I have always had my doubts about the psychological notions of introversion and extroversion, as if we can simply pigeonhole people into one category or the other. Sociology teaches us that people will generally behave differently in different circumstances. Someone who may appear quite introverted and uncomfortable at a party, may come across as very extroverted when performing on stage for their local amateur dramatic society. Likewise, someone who is the life and soul of the party may be very self-contained and appear introverted when dealing with someone who is distressed. Different people have different comfort zones.
However, what the introversion-extroversion axis revolves around is how we manage our inhibitions. We have bodily systems that will serve to protect us when we feel we may be in danger, including the fight or flight mechanism of adrenaline being pumped into the blood stream. In many situations where we feel threatened, we will withdraw, we will become inhibited for the benefit of our safety and self-preservation. This can include withdrawing from physical threats, but also from psychological ones, such as losing face or being humiliated.
So, I agree with the psychological idea that different people will have different ‘thresholds’ for when their inhibitions kick in, some people doing so much more readily than others. However, we need to counterbalance this with the sociological idea that different social settings will spur different reactions. Just attaching an ‘introvert’ or ‘extrovert’ label is therefore an oversimplification. To get an adequate understanding of what is happening, we need to take account of the psychological and sociological insights.
What does that mean for each of us? Well, at the very least, it means that we can benefit from knowing two things about ourselves:
- Am I someone whose inhibitions and defences kick in easily or not so easily?
- In what circumstances am I more or less likely to become inhibited?
It is important to know the answers to these two questions, as this knowledge could help us to become more skilled at managing our inhibitions. Why do we need to manage our inhibitions? The short answer is that it can be an empowering process that gives us greater control over how we react in difficult situations.
For example, if we have a tendency to hold back very easily, we may be denying ourselves important opportunities. In such circumstances we may also come across as unconfident and unassertive, thereby putting ourselves at a disadvantage in terms of our interactions with others. If, by contrast, we are too slow to allow our inhibitions to kick in, we may find that we are placing ourselves at unnecessary risk – whether physical risk (aggression) or emotional risk (embarrassing ourselves and possibly others). Similarly, if we are aware of what our potential ‘trigger’ situations are, we can be better equipped to control our reactions. For example, if we know that we struggle to deal with situations involving conflict, we may be better prepared to handle such interactions when called upon to do so. In effect, managing our inhibitions can be seen as an important aspect of self-awareness.
So, what it comes down to is two things. The first is clarifying whether you need to take a little longer before you allow your defensive inhibitions to kick in or do you perhaps need to implement them sooner? Only you can answer those questions, but people who know you well will no doubt be able to offer an opinion if you venture to ask them. Second, you need to be aware of what type of situation is potentially problematic for you: What are the circumstances where you may be prone to be nervous and thereby run the risk of activating your inhibitions too soon, and/or what are the circumstances where you feel very relaxed and comfortable and may therefore risk being overconfident and not activating your inhibitions too late? Important food for thought.