Dear extroverts: a letter from an introvert

Sitting on a bench in San Francisco, the ocean breeze thin and dainty, I only have one thought in my head: people are ridiculous. A group of college students struggle with a selfie stick to my right, a woman with six dogs to my left. And I am here, alone, my phone dead, and yet, perfectly happy.

I am what’s called an introvert, a major personality identified in many theories. From Carl Jung to the Myers-Brigg Type Indicator (MB-TI), introversion is viewed as the opposite of extroversion, like yin and yang. In many theories, every person has a certain degree of both, but tend to lean towards one end. Introverts are more attuned to the inner world of imagination and ideas, rather than rewards in a social environment. We are often, but not always, introspective, thoughtful and more open with small groups of people rather than large.

The key difference between introverts and extroverts is that in social situations, where extroverts thrive, an introvert’s energy depletes.

It’s like an internal battery, but we plug ourselves in different sources. Mine is being peaceful, with music playing as I work on a project, while yours might be a night out with friends. Flip these two, and we might find ourselves to be in very uncomfortable situations.

But it’s not as if introverts strive to avoid people. While we do enjoy spending time alone, we also appreciate the time we spend. Introversion does not automatically imply shyness or a secret hatred of mankind, but it does mean we like to be alone with our thoughts for a while to recuperate before being social.

Scientific research suggests introverted and extroverted brains are wired differently. Everyone’s heard of dopamine, the “reward” chemical given off when, well, rewarding things happen. However, these “rewarding things” are responses to external stimuli, such as the chaos of a party or the resonating bass of a concert. While dopamine energizes extroverts, introverts can often feel overstimulated.

Instead, they turn to another chemical called acetylcholine, a chemical linked to the pleasure of turning inward, powering their ability to think deeply, reflect and focus for a long period of time.

Are we normal? I’d assume so. Are we perceived as normal? I would have to say no. We’re arrogant, too serious, depressed and “need to be out there more.”

From childhood, I remember being told to “play with the other children” when all I wanted was to know what happened next in my book and being asked “Are you okay?” when everyone was playing tag and I was coloring. Our culture prizes sociability, and as a result, introversion is often internalized and misunderstood. Unfortunately, this system fosters guilt in introverts who just want to be themselves.

We have passions, interests, hobbies. We are capable leaders and visionaries. We come off as arrogant because extroversion has set a standard: being a “people person” is a compliment while “loner,” “reserved” and “sensitive” are words that warrant the response “Oh, they’re that guy.” We’re awkward because we try to follow social etiquette written by extroverts. We smile as we listen to small talk while trying to get a few words in. And sometimes that’s okay. Other times we’d like to bite off your tongue (while proclaiming how much your friendship means to us).

In a 2003 article, Jonathan Rauch suggests that “extr[a]verts have little or no grasp of introversion. They assume that company, especially their own, is always welcome. They cannot imagine why someone would need to be alone; indeed they often take umbrage at the suggestion. As often as I have tried to explain the matter to extr[a]verts, I have never sensed that any of them understood” (The Atlantic).

Personally, I think this idea is understandable. While introversion seems natural and wonderful to me, there’s a certain taboo that follows this idea and prevents us from blossoming into the people we’re meant to be.

Because our presence is misunderstood, we are often seen as mysterious. To others, our desire to be alone translates into sitting in the dark, lonely and rather pitiful, but that’s simply untrue.  I have a beautiful closet of clothes. Someone else might have a sketchbook of amazing drawings. Susan Cain, author of “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking”, has a suitcase of books.

“When I was nine years old, I went off to summer camp,” Cain narrates, for a TED talk about introversion. “And my mother packed me a suitcase full of books, which to me seemed like a perfectly natural thing to do … And this might sound antisocial to you, but for us it was really just a different way of being social.”

This is just the tip of the iceberg. She goes on to explain how the greatest reformers in history were introverts — Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt — and how they put themselves in the spotlight even though their brain begged them not to. They were able to create such an impact because people subconsciously understood that they did not take the helm because they loved to direct others or sought attention, but because they believed in the movements they supported. And that is a power all in itself.

There needs to be more balance between introverts and extroverts. A mutual appreciation of each other’s work, if you will, and consideration of someone else’s ideas even though you don’t understand them. While introverts aren’t as “energized” by the rewards in our external environment, it doesn’t mean that we are less enthusiastic or less interested.

We have an incredible view into imagination and individuality, one that should be acknowledged and learned from. Despite what Rauch says, I believe it is possible for extroverts to understand introverts and vice versa, to provide a healthy middle between persistent group work and crippling solitude. Embrace what we have to offer. And try to understand when we hug you and simultaneously say “go away.”

The college students finally figure out how to use their selfie stick. The woman wipes off her forehead as the six dogs stand on the grass to pee. The bench I sit on is damp, cold to the touch but nonetheless comforting in its own uncomfortable way.

“Did you get my text?” my friend asks when I get home.

“No,” I say. “My phone died.”

“Oh. Well I really need you to listen to this new song I found, it sounds so nice … ”