Aug 272010

People sometimes mistake “introvert” for “shy.”

I am not shy. Or rather, I am, but in much the same way as the Princess from “Once Upon a Mattress”

In other words, I’m the kind of shy that doesn’t look very shy.

No, what I am is an introvert.

The technical definition of an introvert is someone who gets energy by being alone or with one or two close friends, and drains energy being in a group. Extroverts, by contrast, gain energy in groups and feel drained when they spend too much time alone. The idea is that introverts expend energy in a group, and have to be alone to recharge, while extroverts expend energy when they’re alone and have to be with a group to recharge.

You can tell your an introvert or an extrovert by thinking about this question:

Imagine that it’s Friday evening and you’ve had a long, hard week. What are you going to do to relax?

If your answer is along the lines of “go out with friends” or “go to a party” or “go dancing,” you’re likely an extrovert.

If your answer is along the lines of “read a book” or “watch a DVD” or “snuggle up with my lovebucket,” you’re more likely an introvert.

It’s not an all-or-nothing thing; many people are somewhere in the middle.

Most statistics say something like 10% of people (in America) are fairly pure introverts. Like me.

This week the students got back – or rather, the student leaders got back. The residence life staff, the tutors, the orientation leaders, those folks. As the “wellness” person on campus, my role is go from group to group, teaching about “wellness.” This week it included: dangerous drinking, stress management, mindfulness, sexual assault, motivational interviewing, sleep hygiene, and (of course) sexual health.

I love this week. There are few domains where I feel more at home than leading a group of students in the direction of self-care. I know that stuff is happening in their heads that may change their lives forever – or at least plant a seed that, when it sprouts years from now, will have an impact. The work I do is important. Critical, even.

But I’m an introvert.

This week I averaged 3 hours per day in front of a groups ranging in size from 10 and 100. The last thing I did, Friday afternoon, was spend an hour in front of the international students, many of whom are jet lagged, culture shocked, and only marginally functional. I had to bring a LOT of energy to that group. It was worth it: they learned some things and, more importantly, they felt good about me and my office and will remember me if they need something. I pushed out every drop of energy and enthusiasm I had and left it in the room with them.

And now I am TOAST. As I walked back to my office, I felt the remnants of my energy dissolving, like sea foam on the beach after high tide. I have a headache. My muscles feel achy, like I’m recovering from a fever, or like I biked 100k yesterday. My brain is dull, slow, unresponsive. Like the engine of a beat up old lawnmower.

Dear extroverts of the world take note: this is a real, physical experience. I wasn’t doing hard manual labor but my body and brain are exhausted. Depleted. Drained. As a public service announcement, I would like to draw this to your attention:

If you or your partner is an introvert, sex can be a great energizer. It will, almost by definition, come from WILLINGNESS, rather than DESIRE for sex. But if you’re willing to get started with some back massages and low-key, low-light, quiet intimacy, sex with someone an introvert trusts and appreciates can do a LOT to revive, renew, and reenergize the introvert.

You can’t demand sex from a drained introvert – you might not even be wise to ASK for sex. But if you suggest that maybe the introvert take a nice long hot shower and you could maybe give her a massage and make a make-out session and see what else feels right, that can go a long way in reviving the introvert’s inner light.

Emily Nagoski

  15 Responses to “are you an introvert?”

Comments (15)
  1. Oh my gods, thank you, thank you, thank you.

  2. Kudos on a great post. I have learned much from you and a couple of other introverted women blogging as to what an introvert is. I always self centeredly thought that they were just an extrovert waiting to get out but having to overcome severe shyness to do so. Ignorance is not bliss.

    I understand how draining public speaking is, especially for an introvert. You have to be exhausted. Even as an extrovert who LOVES public speaking, I am exhausted when I am done Yes I do draw energy from the crowd but I am so energized with the adrenaline flowing that I am totally spent when I am done.

    Blessings on you and yours
    John Wilder

  3. As an extrovert who has put a lot of energy into learning how to interact with introverts (and now has a number of close introverted friends) I’m glad you’re giving other extroverts tips. It’s certainly worth the effort to wait 10 more seconds of silence so the other will talk :)

    I would slightly amend the description of introversion/extroversion though, so it is less focused on social interactions. I’d say, Introverts gain energy internally (e.g. internal processing of experiences or being with people they can reveal their internal self to) while Extroverts gain it from external experiences. For instance, I, an extrovert, can gain energy from a solitary walk around a stimulating environment (pretty neighborhood, museum etc.) because the external stimulus is still there, even though I am alone.

    • This has roused my curiosity – I also get energized by museums, nature, London, etc, but only when they’re not hugely crowded with strangers, in which case the crowd sucks up all the energy I get from the art, trees, architecture, etc. I honestly couldn’t tell you whether it feels like that energy seems to come from inside me or from the environment.

      This motivates me to ask the extroverts I know whether or not this is true for them.

  4. Introverts unite! (Yea, I am unwinding after a long week by reading Sex Nerd half past midnight^_^)

  5. I am unwinding after a rocky week by settling down with the internet, some licorice, and a good book that I just purchased after a long walk :)

  6. Thanks for this Emily; it has certainly helped me to understand my introversion better and explains why I need chunks of time alone to recover rather than having to spend more time being sociable. I find this especially on business trips where you work hard for a long day; colleagues then I’m sure don’t understand why I don’t want to spend the evening drinking with them too, whereas I just need time alone.

    In my experience two things will make this worse: being shy (as well as introvert, like me; yes really!) and having an analytical nerdy brain (also like me).

    And I can identify too with being totally drained after public speaking, however much one enjoys what one is doing.

  7. My problem with crowds at museums is not one of “energy” but rather that people will not shut up and pay attention to what is in front of their eyes.

    I am not suggesting the kind of reverential silence appropriate amidst the actual bodies and rubble of Guernica, say, as opposed to the famous painting… but if you’re standing in the middle of the Guggenheim and the only thing you can think of is to loudly converse with your wife about whether you remembered to get the Volvo fixed, you have no business there. Or at any gallery, really.

    Florence King once defined a misanthrope as “someone who doesn’t understand why solitary confinement is considered a punishment.”

    Accordingly, I propose an alternate take on intro/extroversion. Let us regard introversion simply as slow-burn misanthropy; the realization that most people are dullards, brutes or fools and the more people involved with anything, the worse it gets. Therefore the more desirable social environment is a small group of those known to be worthy and of agreeable company.

  8. My answer to your question about what do I think of doing after a hard week was immediately a quiet night on the couch with a good book, maybe a fire and definitely my ‘lovebucket’ or other close intimates.

    Even so I’m often mistaken for an extrovert. I can zing with people interaction but I crash afterwards and malls are my worst nightmare. Thinking of interversion and extroversion as more of a continuum makes more sense to me; I’m probably more middle grounded but leaning to the introvert side.

  9. Thank you so much.

    People often connect introversion with being not just shy, but anti-social. Why don’t you ever come out with us?? Because after a long day of working with you, I need to catch my breath! For my part, I love, love, love public speaking and being with people – but boy does it wear me out!

  10. Wow, thank you so much.

    My first serious relationship crashed and burned in large part because he was an extrovert and for the life of him could not get why I felt hesitant to attend parties, outings, and other such events, and felt like it was a rejection of him. I would constantly tell him almost verbatim what you said: that social interaction is pleasant for me, but so, so, so exhausting (especially after a busy day of school and work), and definitely a “physical experience”. He just didn’t get it, and much as my relationship with him deteriorated, so did the relationship with our mutual friends who didn’t understand why I disliked a constant stream of people in our shared living space.

    Thankfully I am now dating another analytical, slow-burn misanthrope (excellent way of describing this, thank you GeorgeFromNY) and things are much more pleasant. Now that I’m with someone who completely, 100% understands my introversion and doesn’t want to seek out the largest, loudest group of people to hang out with but would rather do something quiet and private, I’m so much more satisfied and fulfilled. Also, I have about 7 TIMES the amount of sex than I was having, probably because I/my libido am/is not totally burnt out by forced social situations.

  11. Emily, you work with international students. What are your experiences with the culture shocked Indians?

  12. This lesson is actually probably the biggest thing I learned from being in the Baptist Student Union for 2.5 years in college. I was a study leader my second year, and part of the lessons in leadership training was how to make the new folk feel welcome by getting out there and talking, which I’ve always sucked at because I’m an introvert and also a little shy. The pastor actually gave us tips on re-energizing between class and BSU meetings so that we could have the spoons (so to speak) to deal with it.

    Aside from that and meeting my boyfriend, I probably would have done better to not get involved with that group. But that lesson and my boyfriend are important enough that I almost broke even anyway.

    • As I was reading Emily’s post, “spoons” was all I could think. (That, and compliments toward how articulate she is.)

  13. I liked this post a lot about being introverted and so. I’m a guy but I feel myself described in most of what you wrote.

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