“Are you afraid to be social?”, “You are pretty insecure, right?”, “Why aren’t you going lunching with your colleagues? Everyone is going accept you”, “You really are always tired!”, “You’re so quiet, is something wrong?”. These are comments almost every introverted person knows and hears from everyone around them on pretty much a daily basis. Last summer I have, as a suggestion from one of my best friends, studied the subject of “introversion”. Just to understand what it is, what it means, but also just to better understand myself and how I can make introversion my power. In this article I want to take you into the world of introversion. On the hand of my own experiences, experiences of others, books and scientific research I will try to explain what introversion means and how you as an introvert, but also as an extravert, can deal with it.
This article is also available in Dutch
Is introversion a sickness?
You like to be social with other people, but only like to be around a small group of people. Social activities cost a lot of energy and afterwards you actually really want to take a nap. You prefer to be at home, on the couch, under a blanket with a good book and a mug of hot chocolate, instead of going to that birthday party, or the club, of the company retreat that is planned for next month. Do you recognise yourself in this? There is a high chance you might be introvert. But what does that mean? Let’s dig into that first. I do this on the basis of scientific sources and literature.
Introversion actually is a sort of temperament. It is not the same as shyness or seclusion and it isn’t a sickness (Laney, 2018). To understand what introversion means precisely and how this temperament works I want to take to on a trip to our own brains.
The neurological side of introversion
As Marti Olsen Laney (2018) states in her book “Introvert”, introversion isn’t a sickness. The difference between introversion and extraversion is the way our different brains work. The one brain doesn’t need much time to process stimuli (extravert), and the other brain needs more time to process stimuli (introvert). Stimuli basically travel via the highway in the brain of the extravert and via the small back roads in the brain of the introvert.
The choice of road is influenced by 2 different chemicals, one chemical dominant to the introverted brain and one dominant to the extraverted. Let’s start with the introverted brain: the dominant chemical here is acetylcholine. This neurotransmitter influences your learning abilities (usually learning by experience), the ability to focus on something, the ability to be calm and stay alert and lastly the ability to recall the long-term memories (Laney, 2018). I won’t bother you with information about the route of the neurotransmitters and what this means for your brain. But if I show you the route shortly, see it as a production process, it would look a little like this:
Receipt of the stimulus
When you receive the stimulus, it will be sent back to your brain via the brainstem.
Receipt in the hypothalamus
Just above the brainstem the stimuli will enter the hypothalamus. This part regulates your thirst, temperature and appetite. Here the introverted brain is ‘ordered’ to take a step back and think.
Process in the anterior thalamus
The next step for the process of the stimulus is just above the hypothalamus. This step focusses on lessening the stimuli so the introverted brain can process it. Surely, Introverts can easily be overburdened by an overload of stimuli.
Process in the Broca area
Now the stimulus is sent to the anterior part of the brain, directly behind the forehead. Here the inner monologue takes place. The stimulus is being processed by the brain.
Thinking in the frontal lobe
The next step is thinking, planning, learning and reasoning around the received stimulus.
Adjusting in the hippocampus
Here the stimulus is be adjusted to the long-term memory just next to the place where the stimulus entered the brain (close to the hypothalamus). The stimulus is being compared to earlier experiences the “user of this introverted brain” has dealt with before. When this adjustment is done it is time for the last step.
Performance from out the amygdala
In this last step the stimulus is translated to an emotion, this happens just beneath the hippocampus and next to the hypothalamus (see step 2). So, this is where feelings and thoughts are connected to the stimulus and the next step would be whether or not to get into action.
As you can read in the scheme above, a stimulus always has to go through the seven steps within the introverted brain, before a certain action can be put into reality. You may understand that this could cost a lot of time and for an introvert this can cost a lot of energy.
For your understanding: The extroverted brain processes the stimuli way faster with the help of the chemical “dopamine” (known from the world of sports to increase athletic performances). With the help of this chemical a stimulus only has to go through five of the seven steps.
In the first step the stimulus enters the brainstem and is immediately forwarded to the hypothalamus. An introverts’ brain will tell the human to take a step back, take some more time and thought. This in contrast to the extraverts’ brain: they will kick it up a notch.
The posterior thalamus sends the stimulus to the amygdala (see which steps are different from the once for introverts?), where the emotion is translated to an activity. Lastly, the stimulus is sent to the temporal lobe and movement centre: here the movement is connected to the (short-term) memory and when needed be put into action.
Am I an introvert or not?
Enough science for now. On to the practical part. First the question: are you an introvert? To figure that out I recommend you to do the personality test on Personality Hacker, it takes about 10 minutes and I think it’s a very reliable test to find out what type of personality you have.
No time for a test? Introvert Dear made a nice list of 13 characteristics that can show you if you are an introvert or not. The statements on this website can vary a lot: e.g. it could cost you a lot of energy to be in social affairs, you’d like to stay at home and read a book rather than go to the club with friends. Or you have a small but close group of friends. These and other statements can be found on Introvert Dear, and based on these statements you can find out if you are an introvert or not.
Types of Introversion
There are eight types of introversion (Myers & Briggs) Every type has its own abbreviation, like INFJ, which is the type I am. I’ll spare you all the abbreviations, but every single one says in what way you are introverted, what type you are. Like, there are introverts that move out of emotions, like me, an INFJ, where other introverts reason on the basis of logic, like the INTJ.
Every type of introvert has its own strong points and its ‘weaker’ points. When you start to recognise your strong points and learn to handle the weaker points, you can start to be your best self, without it being at your own expense, and you can start chasing your dreams. After all, that is one of the reasons for this blog: chase your dreams.
How do I handle my introversion?
Like I told you earlier, I myself am an introvert, more specifically an INFJ. One of the things that specify as INFJ is to reason more on the basis of emotions and intuition, and being sensitive.
For me personally it means that I don’t do well in large crowds of people (of course this can also be traced back to the things that happened to me in my youth), I really hate small talk and I attach high value to real friendships, good and deep talks and discussions, peace and own control.
Let me start with the crowds of people. Quite regularly I am invited to events, parties and other meetings that host a lot of people. Very fun and useful for networking and getting to know new people. I have to say that I really enjoy these events. However, as an introvert these meetings cost me a lot of energy: food, drinks, loud music, often an unknown location, (bright) flashing lights, chaos and most of all a lot of people who all seem to want to talk you. Many people (mainly introverts), including me, often don’t really want to got to these types of events, usually because it is enforced by your boss, or because it is socially not accepted to skip your super healthy grandpa’s 138th birthday, or because it is required to attend the wedding of your neighbours nice thrice removed, or because the neighbourhood BBQ is an obligation, every summer evening. Especially for introverts these types of events can cost a lot of energy, due to the continuous stream of stimuli they have to process. Of course, it’s different from when you to go to these events by choice, it costs a lot less energy.
Lately I have thought back to how I ‘survived’ the events I had been at and how I lasted the day without being overstimulated. I have the following tips for you:
- Limit the stimuli: time management is important. Be the boss of your own agenda. Maybe you know the situation: all day long you get invitations to all kinds of meetings: on Monday there is that interesting congress for work that only comes along every 10 years (so you really want to go), Tuesday is your brothers’ cats’ birthday, and your grandma’s 95th birthday, on Wednesday you have that dentist appointment and your best friends invited you over for pool that evening, Thursday you really need to keep free to work and the night you just want to stay with your partner, but you also have two invitations for that night to go to friends’ birthdays and you “haven’t seen them in a long time”, and Friday is your own birthday (happy 25th birthday for the 8th time!), which you want to celebrate big, so on Saturday you’re hungover and you don’t want to do anything but stay in bed all day. In case my agenda is this full, I choose the activities which are for me the most energizing and fun or I attend the meetings which are personally of professionally important to me. In this scenario I will choose the congress on Monday, I will attend my grandma’s birthday and I will attend two birthdays. The rest of the activities will be cancelled and scheduled at a later time. Using this method I am able to survive the week and I avoid getting all exhausted by different stimuli.
- Prepare: what could really help to keep your energy high enough is to prepare for the event. Set a certain time for leaving the event (especially if this is a party or an event you don’t really want to go to), how you are going to get there and how you will get home. This way you don’t have to be stressed all day by how you are going to do all these things. It saves you a lot of unnecessary waste of energy.
- Find an escape: Are you at a party or an event? Find an escape! A place where you can retreat from the party for a while. This could be outside, on a bench at the entrance, in the lobby of the hotel where the congress is being held of just an empty room somewhere. One of my best friends (introvert) has, to my opinion, the best tactics. When he attends a congress, he looks for an empty room close by. When he is overstimulated, he goes to that room and just takes a moment to relax, have a break. To have lunch of just to be away from the crowds of people. I’ve used this tactic a couple of times now and I can honestly recommend you to do the same.
- Plan an end time: last, but not least: plan an end time, if possible. When you go to a party, an event or anything other social thing you usually can decide when you are going home. Plan an end time of when you can leave for home, so you have all day or all evening to live up to that particular moment. And if it suddenly actually seems to be a nice party, you’re the boss: postpone your leave.
Your own safe space
At last, I would like to give you something useful, so you can control when you get overstimulated and how to prevent it. I want to do this in the form of an exercise. Take a pen and paper, sit down on a comfy chair or a place you feel at ease and take 10 minutes of alone time. This exercise comes from the book ‘Introvert Power’ by Laurie Helgoe (2013) I’ve changed the exercise a little so it is conform my own vision:
Close your eyes (of course after you have read it all) and imagine yourself in a safe space, try to imagine what this place looks like, use all your imagination, anything is possible, everything’s for free!
- Let’s start with the basis, when you arrive at this imaginary space, what does it look like? What size suits you the most? Anything is possible, use your imagination!
- What is the feeling you want to get in this room? Ease? Calm? Chaos?
Now that we have the basis, lets look at the location of the room:
- Is this room in a house? Or is it a free standing place somewhere else, if so, where?
- When you look out the window (only if you want to have windows in the room), what do you want to see? A sunrise of a sunset?
- On what level is your room? Is the space on ground level or on the top floor?
- What is the view you want to have?
On to the ceiling, doors and windows:
- How high is the ceiling?
- How many windows do you want to have, where are they placed? Do you have a glass ceiling? Or do you maybe want an open facade, or only a small window in one wall? Again: anything is possible!
- How do you physically enter the room? Via the roof? Through a door? Or stairs?
- Does your room have an outdoor area, like a porch, patio or balcony?
Now let’s look at the interior of the room:
- What kind of floors do you want: carpet, wood, tiles?
- Do you have curtains or blinds, or nothing?
- Would you like a fireplace in the room? If so, what does it look like?
- What kind of lighting do you want? Something bright or maybe dimmed lighting?
- Do you want a cupboard in the room or an organised closet?
Take a small brake and look at the answers you gave. Are you satisfied with the space thus far? Or do you want to change things. You can change it if you want, considering it only is a matter of seconds. Have you created your ideal space?
Yes? Good! Let’s keep working on the interior of the space. Feel free to use your own imagination, there are no wrong answers. Try to keep in mind that you are going to use this room as a silent place, one you get to when you have had full days of work and social appointments, a place you can be alone. What do you need in that space at that time?
Let’s look at the styling:
- Do you have pillows in the room? Or maybe just a big beanbag?
- Is there a Persian rug, or another type of rug or none at all?
- Does the room look futuristic and high-tech?
- What colours do you have in the room?
- Do you use a movie or tv theme in the room?
Next, look at what you are going to bring or maybe leave behind:
- Do you have a bookcase in the room, one with a ladder?
- Do you take one good book, or more?
- Do you install a good sound system in the room?
- If you place a desk in the space, what kind is it going to be? Is it an antique one or a modern desk?
- Do you have a computer or a laptop in the room? Or neither?
- What music instruments do you put in the room?
- What kind of seating area do you have? Do you put one lazy boy in the room, or a really big couch, or something else? Or do you prefer to sit on the ground?
- Do you use one of the walls to project movies on, so you have your own home cinema?
- Do you have a tv in the room?
- Is there art? If so, what kind?
- And of course: do you want the company of pets?
In this last step I want to take you even a little further. Are there more things you want to put in the space? Things you maybe are embarrassed of. Or things you are proud of. Most of all, things that suit you, things that make you happy. This could be anything: toys, photo’s, collections of any kind, souvenirs, something you like but you don’t allow yourself to have. Here are some examples that can help you get going, and again, use your imagination:
- A collection of artsy green flamingos;
- Your favorite action figures;
- Your miniature train with miniature city;
- Rubber duckies;
- A portrait of Mariah Carey that you painted;
- Your rock collection.
I think you have a pretty good idea of what the space should look like and where you can retreat in you mind for a while. Thanks to the book Introvert Power, last summer I was able to create my own room where I can retreat in my own mind if I feel overstimulated. There, I take my favourite book or watch a movie, all in my mind. This way I can relax and recover from a stressful day of work and social activity. I hope that the creation of your own space can help you to take a moment to recover and relax.
Meanwhile, we have come to the end of this article. Below you can find some interesting websites and tips for reading, which can give you some more insight in what introversion actually is. For the writing of this article I have used all these sources. In my next article I want to talk about the effects of bullying and how I have dealt with it. I am really interested in your thoughts about this article. If you have any questions or remarks, feel free to contact me. See you soon.
References and interesting websites
– Introvert by Marti Olsen Laney (sixth edition, 2018) (only available in Dutch);
– Introvert Power by Lauri Helgoe, PhD (second edition, 2013) (only available in English).
– Personality test by Personality Hacker (only available in English): https://personalityhacker.com/genius-personality-test/
– Personality types according to the theory of Myers-Briggs (only available in English): https://www.myersbriggs.org/my-mbti-personality-type/mbti-basics/home.htm?bhcp=1
– Diverse articles about introversion by Introvert Dear (only available in English): https://introvertdear.com