Introversion as sensitivity

by Rob Horning

1 March 2007


WSJ‘s new digest feature, “The Informed Reader”, has an item today from Psychology Today about introverts: “Loners don’t necessarily fear the company of others. They appear to require solitude to process thoughts and events because those stimuli register more strongly with them than in outgoing people.” This definitely corresponds with my experience of introversion, which always has felt like oversensitivity to me, putting too much stock in momentary cues that probably don’t signify that much to the person giving them off. Relative to the oversensitivity, it seems like no one else is really paying any attention to you at all, which can feel like a slight. Thus introversion’s a kind of paranoia where minute things—a look, a gesture, a verbal slip-up—become subject to intense interpretation and I end up with a constant awareness of how precarious my integration is into what’s going on socially, along with a building narcissism stemming from the enduring feeling that everyone’s being indifferent toward me. It’s pretty exhausting and makes me want to withdraw pre-emptively. So this sounds right too: “Situations rife with emotional triggers, such as parties, can be wearying for such people, while solitude serves as a refreshing balm.” I tend to leave parties without telling anyone and go walking around aimlessly, or I’ll try to find an empty room and hole up with a book. I’ve even taken naps at parties before. All of this, I’m afraid, makes me seem a little weird, and I usually end up wondering why I go to parties at all.

A few years ago (and I probably blogged about this before), Jonathan Rauch published a sort of introvert manifesto in The Atlantic that develop some of these same ideas, and pleaded with people to understand that introversion can be a preference rather than a pathology.

Extroverts are energized by people, and wilt or fade when alone. They often seem bored by themselves, in both senses of the expression. Leave an extrovert alone for two minutes and he will reach for his cell phone. In contrast, after an hour or two of being socially “on,” we introverts need to turn off and recharge. My own formula is roughly two hours alone for every hour of socializing. This isn’t antisocial. It isn’t a sign of depression. It does not call for medication. For introverts, to be alone with our thoughts is as restorative as sleeping, as nourishing as eating. Our motto: “I’m okay, you’re okay—in small doses.”

In a follow-up interview with Rauch about his article’s surprising popularity, the interview connects it to Reisman’s analysis in The Lonely Crowd that the consumer economy requires extroversion, and its form of public identity building, as the norm. If we’re continually being encouraged to advertise our personality to secure status, then introversion would simultaneously come to be seen as a kind of threat to the whole social order founded on that status as well as a form of self-sabotage. Thus the inner plenitude that lets introverts enjoy a quiet room alone becomes translated into a lack, a sadness, a disease: social anxiety.


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