You will grow and change, as we all do, but you’ll always be an introvert at your core.
One of my earliest memories is me sitting on a gym floor, a brightly colored parachute before me. I’m surrounded by many other children my age. My mom tells me this is preschool. In that moment, the other kids are squealing with delight as the parachute bubbles into what looks like a giant mushroom, then snaps down with a roar.
But me, I’m paralyzed. Not with fear, but with something I’ve come to identify in my adult years as overstimulation. In my memory, the whole place is too loud, too frenetic for me to enjoy the activity that so easily thrills my peers. An adult encourages me to pick up a parachute handle, but I quietly refuse. There’s so much happening around me that it’s overwhelming.
Neither my parents nor I knew it then, but I’m an introvert.
As I grew older, I showed all the early signs of introversion. I was sensitive to my environment. I often withdrew from my family and friends for hours on end into the solitude of my bedroom. I easily lost myself playing alone, and although I had a small group of friends who I loved dearly, I became drained just by being around them — so much that I wondered what was wrong with me.
Together, those signs are pretty much the textbook definition of an introvert. Nearly 30 years later, not much has changed.
If you’re like me, you may wonder why you’re an introvert. Were you born that way, or did something happen in your life that made you one — such as the way you were raised or a traumatic event? And will you ever stop being an introvert?
Recent research has some answers. Let’s take a look.
Introversion Is in Your Genes
In 2004, Harvard psychologists Jerome Kagan and Nancy Snidman asked a question: Do shy, cautious babies grow up to be shy, cautious adults? They designed a series of experiments to find an answer.
In one study, they exposed babies to things that were new to them and recorded their reactions. Some babies reacted strongly — making noise, crying, and thrashing their arms and legs. Other babies reacted calmly, soaking up the new stimulation with the ease of a cat lounging in the afternoon sun.
Years later, Kagan and Snidman returned to the people in their study and checked in with them. What they found was the babies deemed “highly reactive” generally grew into cautious and fearful adults. The “low reactive” babies, on the other hand, were sociable adults unafraid to take risks.
Their study shows us something important about what psychologists call “temperament.”
Temperament vs. Personality
Kagan and Snidman’s findings suggest there is a direct connection between our behavior as young kids and our behavior as adults — in other words, our genes. What their study hits on is temperament, which is our general way of approaching the world: introverted or extroverted, cautious or bold, serious or free-wheeling.
Temperament is different from personality, which researchers believe is more flexible. Personality is built over a lifetime, a collection of characteristics that make us unique, like baubles on a bookshelf layered one experience at a time. Unlike temperament, which is more stable, our personalities change as we age, learn, and grow.
Introversion is considered a temperament — a general way of approaching the world — so for the vast majority of people, it won’t change dramatically over time. Once an introvert, always an introvert. In fact, research shows that most people get more introverted as they get older.
Extroversion Is Linked to Dopamine
Another fairly recent study revealed another piece of the genetic puzzle. How did they do it? With gambling.
In 2005, researchers Michael Cohen and his colleagues asked volunteers to spend some time playing games of chance while hooked up to a brain scanner. Some of the volunteers were determined to be introverts, while others were extroverts. Not surprisingly, when the participants won a gamble in the game, the introverts and extroverts reacted differently.
When they won, people in both groups showed a jolt of brain activity. But the extroverts had a much stronger reaction in two areas of the brain: the amygdala, which processes emotional stimuli, and the nucleus accumbens, which is central to the brain’s reward circuitry and dopamine system.
In other words, both the introverts and the extroverts enjoyed winning, but the introverts got less of a thrill out of it.
They also took a DNA swab and looked at the genetic profiles of the volunteers. The participants who showed more brain activity from winning also had a gene that increases responsiveness to dopamine, which is sometimes called the “feel good” neurotransmitter, because it’s connected to pleasure and reward.
This study suggests that introverts and extroverts process rewards in a surprisingly different way. It also contributes to the growing body of evidence that introversion is part of your DNA and is wired into you from birth.
Can an Introvert Turn Into an Extrovert?
As an author who writes about introversion (and the founder of the website you’re reading right now), people always have questions for me when they find out what I do. Often, over a glass of wine at a networking event or dinner party, they quietly confess things like, “I was an extrovert until I was bullied in middle school. The trauma turned me into an introvert.” Or, “I used to be an introvert until I learned how to put myself out there.”
I understand what they’re saying. We all grow and change over time (mostly for the better), and research bears this out. Trauma and grief can also change us, turning us in on ourselves to contain the radioactive leak of pain, even extroverts.
Personally, I used to be shy and lacking confidence, until my 30s, when many of us begin to feel comfortable in our own skin, like finally finding a pair of jeans that fits. Talk to anyone who has known me since childhood, and they’ll say I’m a very different person than I used to be, on some level.
But in other ways, I’m still the same. I still love spending time alone. My favorite hobbies are solo activities like reading, writing, or exercising by myself. I still have only a few good friends, and I value depth in relationships over breadth. Although I feel less awkward doing it, I still get easily worn out by socializing.
So when people say an event definitively “turned” them into an introvert or extrovert, it’s not exactly accurate. You can’t “turn” into an introvert or extrovert, just like a dog can’t turn into a horse.
However, you can, as an introvert, learn to manage your energy, develop confidence, and socialize in a way that works for you. Likewise, extroverts can learn the value of solitude and slowing down. But that’s what it is — learning to do something you wouldn’t naturally do.
We do this sort of thing all the time in other areas of our lives. For example, as a kid, I hated gym class, and in college, the sweat-soaked smell of the workout room was enough to make me take the long way around it to class. I ate pizza and french fries and junk food with abandon. Years later, when I started putting on pounds and my cholesterol was rocky, I taught myself to enjoy exercising and healthy foods. I’m not naturally an athlete or a clean eating evangelist, but I’ve learned to see its value.
How We Treat Young Introverts Matters
Let’s return, for a moment, to Kagan and Snidman’s study of babies. It’s worth pointing out that not all the highly reactive babies turned out the same. When these easily upset babies were raised by parents who were overly protective, it actually made them more cautious and inhibited as adults. On the other hand, when these babies had parents who encouraged boldness and sociability in healthy ways, they grew into much less fearful people.
This shows that how we treat introverts — especially when they’re young — matters in a big way.
How do we help young introverts? By accepting and honoring their inborn introverted nature. By showing them there’s nothing wrong with needing quiet time alone. At times, by helping them stretch out of their comfort zones in healthy, non-traumatic ways. Most importantly, by teaching them to honor their introvert needs while helping them reach their full potential in an “extroverted” world.
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Stop Trying to ‘Fix’ Introverts
We can’t change our DNA (at least not yet). If you’re an introvert, you’ll be one for life. You’ll always have a general preference for calm, minimally stimulating environments and take joy in spending healthy time alone.
And that’s okay, because there’s nothing wrong with being an introvert.
It’s time we stop seeing introverts as broken people who need to be fixed. They need what they need, and there’s nothing wrong with that, just like no one would say extroverts needing social time is wrong. When we stop seeing introversion as the result of trauma or a character flaw, we will all benefit from introverts’ powerful strengths.