I still remember when I first found out I’m an introvert. I was reading Dr. Marti Olsen Laney’s book The Introvert Advantage: How Quiet People Can Thrive in an Extrovert World. I had picked it up, randomly, in a used book store. After reading the back cover, I thought, hey, this sounds like me.
I remember this quote summed up the things I’d been struggling with:
“There are reasons why introverts sometimes feel so alien—as if our spacecraft landed on the wrong planet—and are so often misunderstood. Introverts reveal less of themselves and their actions; they can appear aloof and mysterious. And as we’ve seen, many societies extol the virtues of extroversion, and many extroverts cast a dubious eye on the gifts introverts bring to the world. Sadly, often we don’t even comprehend our own contributions.”
The wrong planet. I had felt like that for much of my life, especially when I was in high school and college. But for some reason, hearing someone acknowledge this problem filled me with relief. I wasn’t alone in how I felt. I wasn’t alone, period—there were other people out there like me. Other introverts.
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The more I learned about introversion, the more my life started to make sense. Eventually, I went on to create the website you’re reading so that introverts can understand themselves better—and so can the people who love them.
When I was younger, one thing I wished for was an introvert guide that I could give to the people in my life. I longed for them to understand me better, but whenever I tried to explain myself, I seemed to be at a loss for words.
So, to honor the wishes of that young introvert, here is that guide, in simple Q&A style. Feel free to share it with the people in your life, or use it for your own self-knowledge.
Of course, not all introverts are the same, so not everything in this guide will apply to everyone equally. Keep in mind that introversion is a spectrum, and some readers will fall on the very introverted end, while others will be outgoing introverts or ambiverts. Know that there’s no wrong way to do introversion. Feel free to leave a comment below and let me know what you’d add to this guide.
How to Understand an Introvert
Q: What is an introvert?
A: In general, introverts tend to be reflective, “inward” people. We have rich, inner worlds and powerful imaginations. We may be slow to speak and act, because we think deeply about our words and decisions. We wish we didn’t have to make small talk because it seems inauthentic; we’d rather make deep connections and talk about big ideas. We feel good when we spend time alone, immersed in activities that are meaningful to us, such as writing, reading, gaming, etc. There’s a scientific explanation for this: our brains are wired to make us feel good when we turn inward and concentrate, according to Dr. Laney. This good feeling is thanks to the subtle “happiness hits” we receive from the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.
Q: How common is introversion?
A: Studies show that introverts make up 30-50 percent of the population.
Q: Why do introverts like spending time alone?
A: According to Susan Cain in Quiet Power: The Secret Strengths of Introverts, introverts have slightly different nervous systems than extroverts. This makes us more sensitive to stimulation than extroverts. “Stimulation” is anything entering our mind from the outside world, like the noise from a crowded shopping mall or the chatter of a co-worker. We can handle a certain amount of stimulation, but eventually it becomes too much. Of course, every introvert has their own limit to how much they can handle. We spend time alone to lower our stimulation level (and get happiness boosts from acetylcholine). For many introverts, spending time quietly with a significant other or roommate counts as “alone” time.
Q: Why are introverts quiet?
A: Introverts tend to be quiet only in certain situations. Private by nature, we open up slowly, so we may not be comfortable talking about our personal lives to someone we don’t know well. Likewise, in a group, when the conversation is jumping from topic to topic, many introverts fade into the background. Because we process things deeply, we prefer to think before we speak—so we may struggle to wedge ourselves into fast-paced banter. Many introverts only talk when they feel they have something of value to say.
Of course, there are many exceptions to this. If the group stumbles on a topic the introvert is passionate about, the introvert may transform into a knowledgeable expert. Many introverts have exceptional public speaking skills, perhaps because they think deeply about their message and put a lot of effort into finding just the right words to say.
Likewise, you might be surprised when you get an introvert alone, because this is when their real personality comes out! Introverts tend to enjoy one-on-one conversations because they can focus all their attention on just one person. Plus, these conversations tend to be more meaningful and less about witty quips, banter, and polite chit chat.
Don’t mistake our quietness for incompetence. Introverts are capable of changing the world with our powerful ideas. Famous introverts include Einstein, Rosa Parks, Bill Gates, Steven Spielberg, Abraham Lincoln, JK Rowling, Gandhi, Hillary Clinton, Elon Musk, Warren Buffet, Steve Wozniak, and Barack Obama.
Q: Do introverts dislike people?
A: Nope. In fact, many introverts are warm and interested in others—but too much socializing drains us (remember, we need less stimulation than extroverts). We may only have one or two close relationships, because we prefer depth to breadth. So the people who matter to us really matter.
Q: Why do introverts prefer working alone?
A: Because we do better work alone. We do our best thinking in solitude, because it allows us to work without interruptions. I’ve heard it said this way: when an introvert is concentrating on something, it’s like they are building a spider web of thoughts in their mind. If a co-worker stops by to chat or the phone rings, it’s like a bull running through the spider web. The thought connections are broken and it can take a while to rebuild the web.
This doesn’t mean introverts can’t join team meetings or pull their weight on a group project. Introverts may be quiet in these group settings, doing their “real” work before or after the meeting alone. If you’re in a group with an introvert, don’t be surprised if you get an email an hour later about all the introvert’s thoughts! After time to process, the introvert’s mind may be exploding with ideas.
Q: I’ve seen you talking to people. You look confident and can be very chatty. So you can’t be an introvert, right?
A: Wrong! Some introverts are mistaken for extroverts, because we’ve learned to “pass” for an extrovert. On our jobs, in our classrooms, or at a party, we put on an extroverted face because the situation requires it. But we’re probably going home, closing our bedroom doors, and recharging in quiet solitude later.
Q: Will you always be an introvert?
A: Yes. According to Dr. Laney, introversion is something you’re born with. In fact, babies tend to show a preference for introversion or extroversion by around the age of four months. However, genetic “set points” make us flexible. Set points are the upper and lower limits of how much extroversion your brain can handle. In some situations, you may push the higher limits of your set points, meaning you act more extroverted. In other situations, you may stay closer to the lower end of your set points, making you more introverted.
Q: What is the thing introverts need the most from other people?
A: Understanding. Many introverts have felt deep emotional pain because they—and the people in their lives—didn’t understand their introversion. They’ve been rejected, felt lonely, or wondered if there is something wrong with them. By understanding what makes introverts tick, we can create a world in which all voices—loud and quiet—are heard.
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