I’m Introverted, Not Depressed!

Enrico Gnaulati, PhD
22
2778

Elizabeth (pseudonym), a middle-aged ER nurse, sat as far apart on the couch as possible from her retiree mother, Joanne, who leaned forward and spoke with utter conviction about her daughter’s presumed depression:

“She comes straight home from work and buries her nose in a book…hides in her room most of the weekend…refuses to accompany me to our knitting group…ignores me when I talk to her…rarely treats herself to dining out, or buying new clothes at the mall…keeps a spartan room, no adornments, nothing hanging on the walls…puts me through to voicemail when I call her…is too much of a thinker, always in her head, so serious about everything.”

Mustering all the energy she could to interrupt her mother’s unbroken stream of disclosures, Elizabeth blurted out: “I’m introverted, not depressed!”

Elizabeth had been the one to initiate contact with me to set up family therapy to address the deep divide and constant bickering emblematic of her relationship with her mother. Living apart was not an option since Elizabeth financially supported her mother and funds couldn’t be stretched to support two households. Besides, Elizabeth’s moral code disallowed her to be anything other than a stalwart caregiver for her mother, who had a long history of marital failures and debilitating health problems. For better or worse, they were stuck with each other.

The more each told their story, the greater it crystallized for me that Elizabeth was a clear-cut introvert, whereas Joanne hovered on the outer edges of extroversion, and that an aspect of any depression on Elizabeth’s part linked up with feeling compelled to suffer Joanne’s perceived insufferable extrovertedness.

Elizabeth worked all day long in a crowded hospital setting, bombarded with random face-to-face social interactions and forced verbal exchanges, such that when returning home it was imperative that she decompress alone. Joanne experienced Elizabeth’s mere domestic presence as a welcome audience to divulge, in a stream-of-consciousness manner, all the minute details of her day. Elizabeth had swallowed whole her mother’s contention that closing her bedroom door was antisocial and rude, hoping that keeping it ajar would signal to Joanne that she was otherwise occupied. To no avail. Joanne swung in the other direction and took the unshut door to be an invitation to talk.

Alone time wasn’t even remotely a need of Joanne’s, so much so that she didn’t appreciate it as a human need. Therefore, Elizabeth had learned that asking for alone time would be pointless and simply mystify Joanne.

Joanne was in the habit of unilaterally arranging social gatherings—knitting groups, book clubs, potlucks—that included Elizabeth, assuming that her daughter covertly desired these to bolster her personal happiness. What Elizabeth was actually covert about was ordering books about Roman history on Amazon, and stashing them away. She was clandestine in her reading habits and hesitant about displaying her ample general knowledge because her mother saw this as proof that Elizabeth could be elitist. Elizabeth needed time apart and gaps in the conversation to finesse her points of view. Joanne frequently sought out social contact, in person or by phone, and seamlessly talked out her thoughts aloud. It was a constant struggle for Joanne to live within her means and she overspent on items she deemed necessary to project to the world that she was living a comfortable life. This frazzled Elizabeth: “Why is she so status conscious and can’t see the obvious, that she doesn’t have the money to spend?”

Elizabeth’s case is one where the demoralization and despondency she experiences—forced to sacrifice her needs as an introvert to comply with the social scripts required to live in an extroverted world—masquerades as depression. Susan Cain, in her much-read, influential book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, writes: “Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.” So many features of contemporary culture favor extroverts and force introverts to conform to unfavorable interpersonal and environmental expectations. Researchers at Northern Illinois University gathering online data from a large sample of employees found that approximately 64 percent worked in open offices or work spaces where interruptions and information sharing was common. Whereas extroverts experienced this arrangement as stimulating and enlivening, introverts found it stressful because it violated the privacy and mellowness required to be productive. The solitude essential for those on the more introverted side to “recharge their batteries,” introspect, and gather their thoughts, is often mistaken as evidence that a person is “a loner.” Along these lines, one study highlights the cultural bias that exists against voluntary solitude in individualistic cultures like the US, where it is assumed that healthy expressions of independence and autonomy mean a person will automatically adopt a social lifestyle.

It turns out that extroverts are primed more than introverts to embrace consumer culture where the atmosphere is one of impulse buying, debt accumulation, and reduced savings. Because extroverts are temperamentally predisposed to instant gratification and reward sensitivity, according to University of Toronto Professor Jacob Hirsh, “when making financial decisions, this can contribute to impulsive spending, higher credit card debts, and reduced savings.” At the risk of making Elizabeth’s mother Joanne seem like a stereotype, a study out of the School of Management at University College London discovered that extroverted people with limited resources are more likely than their introverted counterparts to spend money on products and services to raise their social status. Insofar as introverts are less likely to allocate funds in this way, they may self-identify as misfits in a culture so given over to keeping up with the Joneses.

Extroverts even shift the dial on commonplace and acceptable standards for social media usage, perhaps even subtly prescribing preferable personality traits to the public at large. Based on a study out of Hongik University in Korea, on Facebook they are far more likely than introverts to upload photos, update their status, write comments and click “Like” and “Share.” A Journal of Managerial Psychology report released data indicating that on job-related social networking sites, such as LinkedIn, those with personality profiles higher in extroversion get recruited 1.5 times more frequently than those lower in extroversion.

We are literally saturated with the “Extrovert Ideal,” described by Cain as “the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight.” This Ideal is so venerated that, conversely, introverted personality traits, such as being reserved, cautious, and desirous of solitude, are not considered different, but aberrant.

Some top researchers in the field of personality studies, like professor John Zelenski at Carleton University, suggest that if introverts are to become happier they need to overcome the “forecasting errors” they fall prey to, anticipating that they will get stressed out being more verbal, bold, assertive, action-oriented, and socially plugged in. He says, “introverts might plausibly benefit by acting extraverted more often, even if they do not anticipate these benefits.”

I believe that urging introverts to act more extroverted as a pivotal pathway to greater life satisfaction is wrongheaded. A better solution is for introverts to shed their “extroversion-deficit belief” on their personal journey towards greater authenticity and happiness. According to Australian social scientist Rodney Lawn, introverts “boost their overall well-being if they can change their beliefs to become more accepting of their introversion.”

This squares with what I ultimately emphasized in psychotherapy with Elizabeth. I began meeting with her individually to deal with the upwelling of frustration and grief she experienced due to years of over-accommodating to the extroverted expectations pushed by her mother, and reinforced in her work milieu. Expressing her emotions in this way left her feeling she was the subject of them, rather than subjected to them, and she acquired the resolve to accept that she was bookish, pensive, more of a listener than a talker, satisfied with occasional get-togethers with close friends, and most of all, cherished solitude.

Elizabeth still felt it necessary to tell “white lies” when her “people exhaustion” mandated she have alone time: “I’m knee deep in work and have to cancel our dinner plans,” or “I feel a cold coming on so I won’t be attending the holiday party and risk getting everyone sick.” Since being forthright in asserting her need for solitude only ever got Elizabeth odd looks or intensified social invitations—as if she was admitting she was a depressed loner that had to be rescued from herself—she refrained from doing something perhaps more atypically American than we realize: that is, declaring oneself to be a self-avowed introvert, perfectly comfortable being alone with one’s thoughts.

22 COMMENTS

    • Because all psychotherapists think no one is alright the way they are. Everyone is a “mental illness,” not even a human, to our “mental health” workers. Trust me, I know, I read their medical records.

      But I guess if you’re trying to murder a client, to cover up the abuse of her child. Deluding yourself into believing your client is not a fellow human being, makes those egregious psych drug poisonings much easier.

      “declaring oneself to be a self-avowed introvert, perfectly comfortable being alone with one’s thoughts” isn’t a “mental illness.” My psychologist told me to “quit all your activities and concentrate on the meds.” Being too busy is a “mental illness,” not being outgoing enough is a “mental illness.” There is no healthy – no normal – for our “omnipotent moral busy body” “mental health” workers.

      • I’ve had decent therapists just as I’m sure there were decent priests even in inquisition era Spain – but that in no way means that there weren’t quite a few burning human beings for their “spiritual illness”.

        History might not just repeat itself – perhaps things simply don’t change and get shiny new names instead. Whether priests or “doctors of the soul”, these men ad lib off our beliefs and call whatever they do “help” as it suits them and their image.

        The hypocrisy of any such individual using terms such as “delusion” can only be missed if you don’t want to see it. A person with an intellectual handicap might consider people who can perceive things they don’t as delusional – that does not mean that brain damage is any form of solution, though that’s literally what lobotomists believed.

        If the rest of us are idiots, perhaps we too are just too handicapped, desperate, and gullible to see these extremes which are effectively walking pez dispensers with hefty salaries for what they are?

  1. An amazing, but not quite coherent goal. The “mental health” experts want us all to be “shtik” extroverts, lest we all become deteriorated self-centered introverts. I never thought that becoming a shtik anybody could be construed as a healthy state of mind- I’d have to discuss this with legions of Jewish stage entertainers if I wanted to seriously investigate this.

    • Very well put.

      I’ve struggled all my life with society because I’m an introvert on the far edge of extreme introversion. I’ve been told that I should have been a Desert Father living in a cave as far from everyone else as possible. This isn’t true. It’s just that my idea or interpretation of “community” is not what everyone else thinks of as community. I shop for groceries every Saturday at the same time and at the same store because it often gives me the chance to see the same people every week who do their shopping at the time I do. I don’t have the need to talk to or with any of them but I do really enjoy seeing them. Others would call them strangers but I call them part of my community.

      Extroverts drive me crazy with their constant need to know what I’m thinking about anything and everything. Introverts process internally and have very little to no need to verbalize what we process. Extroverts think that they’ve never had a thought that shouldn’t be shared with the entire world. But if you’re an introvert in the mental institution your need for alone time and for peace and quiet is always interpreted as a sign of your “mental illness”.

    • Why would you ask this question? Why does anyone have to be depressed? It doesn’t sound to me like either of them were depressed, they were just living out their normal roles as an introvert and an extrovert, according to the information given us. The problem that often results is that many introverts don’t understand where extroverts are coming from and vice versa. Then you begin having unrealistic expectations about people around you. This is why it behooves one to understand where you fall on the continuum of introversion/extroversion and where your family members and friends fall on that same continuum.

    • Both could conceivably be depressed, but you’ve got to be able to get a grasp of their experiential worlds to find out- something mama san certainly hasn’t bothered to explore.
      There are certain cues that suggest the presence of depressed moods- such things as perception of time slowing down, constantly feeling misunderstood, the external world becoming dimmer, inappropriate sleep habits, such as insomnia, feeling sluggish and sleepy during the day but not at night. Beware of many diverse distortions, particularly the usual spectaculars- the auditory and extreme visual distortions and hallucinations, as treatments with antidepressants alone can lead to spectacularly bad results if these things exist and the treating practitioner ignores them.

  2. While it is obvious that people differ greatly in their proclivities, why is it that there is such a desire to put labels on people – such as introvert and extrovert? While, I wouldn’t put “introvert” and “extrovert” in the same category as pathologizing DSM “diagnosis'” – still why must we try to reduce complex and unique individuals to labels at all?

  3. a self-avowed introvert, perfectly comfortable being alone with one’s thoughts.

    Easy to see why this would be a threat to the corporate social order which depends on having hordes of terrified insecure people seeking approval from others at all costs. Almost as much of a threat as someone who doesn’t fear death (or learns to take it in stride).

    • “a self-avowed introvert, perfectly comfortable being alone with one’s thoughts.” “What’s wrong with that, I need to know…”

      “Easy to see why this would be a threat to the corporate social order which depends on having hordes of terrified insecure people seeking approval from others at all costs.” Sounds like the description of Facebook, which I try to avoid.

      Although after 14 attempted murders by psychiatrists, because I believe in God, according to medical records. I’m also “someone who doesn’t fear death.” I’m quite certain we here, speaking out against the historic, continuing, and systemic harm of our “mental health” industries, are on the side of right.

  4. I would suggest a different understanding of this case based on my extensive work with the emotion of shame. Elizabeth has low self-worth and is submissive, resulting in fatigue when around others or “introversion.” People with low self-worth have poor shame tolerance, causing them to struggle with even simple social interactions, because for them every conversation includes the experience of their own inner critic abusing them about their faults and failures, then additional fear that others will find fault. This causes stress and eventual exhaustion and a desire to retreat to solitude. I label these type of people Self-blamers and they are often raised by abusive, domineering, narcissistic parents, such as Elizabeth’s mother, who is what I call an Other-Blamer.

    Notice how the mother criticizes relentlessly? Who wouldn’t feel shame and low self-worth under that onslaught? Who wouldn’t want to avoid that abuse by hiding in her room?

    Notice also the boundary violations by the mother — arranging unwanted social engagements — a typical narcissistic or Other-Blamer behavior. The core of poor shame tolerance for Other-Blamers is lack of accountability, which results in things like impulsivity and poor financial management, which the mother presented with.

    I strongly suggest mental health professionals gain an understanding of shame and how it affects human behavior, especially relationships. Certainly, there are some people who are more prone to valuing solitude and others who a temperamentally more outgoing, but If find with clients that the urge to retreat from human contact not only violates evolutionary urges to connect and bond with others, but is far more due to being raised by a narcissistically abusive person than anything else.

    The clinical intervention to use is Compassion-Focused Therapy or Mindful Self-Compassion which directly address improving shame tolerance and secure self-attachment, along with education on the effect of Other-blamers who blame shift to their victims. which increases shame intolerance and low self-worth.

    • I marvel how the mental health profession is so exquisitely clairvoyant that it not only mind reads entire population segments, that it knows, infallibly, how to remediate their alleged defects. Where is the proof of this shame theory and that a therapist’s contrived ministrations are its remedy?

      Some humans enjoy socializing; others enjoy books, research, hearth and projects. Do you expect entomologists intensely to study worlds by day then play hail fellow well met at night? Some humans have energy-draining physical ailments, some complicated to diagnose. What about adults who’ve long pushed past through childhood discomforts, but continue their introversion? What about older adults who “cocoon” as they age? Without our varied personalities, temperaments and risk tolerance, division of labor would be impossible.

      And who judges one personality style “unhealthy”? Maybe it’s the extroverts, attention-seeking, unreflective and hysterically fearful of solitude, who require remediation.

  5. The remedy though is not Therapy or Recovery, it is found in political activism; punishing perpetrators, seizing reparations, and protecting the next batch of would be victims.

    If one is unwilling to do this, then that means that they are not interested in restoring their social and civil standing. Rather, they prefer to live in the space which the abusers have left them.

    Living with compromised social and civil standing is very painful. Living under such pain it is no wonder that one would be taken in by Therapy and Recovery claims.

    But Therapy and Recovery do absolutely nothing to restore your social and civil standing. They merely try to convince you that it is morally superior to live without such.

    I do agree though that shame, what John Bradshaw called “Toxic Shame” is one of the primary modalities of Capitalism and the Middle-Class Family.

    They justify it as serving the Self-Reliance Ethic.

    If someone ran your legs over with a car, they would bet sued. If it was intentional, they would be in prison for a long time. If they kept you locked in a closet they would be incarcerated. But if they believe that children need to be broken in order to measure up to social expectations and so they severely psychologically harmed you, then as it stands now, it is only the survivor who will suffer, likely being in Psychotherapy and Recovery where they will be told that the problem is really just their problem and that they have to live with it.