You’re not introverted, you just have problems

Based on Eysenck's personality theory (I didn't make this up) -- click for larger view.

Based on Eysenck’s personality theory (I didn’t make this up) — click for larger view.

I don’t think I took much issue with the idea of a person calling themselves introverted until an infamous comic told me that (as an extrovert) I’m basically a predator trying to steal energy juice and don’t take it personally, it’s just that interaction is expensive and introverts don’t want to spend it on something wasteful. Excuse me, but sorry for annoying you with my friendship.

A few of my introvert-identified friends also took offense to this comic, so it isn’t just obnoxious-extrovert-me who doesn’t get it.

I strongly identified as an introvert when I was young (years 5-19). I had the “running monologue” in my head at all times. I needed copious amounts of alone time to “recharge.” My bedroom door was always closed, and I taught my brother to knock so I could be alone with my books, drawings, and thoughts. Of course, during most of this time I also “hated humans,” suffered severe major depression, and had general anxiety disorder.

Now that I identify as an extrovert, I find that I’m not sure if I love myself or people better. I default to a sense of contentment or even happiness. Alone time is not painful or anything, but no longer all that necessary. Oh and that running monologue goes away when I’m around people.

It has been my belief that I was a “false introvert” and that aligning myself with that personality type was a source of unhappiness for me (or just indicative of my crippled emotional state), and that is why being an extrovert feels more natural and comfortable.

So, for personal reasons, when I meet an unhappy introvert, I suspect that they are not introverted. They just need therapy. Happy introverts (and it seems like they do exist: study 2001) can carry on, this isn’t about you.

Introversion/extroversion is frequently tested on the Eysenck personality questionnaire, which just seems to allow a lot of people to self-select for social anxiety disorder if you ask me.  You’re asked to rate how well you identify with personality statements, which are testing for both introversion/extroversion and emotional stability.

If you’re emotionally stable, you can be on the more sociable/carefree/easygoing side of things, or you can be on the more thoughtful/calm/peaceful side of things. There’s not really a huge difference in the “introversion/extroversion” personality traits, except that extroverts are “more social.”

Non-emotionally stable people are divided into two groups, which seem to be overly-social verging-on-being-a-sociopath for the extroverts (“I would like other people to be afraid of me”) and severe anxiety for the introverts (“I fear for the worst” and “I am very moody”).

Extroverts, of course, are the strong majority.  So much so that introversion was considered for inclusion in the DSM-5 (Psychology Today 2010). In other words, for a hot minute we were going to call introversion a personality disorder. There’s definitely a trope of “I am an introvert, therefore I have a social disadvantage.” In an extroverted, highly social world, this feeling makes a lot of sense.

However, humans are and always have been social beings. It doesn’t make sense to me why this commonly accepted test focuses so much on sociability. You have to admit that even introverts are decidedly social, suffering when there is a lack of human interaction, otherwise the world would have a lot more hermits.

While I don’t doubt that introversion/extroversion are legitimate ways to describe a personality, the fact that there is not a reliable standard to measure, and that the accepted standards center too much on “being social,” you end up with a strong dividing line in the types of people who consider themselves an introvert. Some focus on their inability to be comfortable in social situations (Eysenck introverts). Others prefer a more nuanced understanding of introversion (focusing on communication and relationships styles, preferences for certain types of activities and ways of relating with the world).

Further muddying the conversation about introvert v. extrovert personality types is the idea that it is a spectrum, and fluid. This of course has to be considered, because most human attributes work this way. Still, what this means is that people can self-define their own style of introversion, and I have seen so many custom definitions that the dichotomy frequently fails to be relevant.

What I am seeing is a lot of self-proclaimed introverts excusing their anxious behavior on a tenuous label. “Big crowds are just too much for me, because I’m an introvert,” or, “I just can’t keep up in conversations because it takes me longer to process in social situations…and extroverts have no filters.” I’m seeing people I care about diverting attention from overcoming their social anxiety by excusing it due to introversion.

If you are terrified by a crowded party, overcome with worries and insecurities, frozen by your inability to talk to people…. you can’t ask me to respect that as just a part of who you are. No one should be expected to cope with that lifelong. I will give space and I will assist people who are struggling with anxiety, but I’m not doing it because I accept the anxiety. You’re not introverted, you just have problems.

Yes, the Eysenck test divides emotional instability by introversion/extroversion. But I won’t accept cherry-picking the emotional problems you identify with as a valid “diagnosis” of introversion. Perhaps, like I did, you have a secret extrovert inside of you who is trapped by feelings of moodiness and pessimism.