Some people naturally prefer quiet settings and spending time alone or in the company of only one or two other people. Thirty to fifty percent of the population is like this. This is introversion, a common and naturally occurring personality trait. However, sometimes introverted folks can start to feel like there is something wrong with them.
Our society promotes the idea that everyone should be outgoing and gregarious, with a large group of friends and a busy social schedule. Because of this, introverts may start to feel like they need to change who they are in order to be accepted and successful. This can lead to self-doubt, anxiety, and a neglect of the gifts that come along with introversion. Here are some tips to help introverts accept and care for themselves.
Understand introversion. There is nothing wrong with you!
A common explanation of the difference between introverts and extroverts revolves around where people get their energy from. Introverts tend to lose energy when they are around other people and gain energy when they are alone. Extroverts are the opposite – they gain energy when they are around other people and lose energy when they are by themselves. There is nothing right or wrong with either of these ways of being in the world. What is important is that you know how to best replenish yourself. It is also important that the people in your life understand and accept how you function best, allowing you to recharge in quiet when needed.
One of the reasons for this difference is that introverts' nervous systems are very reactive. Research shows that introverts respond more quickly and intensely to stimulation, both outside of themselves and internally. One of the parts of the brain that is highly-reactive in introverts is the amygdala. Susan Cain explores introversion in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. She writes, “The amygdala serves as the brain's emotional switchboard, receiving information from the senses and and then signaling the rest of the brain and the nervous system how to respond. One of its functions is to instantly detect new or threatening things in the environment – from an airborne Frisbee to a hissing serpent – and send rapid-fire signals through the body that trigger the fight-or-flight response.”
Because of the high-reactivity of introverts' amygdala, introverts are much more sensitive to sound, movement, texture, smell, and changes in the environment than extroverts. If an introvert and extrovert are sitting together in a room and there is a slight noise outside, the introvert will notice it right away while the extrovert might not even register it. Furthermore, because the amygdala is in the limbic system, the emotional center of the brain, the introvert may not only register the sound, but also have an emotional response to the sound. Cain writes introverts “tend to think and feel deeply about what they've noticed, and to bring an extra degree of nuance to everyday experiences.”
All of this is to say that an introvert's brain at rest is simply more active than an extrovert's brain. This is neither good or bad, just the way things are. Because of this difference in brain activity, introverts and extroverts vary considerably in how much outside stimulation they need to function best.
Schedule downtime. Find quiet and spacious places.
Introverts need quiet more than extroverts. One of the most important self-care practices for introverts is regular time in quiet environments or time alone. Make sure that you are regularly taking time for yourself, particularly if you have to spend a lot of time in stimulating environments for work. Find quiet places where you can take a break. If you have to go to a crowded event or party, take some time to go outside every once in a while.
These breaks are also good times to practice mindfulness. Notice your breathing and the temperature of the air on your skin. If you are outside, notice what the sky looks like, how the clouds are moving or how the stars are shining. Listen to the wind in the trees. Take in the present moment. Connect with yourself. And then go back in when you are refreshed.
Cain writes, “Once you understand introversion and extroversion as preferences for certain levels of stimulation, you can begin consciously trying to situate yourself in environments favorable to your own personality – neither overstimulating nor understimulating, neither boring nor anxiety-making. You can organize your life in terms of what personality psychologists call 'optimal levels of arousal' and what I call 'sweet spots,' and by doing so feel more energetic and alive than before.”
It is important to plan ahead and find those “sweet spots” so that you don't fall into the trap of avoiding. If you are not getting enough quiet time for yourself, then that work party you have to go to might seem like an intolerable nightmare that you want to bail on. When we start avoiding things, we open the door to guilt and lethargy. But if you plan quiet time ahead of, during, and after the party, you are taking care of yourself in a healthy way that leads to more energy, instead of guilt and self-doubt.
Remember that you don't need anyone's permission to take a break or leave a party early. Sometimes introverts force themselves to stay in overstimulating environments because they don't want to seem rude or weird. But it is okay to step outside or leave after an hour if it is too much for you right then. You don't have to explain to anyone else why you spent all weekend at home. If you do want to explain, it can be as simple as “I need some quiet time,” leaving it at that.
Embrace the gifts of introversion.
Introversion comes with a lot of very important gifts. As mentioned above, introverts tend to be more sensitive, both physically and emotionally. Introverts are usually very discerning and thoughtful. Introverts tend to be good listeners and understand things quickly. Introverts are drawn to the arts and sciences more than extroverts.
Cain notes, “The highly sensitive tend to be philosophical or spiritual in their orientation, rather than materialistic or hedonistic.... They often describe themselves as creative or intuitive.... The love music, nature, art, physical beauty. They feel exceptionally strong emotions – sometimes acute bouts of joy, but also sorrow, melancholy, and fear. Highly sensitive people also process information about their environments – both physical and emotional – unusually deeply. They tend to notice subtleties that others miss – another person's shift in mood, say, or a lightbulb burning a touch too brightly,”
These are all wonderful qualities that an introvert may overlook in themselves. If you are an introvert, you have wonderful gifts that the world needs. You can offer deep support to others, and help them think through things in a nuanced, empathetic way. You probably know how to create comfortable environments for yourself and others. You may understand artistic, scientific, and/or theoretical fields easier than others, and can contribute to these fields for the betterment of all. Take some time to notice and appreciate these strengths that you have. Make a commitment to using these gifts for yourself and others.
Cultivate quality friendships.
There is often a misperception that all introverts or shy, or that they don't like being around others. This is not true. Shyness and introversion are actually two separate qualities. Cain writes “Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation, while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating. Shyness is inherently painful; introversion is not.” Because of this, there can be shy introverts and calm introverts, just as there can be shy extroverts and calm extroverts.
Introverts typically do enjoy the company of others, although they prefer to only interact with one or two people at a time. If they are around a large group of people, they may be fine for an hour or so, but find themselves tiring much more quickly than others. Introverts also tend to prefer deeper, more meaningful connections and conversations rather than small talk, which many introverts dislike.
Introverts prefer to have a few close friends rather than a large group of acquaintances. So find and cultivate quality friendships. Spend time in one-on-one conversations with people you feel comfortable with. Find people who share similar interests in arts or sciences and plan time around those interests. Maybe this means taking a friend or two to the museum or to watch that new documentary about the solar system. Ensure that you have people in your life who understand and support your need for quieter environments and enjoy the same things you do.
Practice mindfulness. Find quiet and spacious places inside yourself.
Practicing meditation and mindfulness can be helpful for everyone, but may offer special benefits to introverts. As we have discussed, an introvert's brain at rest is still a very busy place. Introverts may be more likely to get lost in their thoughts than extroverts, sometimes losing touch with the present moment and their bodies. Meditation and mindfulness can help introverts get some distance from their thoughts, creating a more spacious awareness internally. Finding the moments of stillness between your thoughts and between your breaths will help your mind quiet and relax.
One of the major research findings on meditation and mindfulness practices is increased connectivity between the amygdala and other regions of the brain. This means that even if an introvert's amygdala is highly-reactive at baseline, meditation will increase connections to other parts of the brain that will help moderate the high activity of the amygdala. If we think of a highly-reactive amygdala as being quick to signal the fight-or-flight response, an introvert may be more likely to interpret unexpected sounds or changes in the environment as a threat. With regular meditation, the amygdala will connect to other parts of the brain that will help the amygdala more quickly and accurately determine that stimuli in the environment are not threatening, leading to a decrease in stress.
Practicing meditation and mindfulness can help you find and keep that quiet place inside yourself, so it will be easier to venture out into the noisy world without getting overwhelmed and losing touch with the unique gifts you have to offer the world.
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Here you will find articles contributed by members of our team. We hope to provide helpful information here to inspire mindful living and general wellness. The information provided here is not a substitue for professional mental health advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you need to speak to a professional regarding your mental health, please make an appointment.