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Helping Introverts Flourish

Dispatches from College Counseling

Under the Radar

     Coming in with the same diagnoses as the majority of their peers, it is easy for introverts to fall under the radar in college counseling. Many well-meaning psychologists zero in on the usual suspects–anxiety, depression, social difficulties, or identity concerns–and quickly offer the standard treatments. Unfortunately, these psychological ailments are usually the effects rather than the cause. Typically, introverts are anxious because they are unaware of why they are so easily drained by social stimuli and feel quite different from their extroverted peers; they are depressed because they suppress their feelings in order to fit the expectations of others; and they feel socially disconnected and out of touch with their own identities because they don’t yet know who they are or how they function optimally, mistakenly buying into society’s all too facile categorization of them as loners or misanthropes.

     With psychologists themselves less mindful of introversion’s profound impact, it is not surprising that students come away from their first sessions disappointed, not much helped by news of a (mis)diagnosis, and at worst, feeling vaguely blamed for their circumstances. I was easily in this camp before reading Susan Cain’s book Quiet, with introversion being a sort of purloined letter. Now, with eyes open, I see how many introverts are in college and how much we can revolutionize their ‘treatment’ by teaching them how to read their own instruction manuals. Drawing on my own personal experiences as an ‘extroverted introvert’, I also help students integrate the yin and yang of the introverted and extroverted features that everyone shares.

Got Fuel?

     Introverts are a lot like cars with diesel engines; they take time to warm up and accelerate but once they get running, they are powerful, reliable, and energetic. Unfortunately, many introverts, believing they should be extroverts, put unleaded fuel into their metaphorical cars, and when their engines seize, they conclude that they have a defective vehicle. It is my mission to help introverts recognize that their car is in fine shape, to identify their true fuel source, and to demystify the misconceptions they have internalized from the culture.

A Tilted World

     College is a highly extroverted place, with the expectation that students will frequent parties, immediately and easily make lots of friends, participate actively and outwardly in class discussions and group projects, and learn how to aggressively market themselves for the world beyond. A lot of pressure for most students, this is felt even more keenly by our introverts, especially if they have lost their safe, quiet place to recharge as a residential student! In order to redress this, I zero in on how introversion works in individual and group therapy sessions, showing students how to capitalize on their many strengths and make adjustments so that they can maintain their equilibrium in a world tilted towards extroversion.

Who Am I Really?

    First and foremost, it is important teach introverts to stop criticizing and shaming themselves for not being extroverts, showing them that their issues with anxiety and depression usually stem from not accepting and embracing themselves. Similarly, by helping to define and explain introversion, students begin to see the simple reason they felt so disconnected from themselves and others–they weren’t allowing themselves to be aligned with their true natures.

    Because this completely shifts their mindset, it instantly leads to a dramatic decline in student’s distress and symptoms from only the first session! Students who initially came to counseling thinking they had profound issues find out that they were merely misunderstood. They learn how their families, friends, teachers, and society in general, unwittingly misdirected their attempts to bring out the best in themselves.

Charging Stations

   The next step involves helping students observe the ways in which introversion works, focusing in on how energy gets recharged and drained. Two simple and accessible metaphors convey this handily to students: the cell phone and ‘becoming hangry.’ Running with a number of open apps and programs, the battery on a cell phone quickly and easily gets drained. When a student sees that they only have 5 or 2 % juice left, they don’t deem it worthless and throw it away, invidiously comparing it to their friends phones which are operational –they simply charge it!

   Students do not relate to their introversion like this. When they are getting completed depleted from socializing at a party, from having to participate in class, or just generally being around the buzzing, intrusive energy of the social world, they typically judge themselves as inferior, and begin to question what is wrong with them. Many of their peers, especially if they possess extroverted traits, reinforce this by misunderstanding the intensity of their feelings and attempting to help them recharge in all the wrong ways. These are the ‘fake it til you make it’, ‘just stay out with us for a little more, this party is just getting started’ kinds of responses, that compound the introvert’s sense of guilt and anxiety. If the student, instead, was able to view their introversion like a cell phone, they might say, “Yep, there’s a lot of open apps in my head and heart right now, I need some quiet time for reflection and recharging.”

Hangry?

     Many students are familiar with the second metaphor from Snickers commercials. Picture two teenage boys getting ready to approach some girls at a party when Joe Pesci suddenly appears, crowing, “What do you think we’re not good enough? What are you big supermodels or something? What do you model gloves?!” The other teen pulls Pesci aside and hands him a snickers bar to take–stat!– so he can pull himself back together. “You’re not yourself when you’re hungry”, the tag line instructs.

The Introvert Hangover

   Introversion too, when it gets to that danger zone, is a dire need where nothing else can be managed until addressed. As with the cell phone or hanger, this is situational–a temporary rudeness–and with simple insight and prompts, an introvert can learn how to work with this and get back on track. If, out of guilt or overstretching, a student spends more time than their temperament can bear, we jokingly refer to this as ‘the introvert hangover’, the ‘proverbial day after’, when students are utterly depleted of energy and need to nurse themselves back to wellness.

Charging Up

    On the flip side, looking at good self-care, it is important to elicit the various ways introverted students recharge themselves fastest–through reading, taking a solitary walk, going to a museum, engaging in a creative activity–and how they can be more aware of the social situations that drain them quickly and how to find ways to exit gracefully, and even with some finesse, when they are wearing down and needing replenishment.

Finding Heroes & Mentors

   The final piece is to let introverts know that they aren’t alone, zooming in for inspiration on the many introvert leaders, innovators, and trailblazers, now and throughout history. That list included: Meryl Streep, Stephen Colbert, Michael Jordan, Bill Gates, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Rosa Parks, Ghandi, Albert Einstein, Emily Dickinson,and Abraham Lincoln, to name just a few. It is crucial to help introverts connect to their ‘superpowers’ (as Susan Cain calls them) and to be reminded of the many and varied heroes and models out there for them to emulate.

Introverts Unite!

    Although there was much progress in individual sessions, introverted students still thought of themselves as different and isolated, hazily believing the distorted feedback they received from others. I wanted to help bring introverts together so that they could see what I was observing–thoughtful, sensitive, kind, and creative people mistreating and underestimating themselves and their contributions. I decided to start a group that would be a safe and open forum for introverts to share with each other, learn about their own and other’s misconceptions of introversion, learn to embrace their virtues, and above all, to have a place to be social and connected!

     I plastered tongue-in-cheek posters throughout the campus, an empowered fist up in the air proclaiming:”Introverts Unite/ in small groups,/ occasionally/ for very limited periods of time.” Before long, students started knocking on our doors, saying they laughed at seeing themselves in that phrase, and were hopeful that maybe there were others who “got it” too.

     Students were amazed at how many others were like them, assuming beforehand that they were truly abnormal. Think here of Emily Dickinson’s lines: “I’m Nobody! Who are you? Are you–Nobody–too? Then there’s a pair of us! “

A Group of One’s Own

     Students came to see that it was healthy for them to have space to be on their own, laughing about how many times they just wanted people to stop talking so that they could enjoy more quiet time. Students learned how much more time they needed to reflect, absorb, and digest all that they were picking up on internally before they spoke it out loud. Finally, they came to embrace how sensitive they are to a variety of stimuli and how this ‘superpower’ could both be a blessing and a curse, depending on how they worked with it.

Inside-Out

    In contrast to their extroverted peers, introverts do not need or like to wear the mask of the persona, finding it awkward, heavy, and at times superficial; they connect more easily and directly from the inside-out. This is both an asset and a vulnerability. Having more direct access to their inner worlds, they can more easily connect on a deeper level with others when they do feel comfortable and safe to share. However, they also can be more susceptible to taking other’s feedback to heart as well as having a sometimes confusingly direct access to other people’s unexpressed inner experiences.

     One group member analogized it to not having an interpersonal shield or ozone layer to protect from the direct energy of others! We were reminded here of Emily Dickinson’s great lines: ‘too bright for our infirm delight/the truth’s superb surprise/. Like lightning to the children eased with explanation kind. The truth must dazzle gradually or else all men be blind.’ Now, that’s a motto for introverts!

The Paradox of Introverts Together

     When you bring introverts together, paradoxically you create extroverts! One of the most surprising finds was to see how much students actually had to say and how confident they could be when with other introverts as well as how refreshing it was to see how many more of them are out there. In addition, they were floored by how easily it was to connect with other students, given how challenging it was in the larger extroverted college culture.

Swimming in the Depths

     Stunned by the depth of connection and exploration that members showed,I often didn’t see this kind of openness and cohesiveness until much later in a group’s development! What became quickly apparent was that introverts have the metaphorical capacity to swim in the depths and they relish sharing that with others in talking about ideas and inner experiences. While it is often a running joke how the weather can dictate attendance in most groups in our office, this particular group was the opposite- they showed up!

Common Ground Amidst Diversity

    Another revelation of the group was how extraordinarily diverse it was, in terms of every demographic seen on our college campus-gender, age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. This confirmed how much more prevalent introversion is and how it becomes an entry point for shared conversations between diverse groups, something sorely needed on our college campuses and in society today!

Lessons for the Culture

   The group was not only important to its members–who came regularly and were inspired to form an introvert club on campus–it also provided an important stage to teach other students about what is easily missed in our culture and in this generation. With Millennials easily pulled away from their internal worlds, bombarded and distracted by the external social demands on facebook, Twitter, etc, introverts demonstrated a bedrock truth that needs strengthening in the culture–the value of internal reflection, contemplation, and profound connection.

     Group members wished that extroverts could come to observe the group to see how they worked. We, as group leaders, also hoped that extroverts could come to see how to reconnect with their introverted core-the foundation of imagination, connection, and creativity. 

Conclusion

    All in all, our little experiment with introversion is proving to be a fertile ground for making the cultural shift at the college level and for changing the conversation and understanding of what it means to be introverted today. It’s not your mother or father’s or grandfather’s introversion, it’s a nuanced 21st century model that captures the complexity and diversity of what introverted individuals bring today into the world. Hat’s off to that! 

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