I’ve often been presented with a narrative that I like to call the “the myth of the introvert.” The explanation goes something like this:
Shy people are not just uncomfortable in public situations, they enjoy and require significant periods of social isolation to thrive. There is nothing wrong with this, and we shouldn’t criticize people for this behavior, e.g. by judging someone for leaving a party early or refusing a social event.
On its face, I agree with this premise. If someone truly enjoys being alone, it’s rude to judge them for minimizing their social activities. The issue I have with this narrative is that it oversimplifies personalities, like all personality classifications do. It places sociability on a rigid spectrum that many do not fit into. For instance, some people, like me, may be shy but thrive on social interaction. Perhaps I could be dissatisfied with too much social interaction but if that is the case, I’m nowhere near that point yet. During most downtime, I’d rather be hanging out with friends than doing something fun by myself; I’d guess that is the case for many people. Yet, if I go to a social event, especially one with unfamiliar people, I’m likely to leave before others. This is all to say that a variety of contextual factors affect behavior and “personalities.” Thus, am I an “introvert” or “extrovert”? The distinction seems pointless to me.
Perhaps I am just projecting my own experiences, after all, it’s difficult to get into the mind of others. However, I suspect that the narrative of the introvert is also a coping mechanism and form of rationalization. Wikipedia lists some great examples of rationalization like: “I didn’t get the job that I applied for, but I really didn’t want it in the first place.” These thoughts serve to take dissatisfaction and justify it as a positive phenomenon. Initially, this can be viewed as having a positive result, after all, the rationalizer gains a positive view of the situation and their mood may be improved. However, in the long term, this rationalization obscures the root cause of the issue. This, in turn, deters the rationalizer from understanding, acknowledging, and ultimately addressing the issue. This may occur when people apply the narrative of introversion to themselves. When alone, perhaps feeling lonely, they can posit that “My issue is not a lack of effort to socialize and be sociable, I’m just an introvert so I need this social isolation.” For some people, this may be true. But for others, I suspect that this thought masks dissatisfaction and hinders effort and change. After all, achieving your desires, even social ones, is difficult and takes work. If such efforts seem too difficult or scary, or past attempts have failed, an escapist narrative is an appealing rationalization.
Ultimately, I want to begin a discussion about this narrative because I believe its use as a rationalization technique can be harmful. Unfortunately, I have no data to back this up but if you’re a psychologist, I’d love to see a study on this! Likewise, if you’ve seen this rationalization in the real world, let me know in the comments; I’m interested to see if this belief is more widespread or if I’m just being a complete aggrandizing idiot.
As a final point, I want to be clear that this oversimplification is not a crisis or a significant harm upon people in the way that heteronormative labels or restrictions can be. However, I hope that by discarding the labels of “introvert” and “extrovert” we can reduce their use as rationalization tools and encourage people to seek out their best lives, however difficult such a pursuit may be.