By A.J. Drenth
Most people have some idea of the difference between introverts and extraverts. The extreme introvert is typically thought to be very shy, to prefer solitude, and to feel uncomfortable and self-conscious in social situations. Extreme extraverts, on the other hand, are known for their sociability, enthusiasm, and confidence in the social arena. While we rarely have trouble picking out these extreme types, most of us fall somewhere closer to the middle of the spectrum. President Obama serves as a good example, with some people typing him an introvert, while others consider him more extraverted. For those with a moderate personality type, it is possible to feel like an introvert in some situations and an extrovert in others. This can make it difficult to discern your true preference. The purpose of this article is to help you sort this out and determine whether you are an introvert or extravert.
Introvert or Extravert?
Although some people treat introversion and extraversion as single traits, they are actually composites of a number of different traits which tend to hang together. These entail not only social considerations, but emotional, psychological, and physical factors as well. Let us begin with the social aspects.
A common misconception is that most introverts are either anti-social or socially inept. While it is true that introverts certainly need more time alone than extraverts, many have developed effective social skills to the point of not appearing overtly introverted. Moreover, it is a misnomer that introverts do not enjoy social situations. Like anyone else, introverts enjoy the company of friends and the opportunity to express themselves. They do, however, differ from their extroverted counterparts in a couple respects. First, introverts tend to be more cautious in selecting who they open themselves up to. Second, they often carry different standards for social discourse, such as a desire to discuss serious topics in smaller groups rather than large-scale networking at a party.
Emotionally, introverts are often more self-conscious, nervous, and anxious than the more domineering extraverted types. They may also experience more negative emotions and greater fluctuations in their mood (this is especially true of introverted feeling types, see INFP and INFJ). This may cause extroverts to view them as depressive types, whereas introverts may see themselves as more realistic and less naively optimistic.
According to Elaine Aron, introverts comprise 80% of those with a “sensitive personality.” This sensitivity extends beyond emotions, as introverts are often more sensitive to loud noises, commotion, and other distractions. This may explain why they have more difficulty with multi-tasking than extroverts. Because of their sensitivity, introverts generally dislike being put on the spot or having to perform in front of others. They would rather have time to collect and prepare their thoughts, often preferring to put them in writing. This innate sensitivity should not be viewed as a weakness, but as a unique strength. Sensitive personalities are often drawn to scholarship, the arts, counseling, and other valuable careers.
Psychologically, introverts direct their attention inwardly. Rather than being highly absorbed in material comforts, outside events, or the newest fads, introverts are often more engrossed in their own thoughts, feelings, fantasies, and values. They tend to be self-reflective and can be “deep” thinkers, sometimes spending extended periods of time in contemplation or indulging their active imaginations. Since they are often getting lost in their own thoughts, outsiders may perceive them as aloof, indifferent, or absent-minded. Though to some degree this may be true, most of these signals are conveyed unwittingly, as the introvert is merely doing what comes naturally. For similar reasons, introverts may be perceived as “slow to respond,” as they must reverse the direction of their focus from within to without.
Physically, introverts tend to be slower in their movements, less demonstrative, and not as physically energetic as extroverts. They are also more independent of their physical surroundings, capable of amusing themselves inwardly should the need arise. Introverts have lower rates of obesity than extraverts, which may result from both genetic and lifestyle factors. They often display an ectomorphic (i.e., long, thin, narrow) body type, in contrast to extraverts who are often squarer or rounder in their natural physique.
In determining whether you are an introvert or an extravert, it is best to examine yourself with regard to each of the above dimensions (i.e., social, emotional, psychological, physical). Consider these not only in the context of the present, but also your tendencies earlier in life. Research has shown that “inhibited” and “highly reactive” temperaments (both of which relate to introversion) are often present from birth. If you can evaluate yourself according to this bigger picture, you will come to a much more accurate knowledge of whether you best fit the bill of an introvert or extravert.