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August 2014

A FRESH PERSPECTIVE ABOUT INTROVERTS

By Alan M. Solomon, Ph.D.

Do you think of yourself as an introvert?

Have you been told, perhaps in a condescending, judgmental manner that you are "shy", with the not-so-veiled message that there is something wrong with you?

In our culture that so values people being outgoing, sociable, and extroverted, do you know what percentage of the population is actually introverted?

Can you really describe, with some precision what an introvert is?

A best-selling book by Susan Cain will answer these and many other questions: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. At times moving and eloquent, this well-written, readable book designed for a general audience combines a superb balance of definitions, seminal research, anecdotes, and personal reflections from the author. Ms. Cain is herself an introvert. Though a lawyer by profession, not a psychologist, Ms. Cain touches many of the important bases and delves into matters of real substance. Introversion is presented as a way of being that has innate strengths and advantages, particular talents, and the potential for much success - if it is genuinely understood and valued.

As compared with extroverts, who are gregarious, comfortable with being in the spotlight, more interested in action than contemplation, risk-takers who favor quick decisions made with what feels like certainty, and prefer working in teams or socializing in groups, introverts tend to be:

  • Less in need of stimulation.
  • Prone to work more slowly and deliberately, preferring to engage one task at a time with focus.
  • Social with close friends and colleagues, or family one-on-one or in small groups.
  • Communicative as much or more by listening than talking.
  • More likely to think before they speak in what they prefer to be deeper discussions rather than small talk.
  • Less comfortable or tolerant of conflict.

Introverts may prefer to communicate in writing, which allows for more reflection, than speaking. Rather than being "anti-social" as some might indict them, they are social in different ways than extroverts. While genuinely shy people are impacted by fear of speaking up and being judged negatively perhaps, introverts feel over-stimulated in some social situations, which is not the same as fearful. As many as one-third to one-half of the population are introverts, actually, with many of them attempting to present themselves as extroverted, since it is often the preferred way to be. (See Cain's Introduction.)

Many effective leaders are actually more introverted. In assessing someone's leadership skills, it is easy to mistakenly view good presentation skills as true leadership, yet someone who presents forcefully and in large quantities, does not necessarily provide genuine substance and critical thinking. In studying exceptional CEO's, being charismatic is less crucial than working with humility and a deep professional commitment. Successful leaders support initiative taken by others, rather than insisting on being in charge of the entire process of problem-solving and planning. Work is assigned to those who perform best in a given area, with no need on the part of the CEO to take credit for successes. One seminal study at Wharton's MBA program, demonstrated that introverted leaders are actually more effective than extroverted ones if their group contains proactive members, since the more introverted leader will listen to others' ideas, have no need to dominate, and will employ these ideas to produce success: such success then motivates people to be more proactive going forward. Extroverted leaders are more effective with more passive group members, who may be inspired by the leader's active dynamism. (See Chapter 2 in Cain's book.)

In a more clinical vein, couples are often composed of one introvert and one extrovert, with each of them attracted to the other's qualities. Conflict can ensue however when social plans and choices are involved, such that the extrovert may want much more social activity with larger groups than is comfortable for the introvert. Finding a workable middle ground takes patience, flexibility, and a willingness to experiment together with various approaches in a respectful negotiation. If each person's way of being is respected, understood, and valued, creative and satisfying arrangements can develop, sometimes through repeated trial-and-error cooperative efforts. I have seen this many times in couple's therapy, and Cain outlines it herself in some detail (Chapter 10).

Many other substantial and fascinating issues are raised by Ms. Cain's work. Colleagues, clients, and friends have consistently acclaimed her work as enlightening and helpful, not only for introverts, but also those who are extroverted and involved with introverts that have mystified them in the past.

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Dr. Solomon is a Clinical Psychologist in Torrance.  He is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network.  Dr. Solomon can be reached at (310) 539-2772, or amsphd1@gmail.com.

2014 Copyright by Alan M. Solomon, Ph.D.

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