Kinds of introversion

I read a post recently that got me thinking about introversion and poly communication, and I’d like to write more about that soon, but on the way I started thinking about introversion as a trait. I grew up on classic Myers-Briggs personality type theory, and still find it often useful for understanding myself and others. Lately, introversion has been a fairly trendy topic, and I’ve seen a lot of people express feeling left out because they identify with some but not all of the things listed.

I’m not anti-label; I think labels are important and useful as we navigate a diverse world (and they’re most important for those whose identities tend to be unrecognized or misunderstood). As a pretty solid introvert by any definition, having that handle to understand myself by has been crucial for my emotional and social health. But it’s also important to recognize that every label is an approximation. Sometimes it’s useful to break things down into tinier, more nuanced pieces. And I think discussions of introversion would be helped if we recognized that “introversion” is really a cluster of traits that often go together, but not always. Reading an article that’s like, “As introverts, we [blah blah blah]” almost always creates a point of alienation as a self-identified introvert like me runs along and hits some description that just isn’t true.

So here’s a completely unscientific and off-the-top-of-my-head list of different introvert traits, any of which a self-described introvert may or may not have. I write it for my own reference, to remind myself that this thing I call introversion is more complex and variable than I tend to assume.

High need for alone time

Most people, at some point, feel the need to get away and be alone for a while. For some, this need is so small that their everyday routine (commute, shower time, bathroom time) fills it and they never really experience that “I have to get away by myself RIGHT NOW” feeling. On the other end, some people need hours or days by themselves to feel at their best. And for a lot of people it varies — for me, the more unhappy or stressed I am, the more alone time I need. Where you draw the cutoff for “this level of alone time makes someone an introvert” is arbitrary and pretty relative.

There’s also variance in what counts as alone time. For some people, sitting with a close friend or family member while they quietly work on their own things is enough to recharge and feel restored. Others need to be actually alone, with a closed door between themselves and other humans.

Low tolerance for big social time

This and the above are often linked in discussions, but they’re actually separate things. Somebody can need a lot of alone time but also be comfortable interacting in large groups for hours; someone can be stressed by large gatherings but also not often feel the craving to be actually alone. As with the need for alone time, this lives on a scale and the “introverson” cutoff is pretty arbitrary.

There are a lot of reasons that socializing in big groups can be stressful and un-fun, and a lot of them are going to be independent points below, so I’m not going to dig very deep into this for now.

Preference for few intimate relationships over many varied

I hate meeting people, but I love knowing people. It’s a struggle for me to get through the early stages of knowing somebody, where there’s small talk and group socializing, but I love nothing more than sitting down with someone I’m close to and talking about EVERYTHING. I assume that casual social interactions are fun and rewarding for other people, because they keep doing it, but I just don’t get it. Someone will have to write a post about extravert traits and explain it to me.

Anyway, a lot of introverts feel this way, and would rather spend time with a few close friends over and over, than continually meet new people or interact more casually with a large group of people. You can see how this fits tidily with the above traits, but I’ve definitely known people who have a strong preference for a few intimate relationships, while not having a strong need for alone time or aversion to big groups.

Internal processing

Some people like to think through feelings and problems on their own, and then discuss them once they’ve got a pretty good handle on their own thoughts. Others process by talking it through. We have a pretty hard time understanding each other. Again, I’ll leave it to an external processor to explain their side of things. For me, I kind of can’t think and talk at the same time. If I’m talking, it’s because it’s something I’ve thought about ahead of time (not always right before I open my mouth… it can be something I’ve devoted a lot of thought to previously.) I don’t know why this is… it just feels like the thinky part of my brain and the speaky part are completely different systems, and trying to run them in conjunction is way too complicated and difficult.

I’m not sure if this is a cause or a result of being an internal processor, but I also put a lot of weight on things that I say (and have to be reminded that I can’t always do the same with others.) I’m not sure I’ve ever said something I didn’t mean. I’ll revise my thoughts in light of previous information, but that phenomenon of blurting something out that I didn’t mean is completely alien to me, and I think to most internal processors.

I’ll have a lot to say about internal processing in the next post I want to write, so I’ll leave it there for now.

Reserved emotional expression

This one is close to internal processing, but distinct enough to deserve its own category. Some people have a lot of emotional output — they express their feelings quickly, fluidly, and often at high volume. Others keep a calm appearance in most emotional states, and are more likely to say how they’re feeling than show it. It’s not that they’re holding back (that’s a separate thing), it’s just that it doesn’t come naturally to them to emote visibly. There are a lot of cultural differences around emotional expression, so someone who’s reserved within their home culture might come across as very expressive in another. In general, though, being more reserved than is typical for your culture is often considered a trait of introversion.

Lower overstimulation threshhold

I’m really fascinated by matters of over- and under-stimulation, because I’ve been learning how much it affects my mental state in ways I’d never realized before. We all have a level of noise, light, and activity that feels energizing and positive to us, and a level higher than that that becomes extremely stressful to process. Where the threshhold is can vary a lot for a person based on their mood, stress, sleep deprivation, etc., but having a lower-than-average threshhold for overstimulation is often counted as an introvert trait.

For me, overstimulation is a huge piece of my large-group intolerance. My energy is sapped about five times faster in a noisy environment than a quiet one, regardless of the number of people. (Weirdly, a dim environment tends to sap my energy more than a brightly lit one. I haven’t yet found any insights to what that’s about.)

I’m not going to try to make this list exhaustive… in fact it’s pretty biased toward the introvert traits that I personally have, because those are the ones that come to my mind most easily. I’d love to hear from others about traits or aspects of introversion that belong on this list. What have you got for me?

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