You know that student in class who only makes a comment every now and then, but when she speaks, the rest of the room falls into a thoughtful silence? I’m that student. My name is Bria, and I’m an introvert. It’s hard for me to respond quickly, but I’m a master at peeling back the layers of an idea until I understand it completely. That’s why I’m also the girl other students come to when they’re having a hard time understanding things. I love being the go-to girl, but this wasn’t always my reality.
In my first year of college, I had a hard time making friends or even talking in class. It’s not because I’m shy, or because people scare me. It’s because my thoughts wander along their own path, and it takes some time to reach the end of that path. Introvert personalities are not slow, shy, reserved, or incapable of being social. We just may take a little longer to arrive at a conclusion than others.
The Introverted Brain Processes Information Differently
For the majority of people, your brain simply processes information. For many introverts, it’s kind of like our thoughts have to walk around a bit before they’re processed. Our thoughts meander through our long-term memories, combining with strategizing and deep-thought processes. Then they arrive at the point of conclusion. That’s why an introvert can stop the show with one comment in class: that comment is the culmination of a deep thought process that pulls from every part of the introvert’s knowledge and understanding. That’s also why these comments don’t happen often.
Think of it in terms of a class going to a museum. In general, extroverted personalities will move from one exhibit to the next, making quick connections but possibly skipping over areas that don’t interest them. For a deep-thinking introvert, there’s no such thing as not being interested. The introvert may wander around the entire museum, seemingly at random, spending time absorbing each exhibit fully before moving on to the next. The introvert brain is quietly making connections too, possibly more than anyone could imagine.
Introverts Miss Very Little
Many introverts are highly attuned to their environment and/or other people. We take in everything, and I mean everything. We may notice what you’re wearing, if you seem tired, and what that squirrel behind you is doing. Sometimes it seems like we’re not hearing you, and sometimes we aren’t — we’re daydreaming instead. It took me a long time to master the art of listening and processing at the same time. It can be done, but it takes patience. The main thing is understanding yourself and how your brain works. Don’t worry so much about other people “getting” you — as long as you understand yourself. I know what it’s like to go down that road. That neural pathway has no end!
It’s easy to go down that road because one of the hardest things about being an introvert is that people don’t seem to understand you. Extroverts often wonder why introverts:
- Have less fun as the party goes on
- Watch the clouds while they’re talking
- Can’t answer their questions right away
- Are entertained by staring at our feet and daydreaming
Trust me, if you knew what was going on in our heads, you’d get it. So let’s take a look at what’s going on in that mind of ours.
Introverts Respond Differently to Rewards
According to research, there’s a key difference between the way extroverts and introverts process rewards. Rewards are things like social attention, social status, money, and even food. When you get promoted at work or eat a delicious meal, you’re gaining a reward.
Introverts care about earning money, eating, and having relationships, too. The difference is, compared to extroverts, introverts are less energized by the possibilities for rewards around them. In fact, they may find levels of stimulation that are rewarding and energizing for extroverts to be simply tiring or annoying. Think: a big party with lots of people, a loud rock concert, or a crowded bar. If you’re an introvert, you may be able to put up with these environments for a time. You may even have fun while you’re there. But after a while, you want to head home where it’s calmer and quieter.
Why do introverts care less about the things that excite extroverts? It was to do with a neurotransmitter found in the brain called dopamine. Dopamine plays a role in the brain’s pleasure and reward centers. It enables us to notice rewards and take action to move toward them. It also reduces the “cost of effort” of obtaining something.
According to Colin DeYoung, a psychology professor at the University of Minnesota who recently published a paper on introversion, extroverts appear to have a more active dopamine reward system than introverts. This means that extroverts’ brains get more active at the sight of a possible reward, and dopamine energizes them to pursue it. This allows them to do things that are tiring — like partying or chatting up strangers — without getting as worn out as introverts.
College Is Easier When You Own Being an Introvert
The way my brain processes rewards is why an introvert can be the life of the library study group but have a hard time being the life of the party. My first year of college was really hard for me until I began to honor who I am instead of trying to be what I am not. That’s the big secret, dear introverts: you can have a fantastic social life just by being you.
That’s the advice I want to leave you with. Stop thinking something is wrong with you or feeling as though you’re missing out on the college experience. You get to decide what your experience will be, so make it a happy one. Don’t try to be the life of the party. Instead, be the go-to person that others seek out when they need academic help, a listening ear, or an insightful perspective. You will never run out of friends, I promise you that.
Instead of forcing yourself to participate in large group activities, give yourself permission to meet in small groups. Join a club that attracts other introverts, and play to your strengths when you’re interacting with extroverts. Maybe you can’t pop out a funny quip every couple of minutes, but chances are you can stop the show with one hilarious comment that captures the nature of the entire conversation or classroom lecture.
Don’t look at being an introvert as a drawback because it’s not. It just has a different set of strengths and weaknesses than being an extrovert. Accept who you are and you will find that everything becomes easier.
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Learn more: The Secret Lives of Introverts: Inside Our Hidden World, by Jenn Granneman
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