There are two poignant memories from junior high and high school which come often into my mind. Realising I worked more efficiently when I had my own space, one day in junior high I moved my desk away from my classmates to a corner in the back of the classroom. Soon after, my teacher approached me cautiously, asking if I was ok. In freshman year of high school, one of my teachers had a class policy in which every student had to answer a certain amount of questions to receive a good participation grade. One day, I received no point. After class, I tried to explain to my teacher that I learn by listening and processing the information at my own speed. After years of struggling to explain why I sometimes liked being silent, I finally understood that I belonged to a group of people who functioned the same as me: introverts.
As the world has gone into lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of “unknowns” in our lives have grown exponentially. Realizing that that I am already half-way through my studies at St Andrews, I have been ruminating more and more on questions that will soon need answers. What are my plans after graduation? How do I know I will make the right decision? And most importantly, how will I cultivate an environment in which I can thrive to the best of my abilities, both personally and professionally? For answers, I turned to a book that had been sitting untouched on my bookshelf for years: The Secret Lives of Introverts: Inside Our Hidden World by Jenna Granneman. This book expertly navigates convoluted misconceptions of introverts embedded in Western society. Through a presentation of neurological data and personal experience of her interlocutors, Granneman plays a key role in amplifying the voice of the introvert.
A reassuring discovery I made through reading this book was that people do not have a choice as to whether they will become extroverts or introverts. People are genetically predisposed to inheriting the genetic makeup that results in introversion. At the very beginning of the book, Granneman highlights the importance of distinguishing temperament vs personality. This is a key distinction in understanding what makes us who we are as individuals. Temperament is the part of you that affects how you perceive your environment: it’s immutable, part of your genetic and biological makeup. Personality, on the other hand, can fluctuate and is contingent upon various life experiences. Whereas temperament is the foundation of your perception of the external world, personality is not. For example, after your first semester of university you may find yourself more comfortable with approaching strangers or trying new things. However, you may still need a couple of days to “recharge” your social batteries after a night out. Becoming accustomed to exploring the boundaries of your comfort zone is your personality changing. Needing time to recuperate afterwards is a part of your temperament.
To illustrate this, Granneman references a scientific study that was conducted by Dr. Nancy Snidman, a researcher from the Child Development Unit at the University of Massachusetts. In the study, babies were presented with external stimuli such as loud objects or flashing lights. The majority of babies reacted calmly, and only a smaller percentage reacted with discomfort to the novel stimuli.
The aversion introverts have to being overexposed to their environment ties into a common phenomenon: the introvert hangover. One of the primary differences between extroverts and introverts is their capacities for external simulation. An extrovert may be able to party for three days straight without mental or physical exhaustion. That is because the more stimuli they are presented with, the more energized they become. Introverts, on the other hand, become physically exhausted and exhibit symptoms akin to those of a real alcoholic hangover. Unlike extroverts, introverts become oversaturated from their external environments, depleting in energy the more they are exposed. As Granneman states, the dopamine reward system of an introvert is significantly less active than that of an extrovert. Just as an introverted baby squeals at the sight of a loud toy, an introverted college student may only bear one night out on the town before their system becomes overactivated. If you are a fellow introvert reading this, my advice to you is this: listen to what your mind is trying to tell you. Your happiness and mental health depend on it. I vividly remember one week where I went out too much. As a result, I was left feeling irritable, cranky, and downright sad, and without any idea why. Eventually I forced myself to spend a night on my own. I journaled, listened to music, watched a movie, daydreamed, and the next day I felt like a new person. Every introvert will have their own limits for going out – whatever yours is, learn what it is, and work with it rather than against it.
One of Granneman’s most important points here is that introversion is not a monolith but a spectrum. She debunks the myth that an introvert is someone who is perpetually shy, doesn’t like parties or crowds, and never speaks up, among other misconceptions. Rather, there are myriad varieties of introversion. The psychologist Jonathan Creek cited four types of introversion: social, thinking, anxious, and restrained. Granneman describes the unique characteristics of each type. For example, if you’re like me and love socializing and meeting new people yet would be blissfully happy spending a week alone in a secluded cabin in the Scottish Highlands, welcome to the club! You’re a thinking introvert!
Quiet by Susan Cain is another exceptional book that investigates the science behind introverted personalities. In particular, Cain discussed one of the common misconceptions about work culture: teamwork is the dreamwork. According to Cain, institutionalized methods such as group “brain-storming” are far from effective. Studies have shown that employees get less work done when collaborating and working together in large, open communal offices in which conversation between workers is promoted. The highest levels of productivity were recorded when employees had time alone and private workspaces to problem solve individually, only joining groups once they’ve collected their ideas coherently by themselves. Have you ever been frustrated when a teacher called on you and you felt yourself stumble over your words, even though you knew the answer to the question? Do you find you work better in tutorials when you have time to think over a question rather than working in pairs or groups? You may be an introvert. If you ever doubt yourself, remember that introverts are no less intelligent, fun or creative than our extroverted counterparts. In fact, some of the world’s famous leaders and entrepreneurs are introverts, such as J.K. Rowling, Bill Gates, and Albert Einstein.
I try never to attach labels to myself. However, introvert is one label I proudly wear, and I have this book to thank for helping me learn and understand more about myself. To all my fellow introverts out there: you are not weird, shy, or antisocial. Our silence is our strength. With our quiet confidence, we can rock the world.