Why Introverts Struggle to Figure Out Who They Are

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Thanks to the work of Introvert, Dear and others, what we might call introvert awareness—the realization that introverts possess a special set of needs, preferences, talents, etc.—has been spreading like wildfire. More and more people are recognizing that the introvert is in fact a unique sort of creature, one which requires plenty of time alone to function optimally in her life and work. Introverts are also reflective creatures, a tendency which is embodied, even if hyperbolically, in archetypal conceptions such as the sage, healer, and philosopher. Moreover, many introverts are devotees of self-reflection, enamored with questions like “Who am I?” and “What is my purpose in life?”

While one might expect the self-reflective introvert to be armed with a firm sense of identity, this is not always the case. Research has shown, for instance, that introverted college students often have a sketchier sense of identity than their extroverted counterparts. In one study, investigators employed the Big Five personality taxonomy and the APSI Sense of Identity scale to assess the relationship between identity and personality variables. They found that introverts generally scored lower than extroverts on Sense of Identity measures, such as having a clear sense of one’s personal beliefs, values, goals, and purpose. Although this ostensible lack of self-clarity may seem perplexing in light of introverts’ penchant for self-reflection, it nonetheless serves as a worthy starting point for understanding a subset of introverts whom I will refer to as identity-seekers.  

Stories of Self

The question “Who am I?” is a matter of persistent interest among identity-seekers. Little fascinates them more than investigating the nature of their essential self, as well as how their self-understanding might guide their life’s purpose. By exploring who they are and what they might become, identity-seekers function as authors of their own “story of self.”

In their stimulating article, “A New Big Five: Fundamental Principles for an Integrative Science of Personality,” Dan Adams and Jennifer Pals contend that stories of self, or what psychologists have dubbed narrative identities, should be recognized as foundational to human psychology. To some extent, this realization is already happening. Adams and Pals report that “the concept of narrative has emerged as a new root metaphor in psychology and the social sciences.” They go on to define narrative identity as:

“An internalized and evolving narrative of the self that incorporates the reconstructed past and the imagined future into a more or less coherent whole in order to provide the person’s life with some degree of unity, purpose, and meaning.”

For identity-seekers, clarifying their self-narrative is a matter of deep concern. They strive to find a sort of “sweet spot” in which the core ingredients of who they are—their values, interests, abilities, experiences, etc.—are perfectly interwoven, yielding a clearer sense of identity and purpose.

To complement the identity-seeker’s own self-crafted narratives, I would now like to offer an account of the shared path of identity-seeking introverts, one which can furnish additional insight into their psychological and existential situation.

The Path (and Struggles) of the Introvert

Introverts, according to Carl Jung, are inclined to gaze inward before peering outward. Not only do they find their inner world most intriguing, but they also sense that it represents their most reliable source of wisdom and guidance. They are thus inclined to trust themselves—their own thoughts, feelings, and hunches—over outside sources. Notions such as “trust your conscience” and “listen to your own voice” embody the introvert’s preferred modus operandi.

Extroverts, on Jung’s account, take the opposite approach, directing their energy and attention outwardly. Rather than honing their skills as “navel gazers,” they are students of external happenings. They also tend to look outward for guidance, trusting that popular opinion or conventional wisdom will steer them in the right direction. Even prior to Jung, the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard had grasped this fundamental extrovert-introvert distinction. “There is a view of life,” wrote Kierkegaard, “which holds that where the crowd is, the truth is also.” This of course is the extroverted viewpoint. “There is another view of life,” continued Kierkegaard, “which holds that wherever the crowd is, there is untruth.” Here, Kierkegaard describes the introverted approach, for which he proved to be a great champion throughout his literary career. I summarize this matter in my book, My True Type, by suggesting that introverts are seekers of self-knowledge and extroverts of world-knowledge.

As interesting as these inner-outer distinctions may be, they don’t give us the whole story. According to Jung, introverts are not entirely inner-directed, but also have extroverted propensities that grow over time. Common experience corroborates this observation, as even the most extreme introverts aren’t without some measure of extroverted concern. It is for this reason that my colleague Elaine Schallock has claimed that introverts take an “inside-out” approach. Although their predominant instinct is to look within (“inside”), they hope that doing so will also yield a positive external result (“out”). So even if an introverted artist creates largely for his own personal satisfaction, there is also a real part of him that wants others to find value in his work. In other words, introverts ultimately want their rich inner life to be understood and validated by others. We see the opposite trend at play among extroverts, which Schallock dubs the “outside-in” approach. While extroverts’ foremost concern is to attend to outer affairs—their careers, relationships, etc.—with time and personal development, discovering who they are as unique individuals becomes a matter of greater importance.

It just so happens that extroverts’ outside-in approach generally makes for a smoother transition into adulthood in the modern world. For instance, society generally expects that college graduates will quickly seek out work and become “contributing members” of society. While this is typically unproblematic for the world-oriented extrovert, it can be a matter of great distress for introverts who have yet to achieve self-clarity. Indeed, prematurely diving into a career is odious to them, violating their desire to start from a point of inner clarity and proceed from the inside out. And since procuring a paycheck through self-reflection is about as effective as dancing for rain in the desert, introverts may feel they are involved in a race against time. Those wanting a family, for instance, may feel they have a rather limited window of opportunity to find a mate and secure a good-paying job. But again, doing so without sufficient self-clarity feels like putting the proverbial cart before the horse; introverts can’t help but feel troubled by the prospect of building their lives on a tenuous inner foundation.  

So how should introverts proceed? Should they override their natural instincts and plunge into a career or relationship? Or, should they refrain from action until they have fully resolved their identity concerns?

Clarifying Identity

To speed up their quest for self-clarity, introverts may subject themselves to innumerable self-tests designed to shed light on their values, skills, interests, personality, and so on. With each new assessment comes a sense of hope toward learning something important about who they are or what they might do with their lives. They may also take to studying the lives of others by way of film, fiction, biographies, etc., asking themselves questions such as: Do I identify with this individual? How are we similar (or different)? What can I learn from him or her? Is he or she worth emulating?

The study of personality types (e.g., INFJ, INTP), or what is formally known as personality typology, is another tool used by introverts to shore up their self-understanding. Indeed, much of our hitherto analysis has been typological in nature, examining the psychological characteristics of introverts (and extroverts) as a collective. Not only can personality typology furnish introverts with valuable psychological insight, but it can enrich their personal narratives in a way that strengthens their sense of identity and purpose.

Finally, many introverted seekers discover, often accidentally, the value of creative work as a portal to self-insight. As we’ve seen, introverts are inclined to assume that self-knowledge must always precede action; to do otherwise is deemed inauthentic. But those who have taken up a creative craft often discover something quite remarkable, viz., when they are immersed in the creative process, they feel most themselves. When they fall into a state of deep absorption, which psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihaly has famously described as the experience of “flow,” their concerns about self-definition effectively disappear. Such experiences may inspire introverts to reassess how they approach, and what they expect from, their seeker’s journey. They may be caused to wonder, for instance, if what they are after is not just a self-conception, but a vocation that reliably ushers them into flow. If this is the case, then acting or creating without a rock solid identity may not always be the worst thing in the world for introverts. Who knows, it may even reveal their path to redemption.

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Read this: 21 Undeniable Signs That You’re an Introvert

Learn more: My True Type: Clarifying Your Personality Type, Preferences & Functions, by Dr. A.J. Drenth  retina_favicon1

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A self-confessed personality junkie, Dr. Drenth (INTP) is a four-time author and founder of the blog Personality Junkie. While he enjoys reading broadly in both psychology and philosophy, he specializes in Jungian/Myers-Briggs typology. Originally from the Midwest, he now calls California home. His favorite quote is, "We don't see the world as it is, we see it as we are.”