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Introverts Are Not Mentally Ill

I became an extrovert at about age nine.  In fact, I quickly became the class clown, a role I play to this day.

Until my 30s, I thought there was something wrong with introverts. No matter, more air time for me!  An extrovert gains energy from others, and an introvert from him or herself. That is to say, when in a group, the extrovert becomes more powerful when receiving attention from others, and the introvert is drained.

As an example, my friend Bruce Hancock is a gifted painter, writer and public speaker, with a deep, resonant voice. He can give a lecture – almost always met with loud appreciation – and is spent. I can be exhausted, ill and ill-tempered, but if I give a lecture to a responsive group, I am on a natural high. As I leave the lecture hall, I usually  start humming the song, The Man That Got Away, sung by Judy Garland in the Movie A Star Is Born. Not sure why I do it, but I do every time.

  1. G. Jung advanced the notion of archetypes, including introverts and extroverts. Isabel Briggs Myers and her mother Katharine Briggs became very rich by capitalizing on Jung’s work and created the Myers-Briggs test, which categorizes people into 16 personality types. It’s fun to take the test, and usually validates the traits that one thinks he or she has. Organizations have spent millions having proponents administer the exam, then explain why we are different, and how we can get along better with those whose personality traits are not like our own.

As a practical matter, it really doesn’t help at all. When workers aren’t getting along, one is just as  likely to say, “What do you expect? I’m an ISTJ.” Justifying one’s behavior is much like astrology:  “I’m a Virgo and you’re a Sagittarian. Get over it.”

As an extrovert, I spent much of my life feeling sorry for introverts, thinking they were flawed. “Speak up, Pogue, what’s the matter with you?” After years of lecturing and leading groups (both civilians and the incarcerated) I finally realized there was nothing wrong with them at all. Unlike me, they only speak when they have something to say. They have no need to rush the podium, wrestle the speaker to the floor, thrust their knee in his sternum and say, “It’s MY turn to talk.”

Eventually, I realized that introverts were as profound – if not more so – than extroverts.  The nonverbal message is, “What I have to say is as significant as what you have to say, but I have less need than you to say it.”

Once I figured that out, I began actively seeking their input, often, teasing them, “So, Rodney, do you have any thoughts about this?” Or, “James, you’re the life of the party, give us your insights.” If they were comfortable that I wasn’t mocking them, they usually offered a comment, almost always cogent.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of evoking input from an introvert happened while I was working as a psychologist at Folsom Prison in Sacramento. I led a group called “The lifers Group.” That’s right, prisoners who were serving life sentences.  In one of the groups, a tall, thin, 50-ish African American man would stand four feet away from me during the entire one hour session. He glared at me, never sitting down on the stools with the other participants. And, he never spoke. My new-found appreciation of introverts served we well here: about every five minutes I would look at him and say, “Mr. Smith, say something.” Every time he would make a salient, insightful point.

What’s the bottom line? Take an introvert to lunch.

Painting by Bruce Hancock

Painting by Bruce Hancock

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