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In Good Company

Different personalities draw energy from either people or alone time, sometimes creating complications in their personal lives.

One Thursday evening, Jessica DeBella’s girlfriend, who is rather extroverted, invited her to go to a wedding the following Saturday. Jessica agreed, saying that it could be fun. However, the next day, she ran into an old friend that she had not seen in years. She spent the day with the friend, not wanting to pass up the opportunity. Once Saturday came, Jessica no longer felt like going to the wedding. Spending the previous day with her friend had drained her of her social energy for the time being, leaving her in a terrible mood for that evening.

Jessica wanted to have fun and loved all of the people who would be at the wedding, but could not bring herself to enjoy the moment, no matter how badly she wanted to.

Jessica can be very introverted at times, requiring days between social activities to become energized once again. This can be a very difficult struggle for her when it comes to spending time with friends and family on a regular basis.

The spoon theory attempts to explain this issue. In this anecdote, a woman with Lupus uses spoons to explain to her friend that she only has so much energy in a day. She was given a bundle of spoons, and doing an action that seemed simple would relieve her of one of those spoons. Soon, she was out of spoons and had no more energy to spend.

Introverts typically find that speaking to people takes away several of their spoons.  

Most individuals can be placed in one of two very different categories based on their social interactions: introverts and extroverts. Oftentimes, people think introversion equals being shy, while extroversion means a person is outgoing. However, these words are not synonymous. While shyness can certainly be a trait of an introvert, and the same for outgoingness of an extrovert, they are not the defining characteristics.

Defining the Difference

An introvert is someone who draws energy from inner sources instead of outer ones, according to the Myers and Briggs foundation, an organization that works with many aspects of personality. An introvert is not always shy, quiet, or recluse, but instead simply needs alone time to “recharge,” in a sense. On the contrary, an extrovert needs more interaction with people to feel energized and content. Essentially, it all comes down to energy levels and how those relate to a person’s social interactions.

Along with these differences, the two types of people have their strengths and weaknesses. Dale Hartley, an associate professor and chair of the humanities, fine arts, and social sciences division at West Virginia University, lists some advantages and disadvantages of the personality types. Introverts tend to be more reflective. This means they will often think through answers before giving them. They also usually need some form of creative outlet for all of their thoughts. Due to their introspective nature, they are often known as great listeners as well. Their eagerness to be alone can sometimes make it harder to make and/or maintain social connections, though. People frequently mistake their behavior as being cold or aloof.

On the the other hand, extroverts are very concerned about the people around them and the mark they can make on the world. This means that they are typically social butterflies, eager to make friends, and talk to anyone who is willing. It makes them seem very friendly. They also are sometimes bigger risk takers. But sometimes their concern for other people can hurt them—they feel a burden to be accepted and fit in.

Hartley says that both types of people are able to function outside of their comfort zone and face their challenges, but only up to a point.

Fitting Into the Middle

Sometimes, people don’t fit into one or the other. Carl Jung originally identified the two personality types in the 20th century, but more modern psychologists have found that personality is more of a spectrum than a binary. Barry Smith, professor emeritus and director of the Laboratories of Human Psychophysiology at the University of Maryland says that 68 percent of the population leans more toward ambiversion, a mixture between the two traits.

Hartley suggests that this is a result of introverts needing to be around people sometimes, and extroverts needing some alone time. When people don’t find themselves needing an extreme amount of either, they label themselves as an ambivert.

Ronette Messer, a 35-year-old mother of three, considers herself as an ambivert without a doubt. She enjoys being around people and they do energize her, but if she spends too much time with them, she can become exhausted to the point of wanting to be alone for an extended period of time. When around people, she often finds herself in conversations with complete strangers. This doesn’t bother her at all until the conversation moves past small talk. Ronette doesn’t mind being the center of attention, but too much spotlight on her causes apprehension.

Additionally, she can easily blend into a crowd, but that’s not always what she wants to do. Overall, she is a sociable and a quiet person—not always looking for conversation, but sometimes finding herself in it just as easily as she can find herself lost in her own thoughts.

Perhaps an ambivert’s biggest advantage over the other personality types is the ability to be adaptable to a multitude of situations, like Ronette. They are comfortable in a number of different settings and are strongly influenced by their surroundings. They can be perfectly content at home watching a movie, but they can be equally happy out at a party, dancing between guests. They also tend to be better at knowing when to listen and when to talk, unlike average introverts and extroverts.

Even ambiversion, though, can be split into different forms. For example, some people may answer in the middle of the scale when asked about their introversion or extroversion, while some may answer from both ends resulting in an average being in the middle.

In addition to this, there are also introverted extroverts, extroverted introverts, and many other variables in between. Jessica says that she would classify herself as an extroverted introvert. She is a very open, talkative person who enjoys being in groups—traits that are very typical for an extrovert; however, she only enjoys doing this once or twice a week. If she participates in large activities more than that, she gets overwhelmed. She still needs her time to “recharge,” which is very emblematic of an introvert.

Sometimes, this middle ground can be problematic, though. Jessica says that her mixture of extrovertedness and introvertedness can have negative effects on her personal life, like losing or damaging relationships. People who are not as familiar with introversion do not understand her need to recharge after she was so social just a few days prior, a trait of her extroversion. They expect her to be that outgoing all of the time. Although she would love to spend more time with her friends, sometimes all of the social contact is too overwhelming, even if they were to do something quieter like watch a movie. These sorts of struggles are not uncommon with conflicting personality types.

Forming a Personality

Experts aren’t entirely sure what makes a person an introvert, extrovert, ambivert, or a mixture of any of these, but biology and upbringing may have something to do with it. Hartley explains it as a bell curve. The majority of people fall into the large part of the bell, and come into the world with some genetic disposition toward introversion or extroversion. Life then influences them to fall one way or another as time goes on. However, there are the few that fall outside of the bell curve. These people are born almost entirely as an introvert or extrovert.

In 1999, comparative blood flow mapping was done on the brains of both introverts and extroverts. Extroverts were found to have more blood circulating in the areas of the brain such as the anterior cingulate gyrus, the temporal lobes, and the posterior thalamus. These areas are strongly associated with the senses, which socializing ties into deeply. Hence, extroverts are happiest when these areas of the brain are being stimulated.

In addition to blood flow, dopamine levels also vary between the personality types. Extroverts are less sensitive to the “happy chemical” of the brain, meaning that they need more of it to feel happy; this means, once again, more stimulation.

In a 2012 study performed at Harvard University, Randy Buckner found that introverts have higher density of gray matter than extroverts. This gray matter was located in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, an area that has to do with planning and thinking. This may be why introverts tend to be more reflective and prefer to think through decisions rather than take chances.

Jerome Kagan, a psychologist, performed a study in 1989 dealing with babies’ reactions to stimuli. He found that the infants that were high-reactive, meaning that they were easily over-stimulated, eventually grew to be introverts. This shows that introversion or extroversion can be linked to infancy.

But even though there seems to be a strong link between genetics and the disposition of a person to be one or the other, sometimes that isn’t the case.

For example, Eddie Solis, a 20-year-old extreme introvert, is very different from his family in terms of personality.

One Friday night, Eddie looked down at his buzzing phone. It was the third time this evening that his cousin had tried reaching him; he wanted to go out for the night. Eddie once again silenced the phone, sighed, and picked up his video game controller.

Eddie’s differences from his family make him rarely associate with them. He is extremely introverted, but his family is the complete opposite. It has been like this for as long as he can remember. Being around his family overwhelms him so much that it has driven a wedge in his relationship with them. He was raised around uncles, cousins, grandmothers, and more, but cannot seem to connect with them no matter what they try. While science deems that introversion and extroversion is linked to genetics, that seems to not be the only factor.

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