Introverts and Extraverts: They Aren’t What You Think
Often, when people talk about introverts and extraverts, they think in terms of whether people enjoy social interactions. In fact, the true definitions of introversion and extraversion have to do with where a person finds meaning – and for this reason, knowing which you are can help you make life decisions that leave you happier and more fulfilled.
I was surfing the web the other day and came across a site that defined introverts as people who do not enjoy social situations and who are more comfortable alone. Now, if the author had prefaced the word ‘introvert’ with the word ‘social’, then you wouldn’t be reading this article because I wouldn’t have written it. The site purported to be describing psychological introversion but pitched products and services geared specifically to a social definition of introvert, so my hackles rose and I jumped upon my soap box to address what is one of my pet peeves. To state it clearly and unambiguously: Psychological introversion and extraversion are not measures of how comfortable you are (or aren’t) in social situations.
The concept of psychological introversion and extraversion was originally described by the Swiss psychoanalyst, Carl Jung, to explain two different ways people create meaning in their lives. A Jungian introvert derives meaning from the development of a rich internal life, and it is in the exploration of that internal life that they are most comfortable. To quote the Merriam Webster dictionary: Introversions “the state of or tendency toward being wholly or predominantly concerned with and interested in one’s own mental life.” A Jungian extravert, on the other hand, creates meaning in the interaction with things in the external world, and it is in the exploration of the external world that they are most comfortable. Merriam Webster again: Extraversion is “the act, state, or habit of being predominantly concerned with and obtaining gratification from what is outside the self.” While this might sound like it is no different from the idea that introverts are ‘people who do not enjoy social situations’ there is a huge difference. In the true Jungian use of the concept, the focus is on where an individual derives meaning not how, and it often has no relation whatsoever to a person’s comfort level at cocktail parties.
The confusion between social introversion/extraversion and psychological introversion/extraversion is fueled by the fact that most examples used to explain the concepts depend on observable behaviors – which are social due to the mere fact that they are observable. And to stress clarity, most examples are presented as polar opposites. So you will see things like “extraverts are gregarious and like parties and community gatherings and political demonstrations” and “Introverts like solitary activities like reading and writing, computer games, and listening to music.” See what I mean? Psychological introverts do indeed have social graces and enjoy parties and can be just as passionate about public demonstrations as the next guy. Psychological extraverts enjoy music, and reading and writing too.
Psychological introversion/extraversion is a continuum within each of us. We all prefer one over the other (deriving meaning internally versus externally), but all of us have the capacity for and often enjoy a wide variety of social introverted/extraverted behaviors. That’s why it gets so confusing when people try to apply a single label to describe someone solely based on observable behavior.
Knowing whether you are a Jungian introvert or a Jungian extravert can be very important in helping you to be more comfortable with yourself. It can help you make difficult decisions about careers, determine what kinds of skills you are likely to excel at and what kinds you are not, understand why some environments are better for you than others, and choose products and services best suited to your temperament. The same can be said about knowing whether you are primarily a social introvert or a social extravert.
If they can both provide the same type of information, why all the fuss? Why is this issue one I am willing to get up on a soap box for? Well, first of all I am a stickler for accuracy, and psychology, particularly styles theory, is a main focus of my company. But just being accurate is not what drives me on this issue. I am passionate about helping people to explore and understand who they are not just for the curiosity of knowing, but so that they can use that awareness to make life choices that fit who they are. This is impossible if the concepts that people use are applied incorrectly. While both concepts provide useful information and knowledge, conclusions drawn about one (Jungian introversion) based on the other (social introversion) are bound to be flawed.
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About Dr. Gary M. Jordan, Ph.D.
Gary Jordan, Ph.D., has over 35 years of experience in clinical psychology, behavioral assessment, individual development, and coaching. He earned his doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the California School of Professional Psychology – Berkeley. He is co-creator of Perceptual Style Theory, a revolutionary psychological assessment system that teaches people how to unleash their deepest potentials for success. He’s a partner at Vega Behavioral Consulting, Ltd., a consulting firm that specializes in helping people discover their true skills and talents. For more information, visit https://www.YourTalentAdvantage.com.
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