There are a lot of things I need to be cured of. Introversion is not one of them. I’ve spent a lifetime trying to understand how I tick and accept how God created me.
- Why was I always quiet and self-contained as a child, choosing to play outside or read a book rather than go to a birthday party, having a few good friends but not needing to be around a lot of people?
- Why was I hesitant for years to speak on the floor of the West Michigan Annual Conference until one day I was so passionate about equal benefits for mental and physical illness that I finally dared to come to a microphone?
- Why did I not go to a single party in high school, college, or graduate school, instead preferring to study or practice the organ?
- When attending a conference, why do I often take a walk or go back to my room during lunch for some quiet time rather than eat with colleagues?
- Why did I have to psych myself up when shopping with my kids at the mall, and why did I read a book in the fitting room while they tried on clothes?
- Why did I always get a headache when visiting New York City?
I never really felt different growing up. I didn’t even know what an introvert was. No one ever considered me strange because I was not as outgoing as other kids. My parents encouraged me to lead from my strengths rather than try to become someone I wasn’t.
It wasn’t until I was a young adult that I took the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and acknowledged for the first time that I was a classic introvert. I also learned that introversion/extroversion is one of the “Big Five” personality traits that are recognized by psychologists. The others are openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and neuroticism. According to researchers, most people generally fall in the middle of the introversion/extroversion scale, with attributes of both types.
Extroverts thrive in settings where they interact with other people and work creatively in groups. They tend to be gregarious and assertive, crave high stimulation, and enjoy the notice of others. They often experience a “buzz” when speaking in front of others or engaging in risky behavior.
Introverts are typically more reserved and quiet, preferring solitary behavior or interaction with small groups of people. They dislike high levels of stimulation, shy away from attention, and often have a rich inner life. Albert Einstein once said, “The monotony and solitude of a quiet life stimulates the creative mind.”
In graduate school and seminary I realized that extreme introverts like me were a minority. I observed that students who were the first to speak in class often received more attention than those of us who hung back until our thoughts were fully fleshed out. At social gatherings people eagerly gathered around those who were the life of the party. On the other hand, I was often alone on the outer fringes where I sought out others who seemed left out and engaged them in one-on-one conversation. “What’s wrong with me?” I wondered.
We live in an extroverted country, which is not the case in other parts of the world. Nor was it always the case in America. In her 2012 book Quiet; The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, author Susan Cain writes that in the nineteenth century our country embodied what cultural historian Warren Susman called a “Culture of Character.” Characteristics such as inner strength, reserve, dignity, and integrity were valued. Cain says, “What counted was not so much the impression one made in public as how one behaved in private.” Abraham Lincoln was an introvert who gained respect from friends and foes alike because of his quiet thoughtfulness, resolve, and honor.
In the early twentieth century, however, a cultural shift took place as America moved from an agricultural to an urbanized society where cultivating business relationships and making a good first impression were highly prized. The self-help tradition of Dale Carnegie became immensely popular as children were taught the virtue of outer charm and knowing when, what, and how to speak. Charisma and the unabashed promotion of self emerged as the Culture of Personality was born. There was immense pressure to exude confidence, and social failure was anathema.
A hundred years ago extroversion supplanted introversion as the default personality of America so that today working in teams is considered the most effective way to be successful. Seeking to be the center of attention works, raising the loudest voice wins, managing gestures and speaking style is critical, and socialization is essential for success.
Estimates are that one-third to one-half of Americans are introverts. Therefore, extroverts and introverts would do well to understand each other since we work, live, play, worship, and serve together. Living as we do in an extroverted culture, introverts plead with their extroverted friends, “I do not need to be cured of introversion. It’s a myth that introverts cannot be charismatic leaders and that extroverts are generally more successful in life. Please understand me.”
- Because we become quieter when others get louder, it does not mean that we are relationally unskilled or without opinions of our own.
- Because solitude is a catalyst for our creativity, we need the quiet of our personal space, but it doesn’t mean we dislike people.
- Because we are not interested in dominating social situations, we do not have a personality flaw.
- Because we can be intense and focused, don’t label us as peculiar or stand-offish.
- Because noise and high levels of stimulation impede our productivity and we need to retreat at times to regain energy, don’t discount or ignore us.
“Understand and be who you are, claim the unique strengths of your personality, and act in an extroverted manner when necessary.” That’s my mantra. If I don’t understand myself, I can’t expect others to understand me. Most introverts are not socially deficient, we’re just wired differently than extroverts. Recent research in neuroscience and psychology highlights the fact that babies who are highly reactive to their environment think and feel things more deeply. High reactivity is one biological basis for introversion.
I cannot change my basic nature, but I’ve learned that if I am to be effective as a pastor, I need to be extroverted at the appropriate times. Since many clergy are introverts in congregations composed primarily of extroverts, we have to learn how to display characteristics of a balanced personality.
We cannot hide in our offices after worship but need to be out and about at coffee hour, meeting people and making connections. We need to take the initiative to introduce ourselves to others, especially those who are introverts and are standing off in a corner. We have to overcome or at least tame our natural anxiety in speaking before large groups of people, especially when asked to speak extemporaneously.
Acting like an extrovert wears out introverts (and vice versa), thus the need to control our schedules so that we have adequate time to recharge during long days of meetings. We would also do well to plan worship that appeals to both introverts (meditative and thoughtful) as well as extroverts (high energy and stimulating).
I do not need to be cured of introversion. Nor do others need to be cured of extroversion. We both have gifts to offer our world. May God give us the grace simply to understand, accept, and honor the way we are fearfully and wonderfully made.