with attributes on the most extreme, negative end of the spectrum.
Extroversion, however, is usually associated with its most positive attributes such as sociability or chattiness, qualities highly esteemed in American society. But this "bigger is better" mentality when it comes to personality, wasn't always the case in our culture.
In fact, there was a time when the reserved and humble were revered, and to "speak softly and carry a big stick", as Teddy Roosevelt famously said, was a key to success.
The ‘stick’ in the case of introverts, would be their quiet powers of observation, innovative ideas and a multitude of other gifts they offer modern day society. Gifts that they rarely get credited for. One of the greatest frustrations introverts experience is squelching these gifts.
The following describes a typical introvert experience:
You’re sitting in a meeting or large group when you are suddenly hit with a great idea (as introverts often are). While you’re working up the nerve to voice that idea out loud, the extrovert next to you blurts it out first. They of course end up getting the credit and you end up kicking yourself for not speaking up, once again.
Although most don't mind giving away the spotlight and being the silent observer of the group, that doesn't mean they don't want to be recognized or acknowledged. Such is the life of an introvert.
Marti Olsen Laney, Psy.D., in her book, The Introvert Advantage, eloquently speaks of her own painful experience growing up as an introvert, or "innie" as she refers to them.
She describes feeling like an "odd duck" in a world she felt she didn’t belong, a phenomenon familiar to most innies and a reason many grapple with feelings of guilt and shame. Apparently nobody told them how awesome introverts really are.
Thankfully this is beginning to change as more and more is being written about introversion, demystifying the long misunderstood group of people.
In her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, author Susan Cain aims to change the way introverts are seen by others and more importantly, how they see themselves.
She attempts to debunk some common myths such as that all introverts are shy or that they don’t like people, or don't have good ideas. Although some — not all — may be shy, most simply have a lower threshold for small talk and bullsh*t.
They prefer to conserve their energy for meaningful interactions that stimulate them, rather than shallow ones that drain them.
As far as not liking people, there could be nothing further from the truth, at least among the innies I know, including myself. In fact we thrive from deep meaningful conversations, preferably those that are one-on-one.
As for not having ideas? By their very definition, introverts live in a world of ideas. As Cain says, "There’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas."
Despite what popular opinion may have us believe, there are just as many benefits to being introverted as there are to being extroverted, each with the ability to thrive in their respective optimal environments.
According to Jung, "introverts ... have more ways of protecting themselves and live longer. They appreciate a simpler life, plan and reflect on new ways of doing things and encourage others to develop self reflection and think before acting."
Below are just a handful of the gifts that innies offer the world today:
1. They have creative minds.
As Albert Einstein said, "The monotony and solitude of a quiet life stimulates the creative mind."
While extroverts rely on stimulation from the outside, introverts prefer the inner world of fantasy and imagination.
With imagination being the birthplace of all great works of art, it stands to reason that many of our most gifted writers, performers, athletes and artists tend toward the introverted end of the spectrum.
Steve Martin, Meryl Streep, Shonda Rhimes, J.K. Rowling, and Steven Spielberg are only a small sample of famous introverts that have made the world a more colorful place through their artistic gifts and talents.
2. They have an ability to focus and think outside the box.
According to Olsen-Laney, introverts are geared toward intense study and expertise because the dominant brain pathways they use allow them to focus and think critically about things for a while.
For Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Michael Jordan, and Diane Sawyer to have accomplished what they have in each of their fields, it would require the laser sharp focus that only an introvert could muster. Whether on a basketball court or a supreme court, when introverts decide to 'go for it', they go all the way.
3. They think outside the box.
Different from many outwardly focused extroverts, innies usually don't care to conform with society’s rules, preferring to make their own. The mind of an introvert is fertile ground for the development of innovative ideas.
4. They are highly attuned to others’ feelings.
Not surprisingly, many introverts make fantastic therapists. Their attunement to the feelings of others, and attention to the inner workings of the mind make them highly empathic and compassionate individuals.
This heightened sensitivity to feelings is one of the reasons introverts do better with one-on-one interactions. Since too much stimulation can become overwhelming, they don’t often do well in groups. This may make them appear to be disinterested or bored, but don’t let their quiet demeanor fool you.
5. They have the power of observation.
While they may be the quiets one in the group, one of the greatest strengths introverts possess is their keen power of observation. The best leaders are the best communicators, and the best communicators are those that know how to listen.
Whether in business or relationships, the ability to pick up on the feelings of others by reading between the lines and interpreting what is not spoken, introverts know, will get you further than bulldozing your audience.
They also know that "knowledge is not gained by flapping your lips, but by removing your ear wax", says Mike Myatt of Forbes.
6. They have an ability to form deep intimate connections.
Most introverts have been through sh*t, especially during childhood, when being 'the quiet one' wasn't exactly looked upon kindly.
Whether being the left out kid in the class, the last to be chosen for the soccer team or the employee passed over for that well-deserved promotion, many introverts have had to develop their own coping strategies for living as a square peg in a round hole.
As with others who haven’t had it easy, they are able to empathize and connect with people on a deeper level. These genuine and meaningful relationships adequately satisfy their limited need for social stimulation.
To an introvert, alone is not a scary word. It is where they can let down their guard. It's where they thrive. For the introvert, their solitude is their sanctuary.
"Alone had always felt like an actual place to me, as if it weren’t a state of being, but rather a room where I could retreat to be who I really was," says writer Cheryl Strayed.
7. They quietly change the world.
Because many introverts tend to be on the more reserved side, they sometimes get mistaken for wallflowers or shrinking violets.
Rosa Parks was a quiet demure woman who, if you know anything about U.S. history, you know was anything but a shrinking violet. The same goes for Eleanor Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, and countless others who have transformed society.
Perhaps contending with their own struggles fueled their dogged efforts to challenge and ultimately change the injustices around them. They are proof that the quiet nature of the introvert is not to be underestimated and that, as introvert Mahatma Gandhi said, "In a gentle way, you can shake the world."
If you’ve been embraced by an introvert, feel honored. They don’t let just anyone in. But when they do, their fierce loyalty, empathy and attunement to the feelings of those around them, make introverts some of the best friends and partners, and world shakers, anyone can ask for.
Wear your introversion proudly!
Allison Abrams is a licensed psychotherapist in private practice in NYC, and a mindfulness specialist with the NY division of Leading Minds Executive Coaching, an organization that provides a combination of executive coaching and mindfulness skills to organizations across business sectors.