– by Regina Hopkins, Introvert Unbound
Introversion is typically defined by where you get your “energy.” Even in grad school when I was studying introversion vs. extroversion in depth, the energy definition was the one that was taught. All the books I read and lectures from my professors told me, “It’s about if you get your energy from being around others, or being alone that determines your preference for introversion or extroversion.” While I accepted this definition and went along my merry way, I never really bought into it 100%.
As fresh information comes to light and we learn new things, we re-vamp old definitions and ideas. While I’m not completely dismissing the original definition of introversion, more than 10 years later, I found a definition I like better and feels more accurate to me. Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, stated in a TIME article in 2012 that introversion is really about a preference for less stimulation. When I heard that definition, it just rang more true for me.
If you were to observe me during my first year in college, you would probably describe me as an extreme introvert. I kept to myself. I was almost painfully shy and quiet. I isolated myself a lot and I didn’t really know how to make friends very easily. Most people would assume I liked or had a strong preference for being alone. However, some of those traits could also easily overlap with being socially anxious. (Don’t confuse a preference for introversion with being socially anxious because they are definitely two different things).
It’s simply the motivating factors for the socially anxious person versus the motivating factors for the introverted person that create a distinction between the two. The introvert is likely to avoid people due to their feelings of being over-stimulated by the talking, the voice volume etc., while the socially anxious person is driven to avoid people because it makes them feel anxious.
During that first year in college, I didn’t like who I was, felt uncomfortably isolated, and had no friends. Although I knew I was a natural introvert, I certainly wasn’t obtaining any more energy from being alone and actually wished I could be around people more! I made a conscious effort to become more social: I started talking to people more; I went to any and every party I was invited to—and even some I wasn’t; I acted like a wild drunk college girl (even though I didn’t drink at all); I would party the night away and end up dancing on bars with my friends; I went on ski trips with friends and planned road trips; I went to concerts; I even got a job at the hub of my college campus—our information desk—where I would interact with hundreds of people every day.
As a result of all these actions, I increased my number of friendships and noticed my energy wasn’t necessarily decreasing the more I was around others. Surprisingly, I felt like my energy levels were increasing! What could this be attributed to? Maybe all these years I was a little raging extrovert, just waiting to be unleashed?! I was feeling more confused than ever about if I was a true introvert or an extrovert.
Even as a kid I can remember being more sensitive—one of the stereotypical signs of being an introvert. I preferred quieter places. Loud noises hurt my ears. I enjoyed going to the library and being by myself reading books and magazines, soaking in new information. I usually only had a couple close friends at any given time that I would hold on to dearly. I was definitely never the school social butterfly.
On my experimental path and process to become more social during my first year in college, I believe I also increased my tolerance for being around more stimulating environments. Now more than a decade after my college days and with continued daily practice, I believe I have learned to expand my flexibility around tolerating extra stimulation to the point where I now have a super large buffer that keeps me protected. Still, I remain a natural introvert.
Many years ago I would have NEVER gone to a concert. I couldn’t. There were too many people and the loud music was painful to my ears. Fast forward more than a decade later, I now have a side job working at large-scale concert venues and I actually like it! I still need to wear ear plugs because after all I’m still an introvert, but I’ve been able to expand how much stimulation I can handle.
So what does all this have to do with Susan Cain’s “new definition” vs. the “old definition” of introversion? I believe that the old definition of stating that “introversion is a preference for where you obtain your energy from (meaning: being around others vs. being by yourself)” just doesn’t seem to break it down to the real core component. After my experiences in college where I was alone for so long and knowing that the simple act of being alone wasn’t the main factor that “recharged” me, I do think that this new definition of needing less stimulation seems to make a lot more sense.
I now regularly obtain more energy from being around others and believe it’s not actually the other people that eventually end up draining me, it’s that I’ve hit my point of over-stimulation (and while that could partly be due to the people, it could also be due to the environment, the noise levels around me, the visual overload on my senses, and any other number of things including my internal feelings at the time and/or external or environmental factors). And it’s at that point when I hit my over-stimulation threshold that my batteries have drained to a critical level that I take comfort in my introverted self.