Introvert vs. Extrovert. Plus Therapy.

A great New Yorker article about Al Gore in this week’s issue, written by David Remnick. My favourite part (emphasis mine):

Politics was a horrible career choice for him. He should have been a college professor or a scientist or an engineer. He would have been happier. He finds dealing with other people draining. And so he has trouble keeping up his relations with people. The classical difference between an introvert and an extrovert is that if you send an introvert into a reception or an event with a hundred other people he will emerge with less energy than he had going in; an extrovert will come out of that event energized, with more energy than he had going in. Gore needs a rest after an event; Clinton would leave invigorated, because dealing with people came naturally to him.

By coincidence, I was talking to a psychologist this morning and, on a tangent, we talked about whether I’m an introvert or an extrovert.

What I told her was this: I was a relatively comfortable introvert as a child (other people were less comfortable: I had teachers try and help me “reach out” to other kids), and I am still fundamentally that way. But somewhere along the ride I discovered the joys of other people, and I’ve taught myself social skills — small talk, conversational ebb and flow, and so on — to allow me to live in that world. I’ve had a lot of help with this, from my parents, from folks at the YMCA, from my experiences in community radio, working in the newspaper composing room.

And of course it would be hard to imagine being an introvert and living on Prince Edward Island: the PEI operating system doesn’t support introversion very well.

Speaking of psychologists: I’m not in therapy now, but I’ve had some experience with it (after a particularly bad breakup about 18 years ago sought out a counsellor for a summer). Psychotherapy has something of a stigma attached to it, although probably less nowadays than 20 years ago. It gets made fun of for Woody Allen and Bob Newhart reasons, there’s a protestant “vanity is evil” ethic at work, and there’s a common fear of, misunderstanding of, and paranoia about dealing with mental health (ironic given that most people wouldn’t think twice about going to a doctor for the flu or a cold).

My personal skittishness about therapy was mostly about not feeling as though “things could be bad enough for me” to need help. This was only amplified when, sitting in the waiting room, I would hear the clients with the appointments before me crying and wailing and throwing things and generally, I thought, in “real need of help.” Hard to make “feeling bad after a breakup” feel worthy of attention in that environment.

But I stuck with it, and I did find it helpful. The immediate break-up induced concerns — nobody loves me, etc. — were quickly extinguished, and we went on to talk about loftier issues. Therapy, at least of the sort in which I was engaged, places a lot of stock in the notion that simply talking about things to a disinterested, listeningful person will be of help in and of itself. And it was.

I didn’t come out of the experience with a checklist of “things I need to do to make my life better.” But I did come to understand more about the way that I think, what drives my choices, and what I deserved from a “deep and committed loving relationship” (therapist’s phrase, not mine; it’s stuck with me to this day, though).

Perhaps more than anything else, becoming comfortable with the notion that my mental well-being is important was a victory (and something that I should return to more often).

If you have an inkling that therapy might be useful to you, I encourage you to seek it out. The worst that can happen is that you’re out an hour’s wages for a therapist.


Ken's picture
Ken on September 15, 2004 - 02:50 Permalink

I’ll bet you get energy — a buzz — reading the comments on your blog. Although this is very different than a crowded social situation, it is social. Just a lot less dynamic, and of course you have full control. You may delete a post if you wish. In Live from Formosa I heard the pride with which you declared you have only once removed a post, and only then at the request of someone affected by it.

It’s always the introvert who feels inept, and has to work at people skills. I can’t recall hearing of an extrovert who wished they could be more of a wallflower, or tried to reduce their people skills. Toastmasters is a group that supports public speaking, and books like How to win Friends and Influence People have no opposites. Socialness is positive, but so is reflection. It’s Aversion that must be mourned more than Introversion. Turning inward, or outward, understanding is found; couldn’t a person be very introverted and extroverted at the same time? The notion that we are one or the other, which I remember being put to me in some high school class, is really a false one. I think it would more accurately be called reflectiveness and socialness — both of which describe Bill Clinton. And you.

oliver's picture
oliver on September 15, 2004 - 17:14 Permalink

That article really grabbed me too. Amazing that something so big could be a scoop, but I think it must be, because who wouldn’t be curious to know how this man feels, and yet besides a sound bite or quote from a political speech seemingly the national media have offered nothing up. Of course, with so public a figure you have to wonder whether you’re reading the real dope even after six generations of biographers go looking for it, but Remnick sure made it seem like we were seeing the real man. That’s his job, I suppose. I wonder to what extent this is a bold extrapolation to a crisp image of someone who would look blurry or distant if we actually met him.

Lisa Howard's picture
Lisa Howard on September 15, 2004 - 20:18 Permalink

There are lots of downsides to introversion. You know what they always say about homocidal maniacs: He was such a quiet guy, you know… He kept to himself. On the other hand, I always thought that the downside of extroversion might be shallowness.

Unfortunately, I don’t get my New Yorkers as promptly as everyone else. As a shy person, I look forward to reading the article though.

Ken's picture
Ken on September 17, 2004 - 19:15 Permalink

Al Gore needs rest after mingling at a political event, but how does he feel after lecturing a class? I wonder if being a professor is more or less extroverted?