What’s an Introvert, Really?

reader_web_2Woah guys, woah. I just had a major Aha.

I’ve just learned what an introvert really is – I thought I knew! But I didn’t. I always thought is was about how you feel energized, whether it’s with people or through solitude. Sort of, but not exactly.

I am viscerally excited by this new information, which as I will explain, is related to the fact that I am somewhat of an introvert. And it’s not just because it’s about introverts. It’s the information itself, giving me a nice little dopamine high. Aw yeah…

I know, I’m getting ahead of myself. Quick backtrack. So, I’m one of these people who needs (NEEDS!) her alone time. I’ve always been this way, but having kids has made things real real, simply because I am so rarely truly alone. Like Kristen and Toni and Kirsten and all my search result: “introverted mother” sisters, I admit, I pray, pray for minutes, seconds more naptime reprieve. If Joni oversleeps, it is with great, feet-dragging pain that I wake him. And I love my kids! They’re almost like a drug to me I’m so crazy about them. But when my sister was full-time parenting on mat leave and told me about arguing with her husband over time with the baby when he got home, I was like, really? I cannot relate to that. When Achim gets home I’m plopping both kids on him, like, here sweetie, enjoy. Door closed behind me. Ahh.

And when I get that, say, three hour chunk of time totally and completely to myself, it’s like magic. I’m consistently amazed by how much more attentive, happier and energetic I am afterwards. I’m such a goldfish. Hey, wow! That really worked. Again. (By the way, I just legit googled “most forgetful animal” because I forgot. Lol.)

So that was the impetus for this post. Strategies for introverts. Especially moms. But I realised quickly, oh, that’s been written 800+ times (see KristenToniKirsten or just search it). Lot’s of good stuff out there. Great ideas. Somehow though, I still didn’t emerge with a clear picture of what an introvert is, really. What I read differed a lot, or just wasn’t consistent with, well, me. For example, lots of people talk about introverts as being quiet people. Or shy people. People that are hard to get to know, don’t offer information readily. Well, I’m not quiet, and I’m not very shy. I’m definitely not hard to get to know! Heart on my damn sleeve, whether I like it or not. Ha.

While I can come off as gregarious, even, I do find social stuff draining. At parties I’m just itching to corner someone for good meaty talk in the nice quiet kitchen (run extroverts, run!). So what I really wanted to know is why? Why could my sister happily spend a year surfing the couches of strangers across Europe, a true nightmare for me?

Turns out I’m not pathetic, just more evolved. Jokes on you, cool big sister! Ok, that’s not exactly true. But kind of.

Some clarity came from this guy – Scott Barry Kaufman. He’s a popular science writer, positive psychology researcher, and instructor at University of Pennsylvania. Plus he runs The Imagination Institute, a non-profit dedicated to advancing the science of imagination. Imagine – a place especially for thinking (imagining?) about imagining. Doesn’t that give you goosebumps? Do you think the ceilings are made of clouds? I hope so. Sigh. Some people do awesome stuff.

Anyway, he also does a pretty good job of explaining extraversion/introversion. This Scientific American article is so interesting, and this video lecture is great too. Allow me to synthesise.

So What’s an Introvert, Really?

Introversion describes people that score low in Extraversion, one of five major, empirically validated traits, referred to in modern psychology as the “Big Five” dimensions of personality. The extent to which a person is extraverted/introverted has little to do with how shy, sensitive, social, creative, introspective or likable that person is. Those things relate more to other personality traits – agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, openness/intellect. Rather, according to Kaufman, the research best supports the idea that the core feature of extroverts is their sensitivity to rewards in the environment, e.g. possible friends, alliances, mates, money, power, exploration, even food. On a neurochemical level, extroverts have a quicker, stronger dopamine response to these events. I won’t pretend to have a deep understanding of neurochemistry, but Kaufman explains dopamine as a chemical that makes us excited by the reward value of a situation. Introverts tend to get less of a dopamine kick for these more ancestral, sex, drugs, rock and roll type rewards. This is true whether the rewards are super social in nature or not, but because we humans are insanely social beings, a lot of them are. Super social stuff uses a lot of energy for anyone, but without that dopaminergic buffer to keep thing exciting, quiet-loving introverts aren’t all that engaged and just get tired out.

So that’s all very interesting and I can relate, but at the same time, kind of makes introverts sound like a drag. Like geez, how’d these Debbie Downers manage to evolve? But we did, and that is because there are in fact benefits at both ends of the spectrum. Which brings me to my favourite point in Kaufman’s lecture. He explains some brand spanking new research on a completely different dopamine pathway. This other pathway has to do with curiosity; with excitement over the potential reward value of gaining information and understanding. Unlike that other reward system, this pathway seems to have only evolved in humans. And, okay, it’s not exclusively an introvert thing, extraverts are also responsive to information as a reward, but because of that introverted penchant for quiet, daydreamy, thinky time, that drive to gain information – about ourselves, the world, and so on – does appear to be big in many introverts.

* * *

This makes SO MUCH SENSE to me. I literally wrote “my biggest thrill is a beautiful idea” on my about page for this blog. And although this is probably extending beyond the question of “What’s an Introvert, Really?”, this explanation also has practical implications. When I get a few moments to myself, I’m generally all wound up from babies babies babies plus life and I know I need to come back down to Earth, but dude, what I really wanna do is just hunker down at a coffee shop and research and write and figure stuff out. But I’m like, no Elena, you should relax. Exercise, go for a nice walk on the Rhine, take a bath, get a haircut, maybe even a massage or at the very least read a nice novel at that coffee shop. It seems counterintuitive that I would find it relaxing to essentially work in my down time.

But with some exceptions, that really engaged, productive three hours seems to be the best thing for me. I tend to return ready and able to light up for my kids, laugh at Achim’s jokes, clean the apartment, etc. My guess is that it has something to do with the fact that being an introvert isn’t about needing alone time per se, but about where I find those rewards that really energise me. And baby, ideas is where it’s at.

So, Innies (and Exies)! What do you think? I hope this was as interesting and clarifying for you to read as it was for me to learn about!


p.s. Do you like my new banner? Feels good to freshen things up a little. 😀

11 thoughts on “What’s an Introvert, Really?

  1. Catriona Talbot

    YES. This really makes sense and is consistent with my (65 years of) experience. I retired at the end of August last year and went back to university at the beginning of September. People asked why I didn’t take a year to relax first. The thing is I don’t really like relaxing. I don’t find it relaxing, because I feel like I should be doing something, and the thing I like doing most is learning. I was very lucky that my only child scored about 110 on the self-reliant scale from a very early age, so I didn’t find the mothering stage draining very often, and I did appreciate it for its learning value. And looking back on my various jobs, the ones I liked the most involved the most learning, even though they were very challenging. Very interesting way to look at intro/extroversion. Thanks for sharing your learning.

    1. Elena

      Thanks so much for your comment, Catriona, I’m glad to hear it rings true for you! I’m with you, learning is where it’s at. What you say reminds me of something we talked about a lot when I was in occupational therapy school. Retirement can actually be a time of crisis for a lot of people, because of the very strong connection between meaningful occupation and health. Retirees who fare best tend to be those that retire, prepared to launch into a life full with other meaningful occupations, it can be leisure – getting a good crack at that garden finally, or really working on that golf game in earnest, but simply “relaxing”, if that means doing nothing doesn’t tend to be the best things for us.

  2. Angela Asante

    Yes. Makes sense! So first of all, great piece. Secondly, let me clarify that there are many sides of me. I choose which side to show depending on the type of people I’m around with. I believe we are energy. And the way I react is based on the energy I receive. Now, do I like to party like an extrovert? With friends, fairly… yes. With random strangers, not so much. I can get into the action but honestly, it wears me out. With someone I love, if you asked me to choose between spending time at a crowded party and spending a more intimate one-on-one moment in Nature, I’d choose the latter option any day. I do love playing loud music (rock, electro), cracking jokes, reading speeches in front of people, being in front of the camera, etc, but at the end of the day, I like to connect with my inner self and people I love on a much, much deeper level.

    1. Elena

      I can relate to you, Angela! I think introversion/extraversion, like pretty well anything in human psychology operates on a spectrum, with so many other factors coming into play. I hear what you are saying about energy too. I often find it really energising to interact with someone, when both of us are offering ideas and responding meaningfully – both are really in to it – it’s awesome! And of course, that happens with friends and those we feel close to more often. But if it feels like I have to offer, offer, offer and pull, pull, pull, well – of course that is so draining. And happens more with strangers – not always, sometimes there is just that immediate connection. But that’s a precious, rare thing. Thanks for your thoughtful comment! xo

  3. Lena

    I’m not sure where this leaves me. I love being around people and get cagey when I am alone for too long. However I am one of the greatest daydreamers in the world. And then when my husband takes the kids for the weekend to his parents, I am busy fixing and organizing and I love it!

    I also only read non – fiction books because fiction is a waste of my time and emotion, I think.

    So where do I fit in?

    1. Elena

      Lol, Lena, my gut reaction is to say that you are an extrovert! You have six kids and homeschool! Although this is definitely NOT a rule, I would venture a guess that you average introvert is pretty excited for the day kindergarden comes along (even if it is in a conflicted way).

      Remember, though, that love of learning is not specific to introverts – that’s just a tendency. And enjoying being around people is also not necessarily specific to extroverts. It’s more about that types of things that excite you – take a look at the Scientific American article I linked to – there is a quick quiz there, if you are interested! I actually fell close to the middle, but on the introverted side.

  4. Lena

    Although I cannot understand your sister fighting for the baby when her husband got home. I am with you–let him take them all night. I happily take a sink of dishes over playing a game or wrestling or arbitrating a fight. Dishes are so quiet…

    I spend all day with the kids! I count down the minutes from 4:30 to 5 when he will come home.

  5. MaryAnne

    Great writing Elena! I’m right with you on the coffee shop/study thing…it seems to me a great balance to family life…I come home with the same zest as you shared…although I’ve never thought of myself as an introvert? Makes me feel a little more balanced….although you know, the real icing on the cake, would be to share that coffee/research time with a similarly motivated friend.

    1. Elena

      Thanks, MaryAnne! You know, I think it does have something to do with just a healthy balance of of varied activity and interests – not necessarily extro/introversion! If I spent my whole day learning, I probably wouldn’t want to go to a coffee shop and put my nose in a book on the weekend. And remember, that lust for learning isn’t specific to introverts, it’s just a tendency that has the opportunity to thrive because of their penchant for quiet. My best guess is that you are more of an extrovert, knowing you – even your comment gives you away, with the icing on the cake there! I have to say, the fact that I am ALONE is an very important component for me!


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