I’ll admit, the whole “introvert vs. extrovert” thing is something that I once found useful. Habitually shunning human contact in favor of books or video games tends to lead to all sorts of unpleasant labels like “loner,” “shy,” or “recluse.” People never used “misanthrope,” but they should have, because it’s a badass word.
I found it freeing when there was this zeitgeist online to redefine my behavior: I’m not a hermit, I’m an introvert! You’ve probably read it before, but here’s what the meme ended up being:
- While extroverts gain energy from social interaction, introverts gain energy from alone time.
- Introverts enjoy other people, but they lose energy when they interact.
- You should feel grateful when an introvert spends her/his energy on you.
- Challenging an introvert’s need for alone time is worse than the Chernobyl disaster.
Behold My Shiny New Label!
While the concept of introversion isn’t new, this idea of introvert-as-superhero is. It’s a reframing of something that was once negative, turning it into a badge of honor for those who choose to sacrifice their limited “energy” resources for the sake of their friends and loved ones. Suddenly, it was hip to be square.
I liked this new label. I felt empowered, and I felt justified. When I was home alone, I was refilling my fuel tanks, a necessary task if I was to be expected to venture out into the world. When I turned down social requests, I was doing what I needed to in order to be the best Ian possible.
On top of this, I had a community. I wasn’t the only one that loved his new label, with many proudly declaring themselves introverts, proudly linking to posts explaining to extroverts how to interact with them (and why they should be honored by their presence), and just generally making social networking nuisances of themselves. Seriously, search for any combination of “introvert” and “power,” “strength,” “awesome,” etc., and you’ll find a trillion pages telling us how killer rad we are.
After a while, it all started to chafe at me. While I enjoyed my newfound power to tell my friends to fuck off and not be harassed, I kept finding pieces that didn’t fit. Article after article was telling me about my character traits (we secretly love people!), how I like to be treated (don’t pressure us!), and how it wasn’t about shyness or low self-esteem.
It didn’t fit. I knew it didn’t fit, despite my initial complete identification with the movement. I had allowed this “introvert” label to define me, and I found that I stopped testing my own limits, and that I was allowing my comfort zone to become smaller and smaller.
That’s the thing about labels. They put you into a box, whether you fit there or not.
Once You Label Me You Negate Me
We love labels. It was such a relief to learn that my mental illness, obsessive-compulsive disorder, had a name. It’s still a relief. When I learned that I was “smart” and “sensitive,” these were labels I gladly pinned to my chest.
Then I started studying psychology, and was exposed to the negative aspects of labels. In processes called objectification and othering, we use labels to put complex creatures into tidy little categories based on nationality, skin color, behavior, etc. Does that dude like other dudes? He’s a homosexual, and suddenly you know all there is to know about the bloke. Does that lady wear skimpy clothes? She’s a skank, and there’s no need to consider associating with her.
If you allow your brain to make these leaps of faith, you’re losing out on the vast majority of information regarding that person. Maybe that gay guy plays a mean mandolin, and he’s a pyrotechnician for music festivals. Maybe that skanky chick spent a year in Rwanda and knows more about poverty than you possibly could.
Each human is a world unto themselves, and every label diminishes that.
Let’s look at “smart.” I was told I was smart since my first day of school, when I finished this really difficult algebraic geometry problem on the blackboard, which has since become known as the Harvey Conjecture. Also that never happened.
I was, however, always in this gifted group or that advanced class. I excelled at a bunch of school stuff, and I received hella praise for it. I integrated the smart label into my self-identity, and… I think it kind of made me an asshole. More on that later. For now, pros and cons:
Pros: I never worried about failing shit. I knew, in my bones, that my parents were proud of me. I felt deserving of inclusion in all sorts of smart-kid groups and activities.
Cons: I never tried all that hard. Difficult shit didn’t fit with my smart label, so I found it frustrating, or unworthy of me. I knew, in my bones, that I was superior to others. Every example to the contrary was an instant blow to my self-worth.
The “smart” label was great for my self-esteem, but shitty for my work ethic. Every label is reductive, taking a vast array of human behaviors and innate qualities and smooshing them down into something that’s easier for us to consume in one bite.
We use labels because they’re easy, but we need to be willing to discard them when they limit our growth. My OCD, for instance: It was nice to know that I had something with a name, but there came a point where it was actually limiting my progress. As I recovered, I was experiencing more diffuse symptoms of anxiety rather than the strict order of obsession and ritual. It took me a while to start treating the symptoms I actually had rather than the ones I used to have.
“I am this. I am that.”
“I am an introvert.”
No, sometimes you have introverted patterns of behavior. Sometimes more intense or frequent, sometimes less. Think I’m quibbling over nothing? Consider the following:
- Your introverted tendencies probably have an ebb and flow to them, possibly over the course of months, or maybe over the course of each day. “I am an introvert” can prevent you from socializing pleasurably and productively during those ebbs.
- Your introversion may be based on social anxiety rather than preference. What if “I am an introvert” prevents you from testing your own boundaries, thus letting your comfort bubble become smaller and smaller?
- There are a huge number of activities that we humans can engage in. Are you certain that you are an introvert, consistently, across all of these modes of expression and interaction? What if you are depriving yourself of joy by failing to explore some facet of your soul, like Irish Folk Dance?
- Your introverted or extroverted tendencies may evolve over time. Self-identifying with either label may prevent you from leading a happy life for years, or decades, or for the remainder of your life, simply because you never tested that label. Labels have inertia.
My Beef With Introversion
Okay, clearly I have an axe to grind. Want to know why? Because for years I identified with the label and stayed in my shitty apartment doing nothing. I didn’t seek counseling for my social anxiety because “I am an introvert.” I cherished people who said “it’s okay, I know you’re an introvert,” because then they’d let me get away with bad behavior (not returning calls, failing to acknowledge their trips back home, missing birthdays and other events).
Mostly, I don’t like the label because it doesn’t describe me fully. I’m not what those rah-rah yay-introversion websites claim I am. Want to know why?
- I don’t secretly love people. I tend to think most people are full of shit.
- I do have low self esteem. Regarding some things. In other respects, I’m a full-blown narcissist.
- I don’t “recharge” my “energy” when I’m by myself, I just find it slightly less exhausting than putting up with leaving my house.
- Even when I think I’m tending toward introversion, I’m usually wrong. Once I’m out and about, I almost always end up having a jolly old time.
Sometimes I want to be by myself. Usually I want to be by myself. When someone drags me out of my house, usually I was wrong about wanting to be by myself. Know how I’ll feel tomorrow? Probably like being by myself.
Does all that add up to being an introvert? I guess, if you need a label. I’ll still keep testing my own boundaries, working with my anxiety, and trying to find new avenues of expressing myself that might involve interacting with people.
In the end, we are our behavior. What we think makes us who we are. How we act makes us who we are. It would take gigabytes to record how you make your choices: the personal history involved, the motivations pulling you to either side, the social and economic significance of your actions, the billions of synapses that fire to take you through that decision tree, etc. That simply can’t be summed up in a single word.
My advice: Use a label if it’s helpful, but don’t let it become you.
Thanks for letting me rant. Feel free to rant back in the comments!