First, let me start by saying that this is a blog, not a doctoral dissertation on the psychological concept of the personality. Despite the prevalence of alleged personality surveys and quizzes available on the internet, it is not so easy to define the different personality factors, nor is it easy to define the profile of any given individual. While it is fun to find out which Star Wars, Harry Potter, or Disney Princess character you may arbitrarily match via the bubble gum magic of the various Cosmo-quizzes available… These do not constitute an accurate measure of personality and certainly do not enable the responder to suddenly understand with brilliant insight the complex workings of the human brain and personality. As this is far too brief a venue for the purposes of elucidating readers to the complexity of psychological development, and I’m certainly not claiming to explain it all either; I will attempt to steer clear of the more in depth discussion of human development and neurochemistry. However, I will address some misimpressions about one of the personality factors and what it actually means.
Probably the most familiar form of personality assessment is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). It has been probably one of the most abused tests in the history of personality assessment. Having the dubious privilege of being one of the most user-friendly assessments, it is the one usually latched onto by human resources, professional trainers, online dating sites, and sadly, the makers of magazine and internet quizzes flooding the popular media. So, you access the point and click online survey, and after answering a bunch of forced-choice (yes or no) questions, you are assigned a “personality type” that defines your character in four easy letters… or descriptive types and characters reflecting said factor combinations. Would that it were just that easy.
The thing is, it’s not that easy. While the original Myer-Briggs was a great boon to the counseling (and especially the career counseling) field, this was not really meant for the lay person to grab up and start attributing characteristics to their friends and family. The profiles that come from taking this particular personality instrument allow you to identify parts of your own personality that clarify why you interact in certain ways and what situations and scenarios might be more your style. The point is that personality factors and profiles are not restricted to this particular theoretical perspective. There are a metric @#$%-ton (yep, clinical term) of personality theories and instruments that assess and develop unique personality profiles. I could actually write a dissertation on that (and have done), but this is not the place or time (and probably not the audience, unless you are suffering from insomnia and looking for a non-pharmaceutical cure) for that discussion. So, for now, I will restrain myself to the popular MBTI.
And now with all of that out of the way, you will find that the MBTI addresses personality from the perspective that there are four main factors that contribute to a personality type. This was founded on the concept of psychological preferences extrapolated from Jung’s theory of personality. Jung focused on the dichotomy of the personality as it addressed the rational and irrational functions. The original authors of the MBTI initially studied personality factors during the second world war. The first of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator survey was published in the early 1960’s. The MBTI addresses preferences. This is the most likely way that an individual will respond to particular situations. Truth is, it is not what we in the psychology field like to call a predictive or projective measure. It mainly indicates a preference on the continuum of the factors. It also does not tell the person interpreting the test whether someone is more or less of one factor or another than any other individual on the same scale. It just indicates the tested individual’s presence within the aspects of their own preferences and personality. The four factor continuums are as follows:
- Introversion vs. Extraversion (I vs E)
- Intuition vs. Sensory (N vs S)
- Thinking vs. Feeling (T vs F)
- Judging vs. Perceiving (J vs P)
While all these spectrums are interesting in their own right, and the combination of traits are what give the reader the actual personality profiles; the spectrum that is the focus of this particular post is the Introversion-Extraversion scale. Perhaps, at a later date, I may actually address the whole bloody mess; but for this moment, the I vs. E will be the focus.
Introversion vs. Extroversion addresses the aspects of personality that impact how the individual deals with their environment, including socialization… on an energy level. This is what people primarily misunderstand. The immediate response when someone hears “I’m and introvert” or “I’m and extrovert” is the amount of time and energy that any individual spends interacting with their fellow humans, often in a noisy and raucous manner, or determined by the size of the crowd in which the individual could be found at any given time. A lot of people assume that introversion means something to the tune of say… Howard Hughes, and conversely attributes to the extrovert the personality of Charlie Sheen on a binge. WRONG!
The scale is a spectrum, not a switch with an “on” and “off” position. Introversion and extraversion are descriptive analyses of the energy the individual acquires from interacting with the world. Introverts are energized by thought and contemplation. The typical introvert primarily obtains their energy from being alone. They expend energy by action and need down time to recharge from the day to day brush and bump with the world at large. Extroverts, on the other hand, are energized from their contact with the rest of the human race and need the constant interaction of society to power their processes. Extraverts obtain and draw their energy from action. They act first, then evaluate the outcomes, and act again. At their extremes, these two very different types seek alternate means of maintaining their processes by arranging their circumstances to suit their preferences. This has fueled the assumption that individuals on the introversion end of the scale are reclusive types that avoid all social interaction and the extroverts of the world cannot exist in a vacuum, removed from the atmosphere of constant society.
In truth, few people can guess who is an introvert and who is an extrovert by pure observation. Training gives some insight, but most people exist not on the extreme ends but instead fall somewhere along the spectrum with varying degrees of intensity and magnitude. Contrary to the belief that they are antisocial or pathologically shy, introverts can often be found socializing with friends and having a decent time doing so. And similarly, even the most extroverted individual will occasionally seek out the solace of some alone time. However, primarily these two different types generally seek to recharge in their own very different ways, true to their natures. There is nothing maladaptive or wrong about either method.
Where the fly gets into the ointment and one of the main conflicts that I have observed (and experienced) is when an introvert and extrovert have close interaction or enter into a relationship of some intimacy (not necessarily physical intimacy). The introvert will need to retreat into their cave of solitude and the extrovert, not understanding why anyone would ever seek to have so much time in silence or loneliness, will assume an emotional content to that lack of interaction, conversation, or response. Negative emotional content at that. Much confusion and conflict can result from such assumptions, and unfortunately, a lot of frustration and eventual explosive discharge from the introvert who, like a cornered animal, may lash out to make everyone leave them hell alone. The introverts come across to their counterparts as cold, distant, or moody. Conversely, the poor extrovert may be perceived as a needy, clingy, self-centered, spotlight whore who cannot be still. It is an inaccurate description, a very poor profile for either to carry around with them, and is unworthy of their true natures.
As odd as it may seem to the extroverts out there, it is entirely possible to be content and live well without human contact or conversation, including communication via non-face-to-face media. When an introvert has retreated to the cave for recharge, this does not mean it is time to repeatedly ask what is wrong, if there is something that they need, or to send supportive texts to bolster their spirits. What they need is peace and quiet. When do they want it? NOW! Leave them alone. They will eventually come out of their caves, or off the top of their mountain, or whatever metaphor works best. They will reenter the world of social interaction after their recharge and be better for their time away to collect themselves.
Similarly baffling to the introvert is the seeming inability of an extroverted individual to be at peace. To be still and silent for any amount of time appears an alien concept to the extrovert worthy of Close Encounters. They may spend some time without human companionship, but they will fill the social void with phone, text, social media, or any other form of communication that will give an outlet of to their need for human contact in any form available. Lack of interaction and enforced solitude frequently results in bouts of depression exacerbating the extrovert’s attempts to resolve the situation by reaching out to any and every person they know by whatever media available. It is often helpful for the healthy, happy extrovert to have a large pool of natural supports from which to draw their energizing social contact so as not to overtax the introverts among their friends.
The upshot of all this rambling discussion is that people are different (Really Columbo? What was your first clue?). Not everyone participates in this game we call life in the same way or with the same strategy, and there are no prizes, not even for first place. What matters is that we understand that all individuals tick in their own way and at their own pace, and no one is a piece with another (even identical twins can present remarkably different personality profiles). How we interact with each other is the important part. Additionally, while the concept of personality is that there is a constellation of consistent traits that make up the identity of the person, and that these traits are reliable and unchanging over time; research has found that personality factors do change, subtly, but they change. Traits moderate and shift with age, with events, and sometimes even week to week due to chemical and hormonal changes experienced by the individual. Generally, these changes are not drastic enough to completely change one person from an introvert to an extrovert or vice versa. Changes on the spectrum usually are within the same side of the scale but with greater or less intensity to make someone more introverted as they get older or just maybe less extroverted.
I suppose the actual point that I was trying to make is that your choice to take one of the personality profiling tests should be to understand more about yourself and is entirely a matter for fun or self-exploration. That is admirable. If you take one of the full surveys and find your type, read up on it and think about how that works for you or might present obstacles in your path. Use it to your best advantage by doing what you need to recharge and enhance your daily interactions. Avoid making assumptions about how in applies to others, because, in truth, it probably doesn’t. Personality profiles are not absolute. People are unique. If you want to use personality profiles or even any projective measure, use it to understand yourself and what you need from your own interaction with this world and the other inhabitants of it instead of trying to profile those around you. Our first and most difficult battle always begins within our own mind and body, and the only personal actions we can truly control with any amount of accuracy is our own.
The author is an INTJ.