Manage your inhibitions

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:

  1. Am I someone whose inhibitions and defences kick in easily or not so easily?
  2. 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.

Do something you don’t want to do

At the end of my first year at university, my tutor said to me: ‘Neil, you have a lot of strengths, but the trouble is that you are always playing to them’. He went on to explain that what he meant was that I was well aware of what I was good at and what I was not so good at, and I always headed straight for what I knew I could do well and steered clear of anything I wasn’t so sure of. The problem with that approach, he said, is that you will never develop, never extend your repertoire. And he was right. I was quite happy to stay in my comfort zone, and he helped me realise that would hold me back.

So, after that, I started trying out new things, doing things I didn’t want to do. While, at first, I didn’t like it and was beginning to doubt the wisdom of his advice, it wasn’t long before I was seeing the fruits of this new approach. I began to realise that it doesn’t take long to get used to new, unfamiliar territory and that there was a lot to be gained from doing so, not least a sense of achievement and progress.

Of course, I came across things that were beyond me, challenges that were a step too far. But even that was a positive thing as it helped me recognise my limitations. No one can be good at everything, but if you stick to what you know you are good at, there may be things that you can become good at that you will never know about, because you are not prepared to venture that far. This experience made me realise that what had been holding me back was a fear of failure – by sticking to my strengths, I knew that failure was unlikely. What I have learned since then is that failure is nothing to fear. As I have said before and will no doubt say again, failure is not the opposite of success, it is a component of success – you can’t succeed without trying and you can’t realistically expect to succeed every time you try.

Failing can be painful, but if you expect to be able to succeed every time, then you are making any failures that do crop up all the more difficult to bear – or you are doing what I used to do, namely constantly playing to your strengths and thereby denying yourself the opportunity to turn weaknesses into strengths.

 Another tutor used to say: ‘Attitude is everything’, and while I think that the ‘everything’ bit is an exaggeration, I would certainly agree that our attitude, the way we approach a situation and the mindset we adopt in doing so, is very important. While some people create problems for themselves by approaching situations with an attitude of ‘I am going to fail’ (which makes it much more likely that they will), others can create problems by having an attitude of ‘I must not fail’ which creates all sorts of unnecessary difficulties.

By following my tutor’s advice to look beyond what I was already good at, I have since become good at things I would never have dreamed of doing well, while also learning that there are things that I am just not cut out for. These insights have been an important part of self-awareness and have stood me in good stead over the years.

So, why not give it a try? There’s no need to set yourself up to fail by trying something that you know to be beyond you, but there will be very many things you are not keen to try that could open doors for you – and those could be an important part of your personal and professional development.