By Gabrielle O’Hagan
I’ve always been introverted. Sure, I went through different phases as a teenager (each one more embarrassing than the last), but at my core, my introversion has remained constant. Like most other people of my generation, I’ve done the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) test about a hundred times, and the result for whether I’m an introvert or an extrovert is always the same. Even without the test, there’s no denying it: my idea of an enjoyable evening is staying at home, cooking myself dinner, having a glass of white wine, and bingeing a show on Netflix that I’ve already watched two or three times before. If that doesn’t scream introvert, I’m not sure what does.
It was on one of these blissful evenings, the TV playing softly in the background, while I was scrolling mindlessly on my phone, that I came across a headline that stood out to me. According to an article in The Conversation, the best way for me to succeed in life—as an introverted person—is to behave like an extrovert.
I was naturally offended, but ultimately unsurprised. I don’t view my personality as a barrier to success, but I’ve come across a lot of similar content lately. As Melbourne emerges from a seemingly endless series of lockdowns, the Internet has been littered with self-help articles about how introverts can learn to be less quiet, more sociable, and adjust to life beyond lockdown. Try to exude the ‘natural’ confidence, charisma and people skills of an extrovert, they say, and all your problems will disappear. But for us introverts, it isn’t as simple as that.
The introvert/extrovert dichotomy
In my experience, the personality traits of introverts and extroverts are like night and day, but it’s important to note that personality psychology is a difficult field of study. Some psychologists dispute the accuracy of personality tests such as the MBTI, arguing that the categories are too rigid and binary. Nevertheless, academics generally agree that the introvert/extrovert dimension of the MBTI has merit, though it may be more akin to a spectrum.
The main difference between introverts and extroverts is how they focus their cognitive energy. While extroverts seek out social settings and thrive when interacting with others, introverts tend to invest more time in solitary pursuits. According to Dr Kaufman from the University of Pennsylvania, prolonged exposure to highly stimulating environments can be draining for introverts because our brains respond differently to dopamine (a chemical associated with reward and pleasure). We don’t require high levels of dopamine to feel stimulated, so too much of it can be exhausting. That doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy being around people—we’re just re-energised when we’re given time to ourselves.
Where we get it wrong
Unfortunately, there is a common misconception that ‘introvert’ is synonymous with ‘shy’, ‘reserved’ and ‘socially awkward’. I’ve experienced this firsthand; in school, I was scolded by my teachers if I elected to work on my own rather than in a group, or if I chose to spend recess or lunchtime in the library. Even in my books, the feisty and fearless characters were always the heroes of the story, while the villains were normally quiet, unpopular and had trouble connecting with others. Sound familiar?
By contrast, extroversion is associated with more positive traits such as cheerfulness, friendliness and leadership. Anyone who has had to apply for a job lately will know that some of the most valued attributes within the workforce are people skills. In fact, a Canadian study indicated that extroverted employees—specifically, extroverted men—were more likely to be offered promotions, even though there was no evidence to suggest that they made better leaders. In her 2012 bestseller Quiet, author Susan Cain argued that society values extroverted personality traits, in terms of overt confidence, talkativeness and affability, more than introverted ones.
By placing more value on stereotypically extroverted personality traits, introverts are being conditioned to suppress their nature. For example, when a child is scolded for seeking solitude, we are essentially telling them that they are obligated to interact with their peers—even when they don’t want to.
This can lead to problems setting boundaries. In my pre-pandemic life, I couldn’t recall a time that I had said ‘no’ to a call from work or an invitation to spend time with my friends without a good excuse. Without even realizing it, I was attempting to mirror the behaviour of my extroverted counterparts, which usually just resulted in a severely depleted social battery.
Introverts in isolation
The last two years have offered some respite from the emotional labour of professional and social interactions. While other people busied themselves during isolation with weight loss, gardening, or a side hustle, my primary focus was to use the time to set boundaries with people. I cancelled plans simply because I didn’t feel like doing them. I embraced the fact that if I wanted to get away from people, all I had to do was switch off my phone or laptop. When I did choose to engage with others, I was able to have more meaningful discussions, rather than endure the endless onslaught of small talk I had been accustomed to pre-COVID.
To be clear, I am not saying I have enjoyed the pandemic. Melbournians have had it tough. Living in the most locked-down city in the world has placed our study, career and travel plans on hold.It has separated us from our loved ones and negatively impacted our mental health. I also recognise that I am speaking from a place of privilege, as I have had access to healthcare and other resources throughout the pandemic.
However, a part of me can’t help but lament the loss of Zoom meetings, Facetime catch ups and work-from-home arrangements. Rather than desperately trying to get things back to ‘normal’, it may be worth considering different ways forward. What was ‘normal’ before the pandemic didn’t necessarily suit everyone, and perhaps we should work on dispelling stereotypical notions of how people should behave.
Gabrielle O’Hagan is a 23-year-old student undertaking a Master of Publishing and Communications at the University of Melbourne. Her work has previously been published in Fashion Journal, and she is currently working as a freelance writer and journalist.