MY INTROVERSION is complicit in my depressions. If I’m not careful, my preference for being alone in my own thoughts can lead to a dangerous tendency to isolate, to literally give up on being a social animal. More than once, my brain has responded by shutting down.My introversion has also played an ironic role in the making of one memorable manic episode that rendered me unemployable. In that instance, over a seven or eight-month period, I overcompensated for my introversion by willing myself to succeed in a job that demanded a high level of social interaction. On that occasion, my brain responded by flipping out.
Thus, we have a classic case of how an underlying personality trait can lead to a mood state. Simply knowing that we have bipolar is not enough. Whether it’s introversion or something else, our natural tendencies to default to certain behaviors over others have a way of setting the scene for those depressions and manias that seemingly come out of nowhere. If only it were just bipolar.
Introversion was my gateway into appreciating the link between mood and personality. If you identify as an extravert, trust me - this article applies to you, as well. There’s a lot more going on than meets the eye. I began to develop an insight into this back in 2003, when one of my website readers raised the issue of whether our Myers-Briggs personality types bore any relation to bipolar. Hmm, I thought.
The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is an immensely popular personality test. Numerous self-tests can be found all over the web. The scientific validity of the MBTI has been called into question, but this shouldn’t stop you from using it as a rough guide for developing insights into your own behavior. If you want to have a friendly conversation with another person comparing test scores, by all means go ahead. But please do not judge others based on these labels.
Fortunately, the MBTI has no built-in value judgments. This is in sharp contrast to psychology’s signature personality test, the Five Factor Model (FFM), which not only regards extraversion as preferable to introversion, but views the latter as a sort of pathology, to be lumped with other negative traits such as lack of agreeableness and neuroticism.
The person who would most strenuously object to this, by the way, would be the one who came up with introversion and extraversion in the first place, none other than Carl Jung. Jung, of course, led the type of deep and imaginative and reflective inner life that lends itself so readily to introversion. It is difficult to imagine, for instance, an extravert producing their own Red Book.
Jung’s take on how we tend to view the world in different ways (such as thinking vs feeling) served as the model for the MBTI. Like so many of us picking up the pieces in the wake of a personal disaster (in this case, being ostracized by Freud), Jung was trying to make sense of his life. So it was that I followed up on my reader’s suggestion by asking subscribers to my email newsletter to take an online MBTI test and send me the results, along with their diagnosis.
My Surpise Findings
My first jaw-dropping finding was that eight in 10 of my respondents identified as introverts. Among the general population, by contrast, studies place introverts in the clear minority, at anywhere from one-quarter to less than one-half of the general population.
Had this been a scientific study, of course, I would have made sure all my respondents were in remission from depression and mania before they took the test. Had that been the case, it is likely that my findings would have replicated those of other studies that found extraverts in the majority. But “normal” is merely one phase in our mood cycles. We are depressed way more than manic, and a good many of us are depressed way more than “normal.”
This is important because extraversion-introversion is changeable with mood, not set in stone. As one of my respondents remarked: “When manic I'm as sociable as Bette Midler on cocaine and when I'm depressed, seriously come not near me." Another wrote that eight years before, when he took the test at work in a stimulating environment, he was an extravert, but at home where he could relax away from people he was an introvert.
So maybe my informal survey represents the truer picture, namely that introversion is far more prevalent in our population than conventional wisdom would have us believe.
Is Introversion a bad thing?
At the time, I was beginning to connect my tendency to isolate to my depressions, so I was hardly looking at introversion as an enviable characteristic. In a pair of journal articles I came across, David Janowsky of UNC fingered isolation as a risk factor for suicidality and noted that "increased introversion predicts the persistence of depressive symptoms and a lack of remission.”
This led me to conclude at the time that our best protection against depression is to get out the door and socialize more often. I can’t emphasize how vital this is to our well-being. Nevertheless, I was only seeing half the picture. By 2009, I was beginning to entertain notions of a positive side to introversion, but my thinking only began to crystallize toward the end of 2010.
The precipitating event involved the sweeping changes that the American Psychiatric Association was considering making to a portion of its diagnostic bible, the DSM. Part of this included incorporating a modified version of the FFM as a template for assessing personality disorders.
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Thus, the first draft of the DSM-5 highlighted “introversion” as a pathology, along with “negative emotionality” and “antagonism.”
This led one of my blog readers, Jill, who identified as an introvert, to comment: “What's concerning me is that it suggests the psychiatrists of the world have decided we need to be a nation of Rotarians.”
Could introversion be a good thing?
Not that there’s anything wrong with being a Rotarian, mind you, but if we were to point to some kind of ideal, it would be the capacity to flip the switch from a being a self-assured glad-hander to a thoughtful loner and back again, as the situation demands. These are your “ambiverts,” people who can hold their own in both worlds, whether working as part of a team or flying solo.
We also need to have regard for the fact that absolutes are a rarity. With introversion and extraversion, we tend to lean in one direction or the other, but we’re not necessarily frozen in place. With practice, we can acquire a bit more flexibility, but the effort will always suck energy out of us, and this is the point: Introverts come alive inside their own thoughts, extraverts from other people.
By way of a personal example, on those occasions I do get out of the house, I may unaccountably perk up around people. This happens only when I feel comfortable. Otherwise, at gatherings, I’m the one you will find off in a distant corner, communing with the cheese dip. But when I am at ease, some of my exuberant tendencies will kick in and I may - of all things - find myself the life of the party.
People who have only seen me in these situations would mistake me for an extravert. If they rode home with me, however, they would see me crashing to earth, too spent to stop off and run any errands I may have planned. My psychic battery is drained, no gas in the tank. Nothing, entropy. At this stage, my pressing survival need is asylum, sanctuary, peace and quiet. Mentally, my routine drive home is turning into the Bourne Ultimatum.
Once inside the door, I am a different person entirely than the one from an hour or two hours before. I am savoring the blessed relief of being back inside my own head, flopped on the sofa, sipping an herbal tea. It’s as if I have just completed running a Marathon. My need to recover from my exertions will reflect that.
Richard Nixon - A Case Study
With extraverts, of course, it’s an entirely different story. It’s not that we can’t lead successful lives in their world. But we do need to know how to pace ourselves. Richard Nixon, 37th President of the US, offers an excellent case study. According to Tom Wicker, political columnist at the New York Times back in the sixties through the eighties: “Richard Nixon was an introvert in the extraverted calling of the politician.”
Let us pause for a second to ponder the sheer improbability of a man who came across as a fish out of water, socially awkward, with cartoonish mannerisms, somehow gaining the trust of enough voters to elevate him to the most powerful person on earth. According to one account, our introvert-in-chief arranged it so that at formal White House dinners he would talk to “as few people as possible,” and that no conversation would last more than five minutes.
For a quick contrast, the man he ran against in 1968, Hubert Humphrey, was known as “the Happy Warrior.”
Yet, those close to Nixon describe him as thoughtful and engaging in private, with a powerful intellect. These are qualities that would have taken him high in law or academia, social awkwardness and all, without the burdens of overextending himself in public.
In 1952, it appeared his career was headed in that direction. In the wake of press reports of a personal slush fund, Nixon found himself under pressure to step down as Eisenhower’s Vice Presidential running mate. He responded by booking 30 minutes of TV time and delivering the speech of his life. This included a personal anecdote about a new dog named Checkers - hence the “Checkers Speech.” By the end of his presentation, the camera man was in tears. A vast flood of telegrams poured in, 75 to one in his favor.
Believe it or not, introverts can be formidable in public. Part of this has to do with the ease we experience in being alone, inside our own thoughts. Nixon was the type of person who lived for being in a quiet space, parsing complex issues, and scribbling into his yellow legal pads. This was how he prepared his Checkers speech, spending two days in seclusion, only divulging his thoughts to his wife and two advisers.
But we all know this story had no happy ending, and here we can make a strong case that introversion played a major role in his ultimate downfall and disgrace. His character flaws have been well-documented. If introverts tend to live inside their own thoughts, Nixon was cursed with some peculiarly strange and dark ones. Here, it is safe to speculate that his sense of isolation not only fed his demons but silenced any distress signals. Deep inside your walled-off inner world, no one senses the hells you endure.
Ironically, in his new life as a disgraced ex-President, Nixon may have found a certain inner peace that had eluded him all his life. After an initial period of bad health, financial insecurity, and depression, he settled into the type of calling that best matched his talents and temperament - that of thinker-at-large. Now he could shut himself off in his quiet spaces with his yellow legal pads and scribble to his heart’s content.
From his quiet spaces came a wealth of think pieces, including ten books, numerous articles, and the type of speeches he could deliver on his own terms, to receptive audiences. The world outside his door became a much friendlier place. This time, he could aspire to a more noble calling - being himself.
After a lifetime of struggle, our introvert had come home.
See also: The Idealist and the Highly Sensitive
June 28, 2016