So It Turns Out You’re Not an Introvert, After All

Whichever personality type you identify with, there’s something to glean from the experience of self-isolation

Photo: SolStock/E+/Getty Images

If the great lockdown’s memes are any indication, this global pause has introverts finding out they’re extroverts — and vice versa:

Carl Jung first proposed a psychological theory on introverts and extroverts as personality types in 1921. Since then we’ve come to think of it like this: Introverts gain energy from solitude, while extroverts recharge by being around other people. Psychology broadly recognizes that introversion and extroversion happens along a continuum, but in the popular imagination it’s often perceived as binary.

The idea that people can get all their energy from one source or the other is looking less convincing, however, amidst the mass quarantine that much of the world is now under. We’ve all been forced to sit with ourselves more. And with that mandatory stillness comes an opportunity to examine our relationship to social interaction.

We’ve long lived in a world in which extroverts thrive. Research conducted in the U.S. tells us that extroverts get ahead and tend to be happier while doing so. Perhaps in reaction to that cultural dominance, a sense of introvert pride has been on the rise in recent years, with a legion of self-proclaimed homebodies tweeting witticisms about their hermitry from their couches. From Susan Cain’s bestselling book Quiet to the very notions of “Netflix and chill” and the “Joy of Missing Out”— the allure of staying in has become as aspirational as being seen in the right places.

Using research tools such as the Big Five Inventory-2 and the STAR test on introversion, science can tell us with some degree of accuracy whether our personality tends toward the introverted or extroverted. But while certain innate traits may predispose us to one end of the spectrum, the demands of our culture also shape our social preferences. This makes the coronavirus lockdown a kind of large-scale personality test.

But has it better prepared some people to thrive in the involuntary self-isolation of this pandemic?

It’s too early to say definitively, according to Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, whose work has looked at this continuum. She’s currently conducting research on whether introverts were indeed better prepared for this strange period. While a lot of people in her observation have had a predictable response to the lockdown — introverts adapting seamlessly to the quiet, and extroverts replacing social plans with an ambitious Zoom schedule — not everyone conforms to the type they previously identified with.

“One introverted colleague, who works for a big company, said he misses making eye contact and smiling at people,” Lyubormirsky told me. “So it’s complicated. The truth is that we don’t know yet.”

For some, like my friend Aimi, who is in her thirties and lives with a flatmate in London, the experience has been revealing. “Previously, I’d always outwardly presented myself as an extrovert and mostly acted upon this…manically trying to find social activities, people to meet up with, just so I can feel social,” she told me. “I wanted to learn how to be a bit more introverted — I think I was scared I wouldn’t be comfortable doing it, that I wouldn’t know what I wanted. But turns out, I need my space. I’m quite enjoying this time because I haven’t given myself that in the past.”

Vienda Maria, a life coach, writer, and women’s mentor who frequently works with clients to boost their creativity and live more integrated lives, says it’s impossible to disentangle introversion and extroversion from what our always-on, never-bored culture demands of us. And she sees potential for a kind of reset in this period of self-isolation.

“Introverts being championed is a response to a society and culture that tells you you have to be out and doing things so much of the time,” Maria told me, “It takes a lot of effort to socialize, we have to travel long distances, we have to dress up in certain ways, we have certain expectations we want to meet or have met. I think that becomes too much for people — it’s not really in harmony with allowing ourselves to be.”

Maria points out that everyone has something to glean from the experience of quarantine. “By our nature we are interdependent and we are incredibly social tribal creatures. We need each other, as we’re noticing ever more now. But the way that we’ve been doing it has become unnatural,” Maria said. At the same time, she added, “it’s also really important that we all learn how to be on our own, to be with ourselves, to face ourselves, and see ourselves.”

Perhaps that’s why some introverts are finding themselves unexpectedly eager to join Zoom calls and laugh with their friends, and extroverts might discover that wiling away a Sunday afternoon with a book and no plans is deeply restorative. Stripped of expectations of how we’re supposed to be, staying at home forces us to confront who we are.

That’s not to say it’s easy — or that anyone should feel a pressure to reach a higher level of self-knowledge during a pandemic. But whatever our personality type, when we allow ourselves quiet, we might also discover the joys and creative gifts that doing nothing, and even actual boredom, can bestow. And that discovery could have lasting effects.

As Blaise Pascal famously wrote, “the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.”

Writing about how to create a meaningful life in a chaotic world. Formerly a lifestyle and business reporter. Find me: @rojospinks.

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