The introspection of introverts: Those who choose a quieter path are not alone

| Friday, April 13, 2012

When Kathleen George was growing up, books were her constant -- and sometimes only -- companions. Her obsession with reading caused her mother to occasionally hide George's books, forcing her to go outside and play.

"I was very happy with that one kind of voice coming at me, that kind of dialogue" says George, a North Side resident, who teaches theater at the University of Pittsburgh and is a novelist.

Years later, George took the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, a questionnaire that measures personality types and how people perceive and react to the world.

"I came out as an introvert, and, all of a sudden, it made sense to me," says George. "And not only that I was an introvert, but that I was intuitive. I thought, 'Yeah, that sounds about right.' "

George is not alone. It's estimated anywhere from 25 percent to 50 percent of Americans are introverts and prefer small groups or one-on-one encounters to large gatherings and parties. A new book, "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking" (Crown, $26), by Susan Cain, and a provocative article in Time magazine earlier this year on the subject have opened up a dialogue.

Introverts are generally quiet and don't purposely draw attention to themselves. But they are not what would be classified as shy. George and her peers have no problem being with people as long as they have time to recover. It's the difference between having a fear of social situations or just preferring to be alone or in small groups.

"Being in social situations drains their energy," says Dr. David Wheeler, an associate professor of psychology at Robert Morris University. "In order to recharge themselves, they need to be by themselves."

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett both seem to fall in the introvert camp, preferring quiet introspection to socializing. Other famous introverts include Steven Spielberg, J.K. Rowling and Eleanor Roosevelt.

In comparison, Wheeler says, extroverts feel at a loss when they are alone. Think Bill Clinton or Steve Jobs. They crave attention and recharge themselves by surrounding themselves with other people.

As an introvert, Sophia Dembling does not look forward to attending conferences. But sometimes the author of "The Introverts Corner" for Psychology Today magazine has no choice but to mingle with hundreds of people. She copes by finding ways to make "smaller connections within the larger whole."

But Dembling, who lives in Dallas, recognizes that she needs to shed her natural reticence and be personable when interacting in crowds or at social functions.

"If I go in there and don't perform well, if I don't do a good job glad-handing and I don't meet a lot of people, it doesn't really do me a lot of good -- and it could to me a lot of harm if I come off looking like a clod," says Dembling, the author of "The Introvert's Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World," to be published this fall by Perigee Books. "I try to figure out how I can make it work within my strengths."

Dembling says she works alone most of the time, which is perfectly suited to an introvert's makeup. Situations that involve constant interaction are naturally avoided. This is also good career advice for introverts.

"There's no point in trying to fit themselves into the career path of an extrovert," Wheeler says, noting that professions that involve little interaction, like computer technology, fit the introvert makeup.

Teaching would not seem to be a good career for an introvert, but it suits George well enough. She focuses on being prepared in classes, but for years another aspect of her career -- directing plays -- gave her difficulty.

"I could do it but it was a forced thing," George says. "It took a big toll on me. I don't know how else to explain it. I was overly exhausted by it."

George finally found a way to direct without draining her energy. She started meeting with actors individually for "hours at the time, working on their role, their interior monologue," she says. "It was a really intense one-on-one kind of experience. Not everybody directs that way, but I got a lot of results by turning it into a kind of intimacy about the role. ... And that was a chance to be my most comfortable self."

Even though they shun public pronouncements and grandstanding, it's a myth that introverts don't want to be heard or express themselves. Social media -- notably Twitter and Facebook -- provide introverts with forums suited to their demeanors.

Wheeler thinks the inherent time lag between responses on social media sites is a boon for introverts.

"When you're talking to people, you're expected to respond within half a second to second," Wheeler says. "In social media, the conversations can occur over the space of days. There's time to think about your response, and that's important to introverts."

Dembling is very active on social media, blogging for "The Introverts Corner." The response to her work -- most often from fellow introverts -- is constant and steady, so much so she's been asked if her blog has become a support group.

She prefers to view her online presence as a natural and comfortable outlet for her temperament.

"We like being in front of our computers," Dembling says. "We often are comfortable expressing ourselves in writing. It's a perfect way to interact. I'm on Facebook all the time. I work alone so that's my office water cooler."

But there are perils and pitfalls if introverts rely too much on social media and connecting through the Internet. When things get personal, Dembling advises it's best to resort to old-fashioned means of communication.

"Sometimes, I have to push myself out of my computer zone," Dembling says. "There are certain things that you say, 'This is not for email.' You pick up the phone. You don't fight with a friend on email. I learned that lesson the hard way."

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