It is very hip to label yourself an introvert. Part of this is due to the well-researched, profound, well-written treatise by Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. If you haven't read it, you are in for a treat (and for some strange reason, it costs less than $3 on Amazon).
Let's correct some misconceptions. Introversion is not about a preference to be alone. It's not about being anxious around other people. It is not about being overwhelmed by cortical activity in the absence of stimulation. Essentially, introversion is about deriving less reward from being the center of social attention. Getting the spotlight is not that important or fulfilling. Extroverts, in contrast, love social attention. It energizes them, it brings out their best qualities, and it bolsters their stamina, extemporaneous thinking, and productivity.
But not everyone can be easily classified as an introvert or extrovert. There are people whose personality style changes in predictable ways. I call them "situationally-bound extraverts." In my life, for whatever reason, large dinner parties where everyone sits around a table in a formal manner pull for my introverted side. Anyone who has been at a dinner party with me can attest to this. Just like anyone who leans toward introversion, this does not mean I am more introspective, creative, defensive, anxious, and it does not mean that I talk less. What it means is that I am uninterested in the spotlight in these particular situations because I don't find the attention beneficial, rewarding, or exciting. I would often rather have a small conversation at the table than run the room with stories or humor. In other situations, I love when the spotlight shifts in my direction.
Like me, your extroverted behaviors might be constrained in easily interpretable ways. Consider a brief atlas of social situations:
- Unstructured situations with unclear rules and norms.
- When there is a clear power imbalance between you and others present.
- When you feel submissive.
- When you feel dominant.
- When your desired outcome conflicts with someone else's.
- When you are open to a possible sexual or romantic liaison when there are more strangers than friends present.
What is important is to discover the "strong situations" that pull for particular sides of your personality (in this case, extroversion or introversion). The same level of importance can be said for knowing the predictable situations when the spotlight is more of a punishment than a reward to others who are a regular part of your social world. The leader that knows this has an edge in influence/persuasion. The parent that knows this can be more sensitive, empathic force for acceptance and change. The romantic partner that knows this can create a more compassionate, loving atmosphere for a lifetime of shared and unshared goals.
It is easy to talk about introverts and extroverts as if there is a clear divide between two groups of people. It is easy to take a test and pigeonhole ourselves as one or the other. In reality, we ignore the power of the situation. When we respond in a similar way to the same situation at different times, we can think of this particular situation as a trigger for how we behave. In this case, we can view situations as part of our personality.
Don't let yourself be classified as any simpler than necessary.
In the same vein, don't lean too heavily on positivity, as there are undeniable benefits to appreciating the shadow sides of your personality and to become whole.
Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a public speaker, psychologist, and professor of psychology and senior scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University. His new book, The upside of your dark side: Why being your whole self -- not just your "good" self -- drives success and fulfillment is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Booksamillion, Powell's or Indie Bound. If you're interested in speaking engagements or workshops, go to www.toddkashdan.com.