There are many ways to track personality from the ancient Greeks philosophers who thought that people tended to come in four varieties based on their emotionality and, of course, introversion to extroversion. Myers-Briggs personality tests are fairly popular today using four different measurements of personality with the first personality distinction being that between an introvert and extrovert. Of the myriad of other tests available for determining your personality type, virtually all of them include a scale between introversion and extroversion.
I believe that the introversion and extroversion distinction is a completely useless measurement to use if you want to improve your own life. In fact, I feel strongly that many people have been unnecessary locked inside a personality label which is inadequate in describing the complexity of human behavior.
I am not a psychologist or a psychiatrist. I have little scientific basis for arguing my claims aside from several books and many articles I have read on personality types. But I am not here to argue the scientific validity of the introversion to extroversion bias. Although I question the scientific merit of creating a linear scale to represent any form of behavior, this argument isn’t about whether or not introversion and extroversion are unscientific labels.
I speak from personal experience. My argument is going to focus on why introversion/extroversion labels are ridiculous to use in improving the quality of your life and how they form unnecessary limitations for you. I believe that not only is there more than one dimension between introversion and extroversion but that you are free to consciously change your bias between these two extremes.
A Personal Story
Since I am arguing that you should abandon these two labels from a personal experience standpoint I might as well share some of my personal experience. As a child and through most of my teenage years I was incredibly introverted. I was shy and quiet in pretty much all social gatherings. I generally had one or two good friends as opposed to dozens and I was far more comfortable being alone. Some personality tests I took during this time rated me as highly introverted.
Like many other introverts, I was fairly dissatisfied with my label. Sure I rationalized to myself that being an introvert was better than going off and having fun with other people. But social pressures along with my own dissatisfaction made me intensely unhappy about being an introvert.
Several years ago I started questioning this introversion label that had been applied to me. Perhaps, I thought, this label was no more than an illusion that was locking myself into behaviors that made me more and more introverted. Perhaps, I thought, I could change this direction and choose who I wanted to be.
Working hard I slowly brought up my communication skills. I worked hard to improve my social skills, particularly in the group settings that I had found so uncomfortable before. I also worked to increase my tolerance to the stimulation provided by these settings. Sure it was very draining to be around so many people at first but as I worked at it I got used to the extra input. I joined Toastmasters and worked on my public speaking.
Flash forward to the present and I could consider myself highly extroverted. Easily handling group situations I have met and made friends with dozens of people in the few short days since my move to university. I have little problems speaking in public and I am good at meeting new people. Today I feel no energy drain being around people, quite the opposite it actually charges me. For a child who was labeled extremely introverted I have made quite a turnaround.
Now that you can see my own personal experience, I’d like to share why I believe that introversion and extroversion labels are complete junk from a personal growth standpoint on three different premises.
Introversion and Extroversion as Skills
The first premise that I want to argue that the introversion/extroversion labels are useless is when we look at introversion and extroversion as skills. One of the ways personality tests judge your current introversion and extroversion bias is in communication and social skills. If you get nervous speaking in public, one of the reasons is likely that you haven’t mastered the skills necessary to perform well. Since you can’t perform well without the proper skills, you will likely feel nervous.
More than just communication skills and nervousness, skills come in the form of experience with social situations. If you speak in front of a crowd of several thousand people and you have never done it before, you lack the proper skills to handle yourself in front of such a large audience. If, however, you have spoken to crowds this size many times before and some even larger, than a crowd of several thousand probably won’t scare you. You have acquired the skills necessary to perform in this environment.
Just like baseball, drawing or riding a bicycle, social skills can be learnt and improved. You know in your own life areas where you lacked skills that you now have. Using skills as a measure of your introversion and extroversion puts these two labels on very shaky grounds. If by improving a few skills you can become more extroverted or introverted then using these labels as permanent indicators of your personality would be like labeling people in categories of bicycle riders and non-bicycle riders.
Introversion and Extroversion as Stimulus Response
The other distinction I hear very often between introverts and extroverts is that introverts are more easily stimulated by events whereas extroverts require much larger doses of stimulation to feel the same sensations. Since too much and too little stimulation generally results in uncomfortable emotions, introverts, it is said, tend to avoid stimulation and extroverts crave it.
I don’t disagree with this concept of stimulus response. Those who are currently introverted are likely to avoid stimulation because their body reacts to it more severely. However, this concept doesn’t exclude the ability for you to consciously condition your body to handle more or less stimulus.
Our bodies are incredible machines at adapting. With virtually any body function, when there is an appropriate environmental change, the body adapts to compensate. Why wouldn’t the bias between introversion and extroversion also be subject to this effect. Shouldn’t exposing yourself to more and more stimulus make you less sensitive to it? Conversely, wouldn’t exposing yourself to less stimulus make you more sensitive?
Even though it is initially uncomfortable, you can slowly build up your tolerance to stimulation if you are currently very introverted. By conditioning the body to handle increasingly more stimulating environments you can get more and more extroverted. If you are currently very extroverted, conditioning yourself to reduce stimulation may be helpful if you want to pursue things that require a more solitary focus.
Introversion and Extroversion, The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
Above all of my arguments for the abandonment of these two labels for human personality, the most important one is this: labels for introversion and extroversion create a self-fulfilling prophecy that continuously reinforce themselves. In other words, the belief that you are an introvert will color your perceptions and ultimately your ability to change it.
The identities we create for ourselves form our own self-fulfilling prophecies. To an incredibly large extend you are whatever you think you are. If you think of yourself as being incredibly successful and talented that is quite often the reality you create for yourself. The person who sees themselves as being weak and feeble will craft themselves in exactly that same image. This incredibly powerful principle of identity couldn’t be stronger in the matters of introversion and extroversion. Believe you are an introvert and you cut off any personality traits that contradict this.
Once you are given a label or an identity it is very easy to find evidence supporting this. If you were to look around couldn’t you find some strong evidence to show that the world is in dire straights, getting worse and worse everyday? Of course you could, just look at all the horrible stuff that is happening right now. But couldn’t you also look around and see all the things that indicate things are getting better? So if you are told that you are an introvert you will immediately search your environment for supporting evidence. Any contradictory references will be filtered out in order to fit into the label of ‘introvert’.
By abandoning the labels of introvert and extrovert as being your preset personality, and exploring the idea that you have power over how you want to interact with the world you can create that power. Introversion and extroversion may be useful to psychologists sitting in ivory towers trying to explain the patterns of behavior they see, but it isn’t useful in maximizing your own life. I’ve spent a lot of time in this article talking about why you should avoid introversion and extroversion labels. I’ll post a follow-up article later outlining how you can actually take steps to control your personality.