The Introversion Cop-out

Social life, and the social culture that surrounds it, is by necessity an idealization of extroverted personalities.  Being outgoing, adventurous, flirtatious–i.e., sociable–is the go-to characteristic that storytellers revert to when they want to make a character likable.  In contrast, if they want to convey the point that a characters is not fully well-adjusted, the usual trope is to make her/him socially aloof (or downright inept), awkward, withdrawn, or not good at the basics of human interaction (somehow Sherlock Holmes can deduct all the intricacies of human behaviors to get an accurate read on people’s personalities, right down to their favorite toilet paper brands, but can’t figure out that he himself is a total asshole, huh?).  Given this subversively negative portrayal of introversion by media and entertainment sources, it’s no surprise that many introverts will eagerly seek out any medium that affirms some level of humanity to the introverted individual.

Self-help books on Amazon that deal with introversion not as a maladaptive flaw, but as a perfectly valid state of personality, garner a lot of support, both in their reviews and the number of sales.  Online communities (which tend to skew heavily towards the introverted side of the personality scale anyway) will often share supportive words and studies showing that being an introvert doesn’t simply end at “not being social,” but encompasses a wide array of positive traits, too, such as thoughtfulness, self-sufficiency, and creative aptitude.  One could even argue how the ease by which social media has taken over the personal interactions of much of modern human communications, that this digital age we’re enjoying caters much better to our introverted tendencies, given the control users of these platforms have in terms of getting to tailor interactions to their personal comfort levels.

Personally, I definitely lean more towards being an introvert than an extrovert, so I’m inclined to welcome any positive press bestowed towards my fellow shut-ins (relax; we’re allowed to ironically use these demeaning terms among ourselves).  But going right along with the introvert’s supposed knack of thoughtful introspection, I would be doing my tribe a disservice if I didn’t point out that for many people the introvert label has become somewhat of a cop-out to avoid uncomfortable situations, or avoid taking steps towards any semblance of self-improvement on the social front.

Everybody has bouts of introversion; even the most socially lively among us.  Usually these show up while we’re in the midst of new social surroundings and experiences.  What seems to separate the self-identified extroverts from the self-identified introverts is the way they respond to said experiences.  Extroverts will use the initial discomfort to energize themselves and try to turn the unfamiliar setting into something familiar (thereby increasing their comfort level with it), while introverts tend to see these social settings as a drain to their energy and will approach them like a tedious chore (thereby not concerning themselves with increasing their comfort level in the situation, but focusing on the comfort they’ll get to enjoy once they’re finally able to be alone again).  I’m admittedly generalizing here for the sake of brevity, so calm down with the caveats and nuances I know you’re preparing to angrily type my way (we introverts do have a penchant for pedantry, after all).

With all this bit of pop psychology aside, I want to get to  matter that I have observed pretty prominently for a while now.  For a lot of us who identify as introverts, we often use the label as an excuse to cover for our shyness.  As I said, everyone is introverted some of the time, but I’ve noticed that for many of us who  define ourselves as introverts–not just as one of our personality traits, but the defining trait of our identity–what we seem to be doing is using the now more socially acceptable fact of being an introverts to hide the still less acceptable fact of just being too shy.

What reason would any of us have to self-delude our own egos this way?  Well, for starters, to say that you are an introvert is to say that avoiding social settings is a part of your nature, while admitting that you are just too shy for social settings might make you sound like you are fearful, and therefore make you feel like a coward.  It goes without saying that being shy doesn’t make anyone a lesser person, but it’s also unavoidable that most of us would rather not advertise our fears and insecurities to the rest of the world.  With the rise of respectability given to genuine introversion, many of us see it as an opportunity to mask our social fears and anxieties behind it.  Meanwhile, we continue to feel withdrawn and isolated, and continue to fall deeper into the despair of loneliness; making it much worse for ourselves because we’ve now fooled all those around us into believing that being alone is our preferred state of being.  And because we have convinced others (and, on a surface level, ourselves) that we are innate introverts, whose default nature is to be away from others as much as possible, we eventually find it impossible to seek out what we truly do crave at our core:  companionship and camaraderie.   

It took me some time to accept that deep down I wasn’t just an introvert comfortable in solitude, as much as I was also a shy kid who was afraid to engage in social settings, despite actually having a basic desire to do so.  This shy kid eventually became a shy adult who embraced his more introverted qualities, because it was easier than having to confront my honest fears on the matter, and leave myself vulnerable to the very sort of judgment that caused my shyness (and nurtured my introversion) to begin with.

Much like stage fright, I can’t promise that shyness ever really goes away.  Whether it’s origins are ultimately caused by nature or nurture (or a combination of both), once you mature through life with it, you’ll always feel some of its affects on you.  But there are ways to lessen the sting of it, especially when it comes to your outward interactions with others.  It takes effort (a lot of effort), as no book, seminar, or inspirational quote can do the job of remolding the way you see yourself, and the way the world interacts around you.  But it can be done.  And if you are a self-identified introvert reading this, I would ask you to consider whether, for you too, it is perhaps simple shyness that is at the root of what you believe to be an inherently introverted character.

And if you are considering finding ways to overcome the negative aspects of shyness that are keeping you from being as happy in life as you could potentially be, a giant step forward will be to admit the fact of your shyness to yourself.  The next steps forward are more incremental, and involve making a combination of small and moderate changes to your way of thinking about socializing and interacting with others.  One giant step backward to any possible progress, however, is to cling to things that allow you to hide from the reality of your fears and insecurities about achieving the social life that would satisfy you (whatever extend or comfort level that may be), and pretending that your lack of social interactions are the result of being an innate introvert, when it probably has more to do with simply being a person whose shyness has caused them to avoid the initial discomfort of socializing.  There is no shame in not wanting to be alone, but hiding from this want and continuing to deny it to ourselves out of a misguided sense of loyalty to an identity we have adopted to cope with our shyness,  is the best way to guarantee a lifelong refuge in a misery that need to be.

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