The masks we wear

I’ve noticed a recent wave of publications on the virtues of being introverted.  An understandable development, for quite some time it seemed as though only extroverted people were considered likely to succeed.

crescent moonThe word introvert was (and is) often confused with shy and reserved. Introverts can appear to be shy and reserved, but the truth is far more complex.

Carl Gustav Jung used the two terms as the foundation for his personality typologies. Based on his work, my definition of introversion is: perceiving surroundings and events through the filter of one’s inner world and acting accordingly to this perception. The energy of an introverted person is primarily directed inwards, exploring one’s personal reaction to things.

Extroversion can be defined as: using the exterior world as the measure for one’s experiences, decisions, and actions. The energy of an extroverted person is primarily directed outwards, exploring the world by interacting with it.

This brings up two critical points:

  1. There is no good or bad here. Both introversion and extroversion have their strong and weak points.
  2. People are hardly ever entirely extroverted or introverted. There’s a sliding scale between the two. Besides, some people react differently to different circumstances. I almost invariably score 50/50 on the standard introversion-extroversion tests.

The other theme that has become intensely popular but also generates a lot of confusion is sensitivity. Elaine Aron coined the term Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) to describe people who are more sensitive to stimuli than average and therefore easily overwhelmed. For many people, including myself, this insight generated a sigh of relief. Finally, I could understand why I felt like such an alien among “normal” people.

HSPs are also more apt to pick up subtle signals that others easily miss. All of the senses are unusually acute, including the sixth sense. This has lead to the (in my eyes erroneous) conclusion that HSPs are always empathetic and always have extrasensory perception. Here, too, we seem to be dealing with a new norm. The term HSP seems to imply that you either are one or you aren’t. I believe everyone is more or less sensitive, along a sliding scale.

So here we are, all reacting differently to stimuli. And this is where the confusion begins. If I start talking vivaciously at a party with a lot of strange people, am I displaying extrovert behavior or am I feeling overwhelmed by all the stimuli around me and masking that for myself and others? If I leave the center of the group and stand on the edge, listening to the conversation, am I feeling overwhelmed or am I displaying introvert behavior by giving myself a chance to think about what I see and hear? Am I consistent in my patterns or do I react differently every time?

And am I even aware of the reasons for my actions? We grow up with preconceived ideas of how we should behave and we behave accordingly. In a society that extolled extrovert behavior and frowned on the display of overly sensitive reactions, people of my generation tended to disguise any introvert tendencies or feelings of being overwhelmed. I suspect that children growing up in a society that places a high value on introversion and sensitivity will develop masks of their own.

At times, my curiosity drives me to explore the world around me by interacting with it intensively. Other times, I feel so overwhelmed by things happening around me that I need time and space to digest it all. And sometimes I feel overwhelmed but disguise my feelings by directing my energy outwards.

As we learn more and more about the human psyche, we should be careful to use the knowledge to deepen and expand our understanding instead of using it to create new norms for behavior to replace the old ones.

One Comment:

  1. I think people that are 100% either way are more likely to be unhappy than those who are a mixture of both, depending on the circumstance and the mood they are in. I consider myself a 50-50 mixture and usually able to decide which half I want to live in at the moment! 😉

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