When Amanda was in high school, she spent a lot of time alone in her bedroom. She read comics, played a lot of video games, and chatted with other creative types over AOL Instant Messenger (it was the late 90s, after all). She shied away from “real world” activities like joining after-school clubs or hanging out at friends’ houses.
What she needed, instead, was time to process.
“Being a teenager is exhausting. There are all sorts of things to process emotionally about relationships [like] why that guy you’re really into won’t give you the time of day because you’re not fitting a certain personality type,” she told me. “When I’m alone, just able to think and relax, that’s when I process the world the best.”
Naturally, this worried her parents, who are more extroverted than Amanda.
They started to wonder if Amanda was depressed. Spending this much time alone couldn’t be good for a teenager, they figured. She should be out having fun, goofing around with a gaggle of friends, like normal teenagers do… right?
Amanda’s parents weren’t the only ones who worried. Her teachers noticed that she was “always in [her] notebook.” At one point, they called a meeting with her parents. “Basically, [my teachers] told me to participate or else,” she said when I was writing my book, The Secret Lives of Introverts. “I felt like I was defective, or a bad kid. I was just waiting for them to send me off to therapy or something so I could be ‘fixed.’”
Was Amanda depressed? Nope. Turns out, she’s an introvert — a fact she didn’t discover until later in life. At the time, she didn’t understand that being around people drained her. She felt like a freak for wanting to spend so much time alone.
And when the adults in her life thought there was something wrong with her, it only made her feel worse.
Introversion Is Often Mislabeled as Depression
Amanda isn’t the only person who’s introversion has been confused with depression. When writing my book, many introverts told me that their quiet ways have been “misdiagnosed” by parents, teachers, and other loved ones as mental illness — especially when they were teenagers or young adults.
This is a real problem. It’s usually a more extroverted type who does the misdiagnosing. The extrovert feels that the person in question must be suffering from depression, because why on earth would someone want to stay home alone when there are parties to attend and fun to be had? The extrovert fails to see that what’s fun for him or her is not necessarily fun for the introvert.
But there’s nothing wrong with living a chill life. Due to a biological difference in the way introverts and extroverts respond to rewards, introverts tend to have their own definition of fun. “Fun” is usually not parties and people and doing all the things, but rather a meaningful conversation, a good book, or a relaxing afternoon to yourself.
Telling kids it’s wrong to enjoy life quietly can lead to shame and stigmatization. No wonder so many introverts grow up feeling bad about who they are.
Also, when we misdiagnose, it prevents the actual problem from being solved. Amanda didn’t need to go on antidepressants and see a therapist. What she needed was to learn how to better manage her energy.
Later in life, that’s exactly what she did — and it made all the difference.
Do Introverts Get Depressed?
This doesn’t mean that introverts don’t ever suffer from depression. In fact, some research suggests that introverts are more likely than extroverts to experience depression and anxiety. Robert McPeek, director of research at the Center for Applications of Psychological Type, suspects this has to do with the fact that introverts are more self-critical — although more realistic in their self-assessments — than extroverts. Chalk it up to depressive realism.
And while I won’t pretend to have all the answers, I’d be willing to bet it also has something to do with living in a society that frequently overstimulates you and demands that you conform to an ideal that pushes you past your comfort zone. Or is that just me?
To better understand the differences between introversion and depression, I turned to Pete Shalek, CEO and founder of Joyable, a company that helps people overcome depression and social anxiety using an online program.
He told me that although depression and introversion can look similar at first glance, the two are very different, indeed. Signs of depression include:
- Reduced interest in things you used to enjoy
- Feeling down or hopeless
- Trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or sleeping too much
- Poor appetite or eating too much
- Feeling bad about yourself
- Trouble concentrating
- Moving or speaking slowly or being fidgety and restless
- Thoughts of self-harm or suicide
“While avoiding social situations, disengaging, and being alone can be part of a person’s experience with depression, it is often not the whole picture,” he told me. “Introversion is a personality trait where people prefer more time alone so they can focus on thoughts, feelings, and moods rather than external stimulus. If an individual feels engaged and enjoys the time alone, it’s more likely introversion than depression.”
Cherish Introversion, Treat Depression
It’s important to know the difference between introversion and depression for another important reason. When cherished and embraced, introversion is a temperament that can bring many glorious gifts. Introverts are capable of concentrating deeply and thinking creatively. They are often quite conscientious, have high levels of empathy, and think carefully before they speak and act.
Depression, on the other hand, can seriously hamper a person’s quality of life. The good news is that it’s treatable.
“Depression isn’t your fault and it isn’t forever,” Shalek told me. “For most people, depression can be treated successfully.”
Of course, everyone feels blue from time to time. How do you know when it’s time to seek treatment for depression? According to Shalek, you could benefit from evidence-based help if you:
- Consistently feel down or unmotivated, with these feelings lasting for extended periods of time, or
- If your feelings negatively impact your life (for example, your relationships or your ability to concentrate and work effectively).
Joyable offers an online, research-based cognitive behavioral program that teaches people how to change their thoughts and actions in ways that are proven to make them feel better.
For Amanda, learning about her introversion was life changing. Today, because she understands what causes her energy depletion, she’s better able to regulate her time so she doesn’t get as exhausted. After work, she takes a few minutes to wind down before interacting with her husband and young children. When the kids start stressing her out, she takes a 5-10 minute break to sit in silence while they’re occupied with something else.
“I’ve gotten to the point where I can have friend visits once or twice a week and not feel rundown and crabby after the fact,” she said. “And I can schedule side activities in a more productive way that doesn’t completely ruin me.”
And, embracing her introversion brought an unexpected upside. “A lot of my anxiety issues involving people have faded, and I’m more energized in the moment of my interactions,” she said. “I’ve actually become a much more social person.”
Note: Amanda’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.
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Learn more: The Secret Lives of Introverts: Inside Our Hidden World, by Jenn Granneman