Lifestyle, Psychology and Mental Health, Science

The Lonely Introvert

I always thought I was a classic, textbook definition introvert. I feel far more comfortable just sitting here on my laptop, in my own little world, than socialising with a large group of people: it’s just so much easier. In fact, in my first week of university I found myself in a bit of a panic, worrying about how I was going to cope with being surrounded by people constantly, not wanting to be labelled the “invisible flatmate” by hiding in my room, reading a book. But then as I progressed through university (and as I’ve spent a lot of time in the house alone), I’ve realised I don’t like being alone as much as I thought: I now hate eating dinner alone and I can think of nothing worse than going a whole day without speaking. You’d think that for someone who was a shy child and a quiet teenager, that this kind of “peace” would be ideal, but it isn’t. Have I turned into an extrovert without noticing? I thought that extroverts were these loud “life of the party” types who were always surrounded by friends and dancing on tables. Maybe introversion and extroversion aren’t what I thought.

So what is the difference between introverts and extroverts?

A common misconception is that introversion and shyness are the same thing,  but many introverts are not shy. Similarly, not all extroverts are loud. Shyness is a form of social anxiety, associated with feelings of fear, while introversion is simply a preference for a quieter, less stimulating environment. In fact, you can be an introvert and love talking, or even a shy extrovert! An extrovert is defined as someone who draws their energy from social interaction, whereas an introvert will often find social situations energetically draining, and need to recharge afterwards.

Us introverts are more sensitive to stimuli, so require much less of it: we find large crowds and loud noises overstimulating, hence the need to recharge. In a study, babies which grew up to become introverts were found to cry more when faced with new situations, such as new faces or objects and were described as “highly reactive” or “sensitive”, as they were also more sensitive to things like having lemon juice dropped on their tongue. While my mum has always insisted that I never cried as a baby (what rose-tinted glasses she must look through), she now admits that I always cried when a stranger held me (clearly, this didn’t happen often after the first few times). Even as a baby, being faced with strangers and being put in a new situation was overstimulating. Another feature of introverts is that we tend to keep our feelings to ourselves and like to take their time before making a decision, whereas extroverts are more likely to go with their gut feeling and are generally (but not always) louder personalities.

While introverts can find social situations overstimulating, much like any human, most of us do crave some form of social contact. This is the eternal paradox of the introvert: we want our time alone, but we don’t want to be lonely – it’s nothing to do with shyness or a disliking for people. Prolonged social situations do exhaust me, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel lonely or that I don’t want attention. Those who know me well will know that I do in fact love attention. Just from one person at a time please or I might start to sweat.

This blog is part of a short series in which I will go on to talk about the biological basis of introversion and extroversion and the social implications. As always, please leave your thoughts, comments or questions.

More on introversion and extroversion:

Born To Be Wild (Or Not) – The biological basis of introversion and extroversion

Introverts: A Neglected Creative Resource? – How society’s preference for extroversion can stifle the creativity of introverts

For anyone who wants to know more about introversion and extroversion, I can recommend an excellent book, Quiet, by Susan Cain. In the book, Cain tells us more about the difference between introverts and extroverts, how introverts can use their skills to stand out in a world dominated by extroverts, and how each personality type can better understand the other. Here is her TED talk (one of the best TED talks, in my opinion):

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