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Why Introverts Struggle in a World Made for Extroverts

Are you an introvert? If so, life can be tough— but you should own your shyness, sensitivity and empathy with pride

Photo by Sergio Souza on Pexels

Are you a shy person? Do you struggle with groups of people, open-plan offices and crowded places? Is your idea of hell a noisy, busy party where you have to shout to make yourself heard? And heaven being curled up in an armchair with a favourite book?

If so, you are probably temperamentally an introvert. And your temperament is not something you choose, you’re just born with it. Psychologists think it’s a combination of your genes, perhaps experiences during pregnancy and birth, maybe the care you received when you were a tiny infant.

What we do know for sure is that temperament is lifelong and stays fairly constant. Quiet, shy, introverted kids are usually quiet, shy, introverted adults. Of course, it’s possible to work on your confidence, to become more adept at public speaking, to learn how to navigate those groups and social situations more comfortably. But, temperamentally, introverts stay introverts for life.


Wallflower vs life and soul

So what’s wrong with being an introvert? Absolutely nothing! Introverts have strengths and weaknesses, good points and bad, likeable qualities and annoying ones, just like extroverts. If this is ringing bells for you — and you probably know full well you’re more of an introvert than the loud, confident kind — there is not a single thing wrong with you. You are awesome just as you are.

Trouble is, you wouldn’t know that from the language commonly used to describe introverts. Search for synonyms and words related to introvert in the Macmillan Dictionary and you get: ‘loner’, ‘recluse’ and ‘hermit’. Hermit!

And at social gatherings, introverts are ‘wallflowers’, while extroverts are ‘life and soul’ of the party. It’s not hard to see why those of us who are naturally quiet, shy and prefer one-to-one conversations to rowdy groups feel there is something shameful or weird about us — somehow we are made to feel that we’re just wrong.


Quiet can be cool

As a psychotherapist, I find that most of my clients are temperamentally quiet, shy and introverted. And — like most therapists — I am also an introvert. For years I struggled with this, feeling there was something weird about me, that if I could only project myself more, be louder and bigger and bolder, I would be a better person. Cooler. More likeable.

It has take me most of my 52 years to figure out that I am quite happy with who I am. In fact, I’m proud of my sensitivity. I consider it a superpower, especially in my therapeutic work. It helps me be ‘attuned’ to my clients — meaning highly focused on what they are saying, their body language, the unspoken emotion that may be just beneath their skin.

As an avid reader of self-help books, for both personal and professional reasons, a couple of books have really helped me learn to value my introversion, rather than wincing about it. The first book to open my eyes was Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. (Her TED Talk is awesome too, by the way).

Cain argues that introverts have long had a bad rap, especially in countries like the US, where in recent decades qualities like being gregarious, confident and bold have come to be prized. At the same time, being quiet, shy or softly spoken have been frowned upon, even seen as personality flaws or defects that need correcting with medication or therapy.

We’re told that to be great is to be bold, to be happy is to be sociable. We see ourselves as a nation of extroverts — which means that we’ve lost sight of who we really are.

Susan Cain

She reminds us that, depending on which study you read, between one third and one half of Americans are introverts. So perhaps 50 per cent of the population are made to feel they are odd, or misfits — ugly ducklings in a world full of socially confident swans. Crucially, neither Cain nor I are saying that introverts are better than extroverts in any way. Just different. And certainly not worse.


Highly Sensitive Persons

The other book to really open my eyes about the importance of temperament in shaping who we are is The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You, by psychologist Elaine N. Aron. This was one of those books that felt as if the author had written it just for me. It blew my mind.

Aron explains that around 15-20 per cent of the population are, temperamentally, extremely sensitive. This basically means that Highly Sensitive Persons (HSPs), as Aron calls them, have exquisitely sensitive central nervous systems, so are very much more affected by sensory input such as light, noise, smells, or busy places with lots of people and stuff going on.

Aron is a self-confessed HSP. As am I. This accounts for my sensitive superpower. But it also made life extremely tough for her — she felt there was something fundamentally wrong with her.

I was convinced that I had a fatal flaw that I had to hide and that doomed me to a second-rate life. I thought there was something wrong with me.

Elaine N. Aron

And my life has also been a struggle at times, especially when being bullied by a less-than-sensitive bunch of boys in school. I have also been told, many times, to ‘toughen up, or ‘be less sensitive’, as if that’s a tap you can just turn off!

As we navigate this world of sensitivity and introversion, it’s important to note that not all HSPs are introverts, while not all introverts are highly sensitive. But if this was a Venn diagram, there would clearly be a big overlap between the two groups.

Being a HSP means you find too much stimulation overwhelming and exhausting. And people can be highly stimulating and overwhelming, especially groups of them. So you may feel the need to retreat, get some space, allow your batteries to recharge before facing the world again.


The golden rules for introverts

So, as someone who is a badge-wearing HSP and introvert — as well as a therapist who has helped thousands of similar people become more comfortable in their own skin — here are three pieces of hard-earned advice for all the introverts reading this:

  1. Be proud of who you are. Even introverts growing up in the kindest, most thoughtful and nurturing families might have struggled once they hit school age. It’s easier to be a sensitive, quiet kid at home. But once you’re out there in the hurly-burly world of the playground, you rapidly realise that not all kids are like you, nice or sensitive to your needs! You might get bullied, or ostracised, or just teased for being shy. If that happens often enough, sadly, you will start to believe some of the nasty, hurtful comments flying your way. But as an adult reading this, I hope you can see that most of those hurtful comments said more about the bully than they did about you. If you’re sensitive, own it! Be proud of who you are. Most of my favourite people are introverts — because they are usually empathic, curious and deep-thinkers. Like me.
  2. It’s fine to stay home sometimes. One of my biggest take-homes from the HSP book was that I just don’t like some kinds of environments — and that’s totally fine. Noisy bars. Sports stadiums. Big crowds. They freak me — and my shy inner child — out completely. So I choose not to hang out in those types of places. You may feel the same, preferring quiet dinners, one-to-one conversations or alone time to in-your-face environments. And that’s 100 per cent fine. It’s your life, no? So you should do things you enjoy, ignoring the social or societal pressure to do all the noisy stuff. Read a book. Meditate. Tend your garden. If that’s what makes you happy, go for it. Let the extroverts do their thing.
  3. Focus on your superpowers. Again, it’s important to state that I’m not down on gregarious folk. Some of my best friends are extroverts! It’s just that they tend to be lauded, while we get a bad rap. So think about all the fine qualities your introversion or extreme sensitivity give you. I bet you’re a good listener, because you’re happy giving the other person space to talk without feeling you have to jump in all the time. You may well be a deep thinker, because you’re comfortable being in your own world. This may also make you highly creative or imaginative (this is why many of history’s great musicians, artists and writers have been introverts). You are probably empathic, because that sensitivity allows you to inhabit another person’s world quite fully. These are your superpowers — so celebrate them!

If you have made it this far in the story, I’m guessing some of what I had to say has resonated with you. Maybe this describes you to a tee. Or it fits your child, partner, sibling or parent. It might shine a light on your best friend’s sometimes mystifying behaviour.

Either way, I hope these ideas have gone some way to de-stigmatising introversion. Being an introvert does not make you weird, any more than being an extrovert does. It just makes you a human being, who landed on this planet with a certain kind of temperament, just like you had a certain colour of eyes or hair.

Be yourself. Be proud of who you are. Learn to love and accept yourself — because you will always be you. As far as we know, we only get one shot at being alive, so it’s important to make the most of it. Own your introversion, your sensitivity, your need for quiet. And remember that you are perfect, just as you are.

Article originally published on Medium

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