by Sydnee Thompson
Thanks in large part to Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, which was published in 2012, introversion has become a bit of an en vogue topic these days. I’ve seen countless articles, memes, and quizzes (as with most things, Buzzfeed has you covered) posted online to help extroverts understand how to interact with us and teach introverts how to embrace what mainstream society sees as a major character flaw.
But many people refuse to believe that introversion is still pathologized. According to internet comment sections and social media, introverts are any — and likely all — of the following: coddled, attention-starved, entitled, narcissistic, socially awkward…you get the idea. People tend to justify these judgments by arguing that 1) introverts are misattributing universal personality traits or experiences to introversion, which demonizes extroverts in the process or 2) they’re using introversion as an excuse to escape accountability for being self-absorbed.
I’m not saying that these kinds of people don’t exist. The problem is that the backlash glosses over the very real consequences that being introverted still has in both personal and professional spaces.
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But what is introversion? In her book, Susan Cain describes introverts as people who expend mental energy by being around other people and replenish that same energy by doing things alone. Scientific American magazine expands on this further by describing an introvert as someone with low registers for enthusiasm and assertiveness. Carl Jung, the psychologist who both sources credit as first popularizing the word, describes introverts as people who are inwardly focused. Most people, however, think of introverts more simply as quiet, often shy, reclusive people who are creative and intelligent but anti-social. The popular definition has some inconsistencies, but it’s still relevant insomuch that it makes things more difficult for introverts who do have those traits and erases the ones who don’t.
Despite the constant misunderstandings, as many as 30-50 percent of people are thought to be introverted in some way (including ambiverts, who possess aspects of both personality types). You’d think that large number of introverted people in the world would make solidarity with them a priority, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Conversations about introversion/extroversion today are often superficial and based on this “us vs. them” dynamic that rests on introverts being pretentious and extroverts being overbearing. But now that people are having honest conversations, superficial or not, about what it’s like to be an introvert in the U.S. today, many people seem quick to dismiss introversion as a trend — another symptom of “special snowflake syndrome.”
But as a kid, there was never a moment where I wasn’t aware of the fact that I was “broken.” Even if I understood the material perfectly on my own, I was marked down on school assignments for not asking questions and participating in class. In college, a meeting with a professor ended with her calling me an ableist slur because I couldn’t and wouldn’t perform extroversion for her; I had a panic attack. (Even though I filed a complaint, she still works at the university in an advising capacity.) And once I began working full time, I was told repeatedly by supervisors that my work was stellar, but I wasn’t cut out for the job if I couldn’t be more “aggressive.” The criticism has been so widespread and consistent in my life — from family, friends, and random people on the street — that, in certain circumstances, even being called “quiet” becomes a trigger.
People have told me I’m too quiet, over and over, hoping it would force me to speak. What it did instead was convince me that I was too much work, and not worth the effort.
So I stopped making an effort, too, and became shy as a result.
Introversion is firmly entrenched as a pathology not just in U.S. culture, but many places worldwide. The World Health Organization listed “introverted personality” as a disease as recently as 2011 — around the same time that Psychology Today reported the American Psychiatric Association was considering adding a similar classification to the DSM-5. Far from niche views, these standards inform how millions of people (particularly those in positions of power) interact with introverts and set them up for failure in social situations. And once you add race and gender to the mix, the prospects get bleaker. For example, as Trudy of Gradient Lair writes in her essay, “The Black Introvert Struggle,” Black women are often assumed to be “uppity” because they further challenge the expectation of Black people as perpetual entertainers and servants.
And while introversion and mental illness are not synonymous, I do think that the heavy stigma against introverted people can make mental health issues worse, as it definitely has for me.
We need to do better at including ambi/introverts in our movements, and in turn, our societies —having to constantly perform extroversion when you’re an introvert is exhausting and psychologically damaging. But there’s an added benefit to giving people more space to be their authentic selves: when we stop creating hierarchies of personality, words like shy, awkward, reserved, or quiet stop being negative traits. Extroverts can be shy or want to hide from the world too, and the only reason they can’t admit that as openly is because popular understanding of these personality types is so rigid. And it has to be, if for no other reason than to privilege certain ways of being over others.
We need to start asking ourselves, particularly as members of marginalized communities, why “aggression,” something that often brings connotations of violence, is something we should value as a sign of competency. We also need to interrogate how these deeply entrenched ideas intersect with ableism and issues of trauma. (Where is the space for people who avoid social situations because of past abuse, or who can’t interact in typical ways because of mental illness?) Popular connotations of extroversion and introversion serve a very specific and narrow demographic. Instead of demonizing one or the other, we need to determine what these labels mean for us specifically as QTPOC, and in a way that allows inclusion for everyone across the spectrum.
We all have unique perspectives that have value — let’s try harder to hear the people talking about them, no matter how softly the words are spoken.
Sydnee Thompson is an editor, writer, and artist living in metro Detroit. They are invested in creating fiction that centers the joy and empowerment of marginalized people and advocating for greater accountability and improvement in the way these groups are portrayed in mass media.