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.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.