Looking at Both Sides of the Introvert Coin
Janus was the Roman god of dualities like the past and future, beginnings and endings, and war and peace. His likeness was often depicted in pairs, such as being stamped on both sides of coins. As an INFJ personality type (as well as a Pisces), I think that this is an evocative way to illustrate the flip side of introversion and the double, hidden lives that many of us are forced to lead. For too long, society has promoted extroversion at the expense of introversion, while quieter, gentler voices have been forced to shout or remain unheard. While that’s starting to change, thanks to initiatives like Susan Cain’s Quiet Revolution, I believe that introverts will continue to be marginalized until we balance out the scales by addressing introverts’ strengths and extroverts’ weaknesses. The fact that most introverts are reluctant to be as honest with extroverts as they’ve been with us makes it even more important for the rest of us to be willing to raise awareness about the unique issues that we face.
A quote popularly attributed to Albert Einstein states:
Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its entire life thinking that it is stupid.
Before introverts are born, the social deck is stacked against us. For whatever reason, we’re viewed as social liabilities that have a poor chance of survival or success. These misconceptions influence the way that people treat us and how we view ourselves; and like any injustice, the more we acknowledge or confront it, the more it seems to grow. The more we explain or defend ourselves, the more it reinforces the misperception that it’s better to be extroverted. In my opinion, this says more about extroverts than it does about introverts.
First, it relies on the idea that being extroverted is not only superior but also difficult. In reality, the recipe for extroversion isn’t that complex; insecure, or turbulent, introverts have been using it for years. All you need is a lot of energy, a little noise, enough self-centeredness (or the appearance of it), and the assurance that your behavior will gain other people’s approval. In another era, this attitude may have been considered arrogant, but modern society has remarketed it as “confidence”—the salt of social seasonings. Put yourself first, put yourself out there, pretend to know the answers, take credit for ideas that aren’t yours, and pursue activities that let you make large amounts of noise with large numbers of people. In Etrospeak, this is known as “having fun”; but it can leave many introverts feeling mentally, emotionally, and physically demoralized—the very opposite of having fun. This is because, more than energy, we lack the conviction that’s required to maintain this sort of charade. People often view us as insecure people-pleasers, but assertive introverts possess an underlying, resilient, and often uncredited sense of self-worth that makes us resent the implication that we should be trying to “improve” ourselves by behaving in this manner. Why should we be forced to compete with people who are no better or worse than we are? Why should we feel pressured to fake personality traits that we may not even admire? Unlike many extroverts, our humility may cause us to examine ourselves for the source of this injustice before turning the lens on our detractors, but I suspect that many of us are tired of the way that extroverts take advantage of our well-intentioned hesitancy to monopolize other people’s attention and approval.
I recently watched The Secret Life of Walter Mitty for the first time, and I was struck by the following quote:
Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.
If introverts were as self-serving as many extroverts, the latter would be hard-pressed to match our depth, intelligence, sensitivity, and subtle charm. But those very qualities are what make us wallflowers: beautiful, and all the more fragrant when we’re crushed.
Second, if “survival of the social fittest” means that many extroverts shine at the expense of those who are more unassuming and conscientious, what does this say about their “superiority” in a society that claims that love, kindness, compassion, and humility are some of life’s greatest assets? When extroverts fail, they do it in a world that’s prepared to embrace them; when introverts succeed, we do it alone or with a few good friends. We quietly face the same problems as everyone else, but we do it in a society that bids us succeed while failing to value us. This is the real two-faced Janus: that against our peace-loving inclinations, we’re forced to fight on not one but two different battlefields and then depicted as weak. Yet, we rarely stoop to the same level or allow our outraged sense of justice to overwhelm our self-respect. In another age, this gift of transcendence may have made us the bards, the druids, the healers, the mystics, the oracles, the priests, the philosophers, the prophets, and the sages. The weight of our words would’ve tipped the balance of nations, and our position in society would’ve been revered as well as respected.
Given that extroversion is neither a universally nor a timelessly admired personality trait, it’s hard to understand how extrophilia and introphobia began or why they’re still popular in the US. We tend to promote people who have more energy than wisdom and more charisma than common sense. Action, not reflection, is the extrovert’s strong suit; but of what value are experiences without the wisdom to learn from them? Being the loudest person in a room doesn’t make you good with people, any more than being talkative makes you a good conversationalist. The Apostle Paul said, “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things” (1 Cor. 13:11, NKJV). Perhaps it’s time for us to grow up and give introversion its due—and stop treating personality as if it’s as valuable as character.