Introvert or Extrovert? For Me, It Depends on the Day

As a “social” introvert, I am the proverbial walking contradiction.

I had a name and a body.

I was aware of my outer shell, but it felt incongruent with the inside. Invasion of the Body Snatchers comes to mind. It confused me that I both sought the limelight and wanted to fade into the background. That I wanted to be surrounded by friends and quietly read a book. Or walk out on stage in a play and find every excuse not to attend a networking event.

My earliest memories revolve around a suspicion of loud noises and the unknown. As a toddler, I’d sit inside the screen door, watching as Dad mowed the lawn. I was simultaneously mesmerized by the pattern he created as he walked the mower over the yard, and overwhelmed by the loud engine piercing my ears. 

A particularly blond and fair-skinned cousin was frightening. He appeared ghostly to me. When I saw him, which wasn’t often because he lived halfway across the country, I’d pretend to be asleep for two strategic goals: 1. If he thought I was asleep, he would leave me alone, and 2. I could quietly watch him through a squinted eye — I needed to figure him out. Looking back, it seemed I was a sensitive child, but I didn’t know what that meant just yet.

Growing Up, Things Balanced Out…Kind Of

As I grew, I absorbed more experiences and began to better understand how to operate in the world. I made friends, performed in school plays, and had boyfriends. A typical childhood by most definitions. But I was far from the cheerleader or the popular girl, even though I was no longer afraid to open the screen door.

Fast forward to adulthood: My dad jokes that it’s a wonder I’m an apparently well-balanced human being. Truth be told, I’m still the same little kid inside, trying to figure out my place in this world.

Feeling Like a Contradiction

Looking at my resume, you might be convinced that I’m an extrovert. With my work in journalism and public/media relations, I’ve been interviewed on television (even CNN!) more times than I can count; I’ve given speeches in front of hundreds of people; and I’ve held my own asking piercing questions of elected leaders. As a Pilates and yoga instructor, I have no problem leading dozens of people through the how-to of proper movement. In my time off the clock, I’ve acted in community plays.

I am the proverbial walking contradiction. I felt the incongruence, but first believed I was the only one who saw it. I was wrong. I vividly recall a Pilates client scoffing at the notion I was an introvert. Conversely, a casual acquaintance looked in disbelief when I talked about the radio show I used to host. It was these reactions and others that illuminated that different people saw me in contradictory ways.

Depending on the context, you might think I’m high-energy, the center of attention, telling jokes, and enjoying it. Or you might think I’m quite reserved, speaking only when spoken to, and hanging on the perimeter of the action. In both instances, you’d be correct. I’m all of those things and everything between.

So began a quest to understand myself. To determine once and for all who I really am. Will the real Angela please stand up: A talkative performer? A data-driven analyst? A visionary developing the future? I wanted so desperately to be one thing, so that I had one way to direct my energy.

My search unearthed the truth — it’s impossible for me to be just one thing. Now, I realize that’s the best news I’ve ever received.

Enter the Social Introvert

As a social introvert, I shine in my ability to be a chameleon. I’m not the same person across all situations. Leading a group of people through an exercise requires excitement, encouragement, and compassion. Addressing a community about a tragedy demands establishing trust, knowledge, and transparency.

Depending on the situation, I’m who I need to be. I used to think my shifting personality made me a phony or a fraud. That I was completely disconnected from my true self, my authenticity. Lately, I’ve had a change of heart. Since crossing the 50-year threshold, I’ve come to recognize that all the different sides of my personality are my authenticity. In fact, it’s a superpower.  

Like everyone, it’s still necessary for me to honor who I am. I’ve recognized three simple ways to know if I’m acting in alignment with my essence. Perhaps these signposts can help you as well.

The Social Introvert’s Authenticity Test

1.  Do I feel energized by the experience?

If my first feeling after an experience (conversation, activity, meeting, etc.) is that I am exhausted, I know I’m moving away from my authenticity. Either the experience was counter to who I am, or I conducted myself from a less-than-authentic place.

2. Do I feel physically lighter?

When I am listening to and honoring my true nature, I feel lighter — like I lost 10 pounds. This sense of feeling physically lifted tells me I am syncing with my higher self. If there’s a heaviness in my gut, I know this is an experience to walk away from, or — at the very least — not to repeat.

3. Do I eagerly talk about the experience?

When I feel aligned with a project, person, or pursuit, I want to talk to my husband about it. I want to tell him all the details. If I’m not interested in sharing, then I know my time may be better spent doing something else. You may not have a husband, but maybe you have a best friend you bounce your thoughts off.

There is truth in too much of a good thing. Even if I answer “yes” to all three questions, I know I still must limit my exposure to large groups. For example, leading a group of Pilates students is energizing. That said, if I do it every day, the scales will begin to tip in the other direction. Without my solitude, I will deplete my reserves. What was once invigorating becomes an intense burden, causing me to withdraw all together. The pendulum swings hard the other way.

Think About the Cost

There’s an interesting way to think about that pendulum. I watched a recent TV interview with author Malcolm Gladwell. A self-described introvert, he admitted he enjoys performing – but performing comes at a cost:

“For every minute I spend talking,” he told TV host Anderson Cooper, “I need to spend at least ten in utter silence…So, whereas an extrovert is the opposite…we don’t want people to confuse us with the extrovert who is so energized by a one-hour interview on television that they want to go to a bar and meet people. We’re just saying don’t confuse me with that person. Leave me alone.” 

That word — cost — describes what I experience. Knowing when the cost is worth it is important. Like refined carbs. Is that donut worth it or do I want to hold out for a croissant? We might not have the same answer (croissant, obviously), but we do have to understand what gives us the right satisfaction for what will be required after.

On the other end of the spectrum, even if a solo pursuit feels on target, I still know I shouldn’t do that exclusively. If all my time is engaged in completely independent interests, over time I become withdrawn, tired, and directionless.

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A Recipe for Peace

In time, I have found I can better predict what will feed my soul. Thanks to those three questions, I’ve gathered great data to project onto the future. And with every new experience, I go back to those questions.

Too much introversion or too much extroversion will lead me to the same place: disconnected from myself and life. It’s taken me about a half-century of living, but I’ve finally figured out my secret sauce. A little routine, a dash of spontaneity, cups of solitude, ounces of performance, all baked in 8 hours of sleep. Not every week is exactly that recipe, but I’m getting happier and happier with what I’m cooking.

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After an unfortunate detour managing almost 30 people, I’ve returned to my typewriter (uh, computer) and notepads. I satisfy my need to connect by teaching yoga and Pilates but prefer to spend time in my slippers at home with my husband and shih tzus. And the occasional travel to lands both near and far. I have a BA in Journalism and Public Relations from Auburn University and an MA in Teaching (English) from Troy University. Find me on Instagram at @angelakcopeland and www.angelakcopeland.com.