How Well Do You Fit in? The Therapeutic Dilemma of the Introvert in an Extroverted World

512px-Alone_(17677906163)

In my therapy practice I encountered many people who didn’t quite fit into the world. Sometimes it was because the world valued beauty and they were not beautiful, sometimes because they had no interest in sports where others cheered for a team, and sometimes because their skin color and religion were out of place. More often they believed their internal life didn’t match up with those around them: too sensitive or unlikeable or too serious; peculiar, different, odd. Quiet in a loud world, thoughtful in an impulsive world, gun shy in a world where many shoot first and don’t even ask questions later. Most importantly, they lacked a niche, a social group, a family or family substitute in which they felt safe and cared for — a place of solidarity and belonging — or an institution (like a small community church) offering something bigger than the commonplace mission of “getting and spending” and personal success at any cost.

To provide therapy for such people one must acknowledge that, indeed, some of us fit better into a different time and place. I’d like to look at the therapeutic model from which the counseling field grew and ask the question: does it still offer the best possible assistance to a person who is isolated, perhaps by his nature and temperament, perhaps by a society prone to discounting his human qualities, perhaps by a world transformed from being too closed to too open; perhaps by all of these.

Psychoanalysis, Freud’s method, developed in a Victorian Era, tailored to the values, customs, and morals of the time: a repressive society in which a woman who showed her ankle in public could cause a small scandal. Polite social gatherings didn’t permit discussions of sex. Revelation of personal problems betrayed weakness and breached decorum. One suffered silently. Not surprisingly, Freud offered a treatment designed to open those topics not disclosed elsewhere, fashioning the counseling apparatus to lift the gurney of a disapproving society off patients who had been crushed by it. In other words, psychoanalysis was a therapeutic approach tailored to a different social world than we live in today, at least for those of us in the West.

There was, however, a positive side to the era. Values identified in bold letters were supported by strong institutions. The family and church might crush you, but they also provided decisive direction and unconditional, although superficial, acceptance, at least if you followed the rules. You  weren’t on your own, adrift, and uncertain about how to lead your life. The restricted set of permitted choices made the day less complicated and overwhelming. The life map presented by family and social institutions, government and military, offered easy-to-follow steps.

If Freud were alive today would he have used a different model for treatment after his world vanished?

I suspect so. He could not fail to notice how the closed, restrictive, prescriptive social order has been replaced by one more permissive and open. A society requiring unquestioning acceptance of your parents’ religion, vocational advice, and veto power over a potential spouse has been set aside.

Now, for example, you are considered free to determine not just your faith, but whether you want a religion at all. Yes, parental direction and disapproval are still present, but they have lost a good part of their grip. A federal government that once ordered you to perform military service, today leaves the defense of the country to volunteers. Sex is everywhere (as are exposed ankles and more). There is no place to hide. Loud voices predominate. Extroversion trumps introversion. Freedom to make personal choices comes with the expectation you will make good ones instead of being overwhelmed by the array of possibilities. Few behavioral menu options are forbidden and most are public.

We live in a garden of delights or a world of confusion that would have seemed dreamlike, disorienting, and scandalous in the time of Freud’s early work. We cannot escape a Kardashianized existence of energetic, fast-talking, self-promoting performers who are role models no introvert recognizes in himself. Meanwhile, he has the vague sense of missing someone he has never met.

What components should therefore be added to the traditional “talking cure” in the second decade of the 21st century?

512px-Isolation_Lake_(5)

I’d begin with recognition that the social world of today is tipped to the advantage of extroverts. At least one-third of us, however, are not so classified. Methods of self-enhancement and personal validation for introverted clients must go beyond an effort to make them into fake extroverts. Temperament is more or less fixed by biological inheritance and very early experience. An introverted and insecure patient can become more self-confident with the help of therapy, but his preferences for privacy, quiet time alone to recharge his energy, and one-to-one contact over an affinity for large groups are likely to persist.

The introvert is not true to himself if he tries to become a chattering machine: the “Bigger Than Life” of the party. Treatment must value his qualities as an introvert and support him in his effort to find a useful niche within the work and social worlds that makes the best of his unique skills. His temperamental strengths include an ability to listen, reflective thought as opposed to impulsive action, seriousness of purpose, persistence, and a good eye for risks. Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking offers a place to start.

A second component consists of helping clients find or create socially supportive, cohesive institutions and groups where they can attach to something less isolative, more fulfilling, and bigger than hollow self-interest. As noted by Sebastian Junger in his short, but powerful new book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, our ancestors in prehistory lived in small groups (50 or fewer) whose survival depended upon pulling together. The tiny society was largely “classless and egalitarian.” Sharing was essential and little personal property existed. Loyalty was prized. Status, to the extent it was present, came from providing for the group and defending it in war. It was a place where quietly doing your part was enough for acceptance and approval, membership and the availability of a mate. Everyone fit.

Contrast such a living situation to the endless, senseless, heart-deadening contemporary competition to be as good or better than your peers and survive on your own or, if you are lucky, in a family including only a spouse and children. Our ancestors were bound together by a mutual necessity and support now replaced simply by sharing an address: living in apartment buildings and neighborhoods of nameless strangers. Isolation is the inevitable result of having little intimacy, as well as sham closeness dependent only upon the accident of sharing a cubicle or the ties of occasional after-hours good times that do not bind.

The therapeutic project of the urban, anonymous 21st century must recognize the present historical moment as especially challenging for the introvert. More than most others, he wants relationships of depth. The therapist’s transfigured and transfiguring task is to creatively enable his client to locate some way to connect, belong, and find meaning instead of settling for alienation — the extent of which few are permitted to know.

Treatment is a serious job for this serious person, it is true. What could be more fitting?

The first image is called Alone by PiConsti. Look closely for the tiny creature in the picture. The photo beneath it is Isolation Lake (5) in Chelan County, WA by Bala. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

24 thoughts on “How Well Do You Fit in? The Therapeutic Dilemma of the Introvert in an Extroverted World

  1. Thank you for so eloquently describing what can be such a difficult existence to us introverts! I thoroughly enjoy your blog and look forward to them every Saturday night!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Much appreciated, Kim. It is heartwarming to receive words describing your grateful anticipation of my writing. I’m glad this piece resonated with you. All the best.

      Like

    • Dr. Stein, I am a pediatric neuropsychologist and I often refer my clients to your blogs on what children need from their parents, as I have found these articles to be wonderfully clear, engaging, and accessible. I confess, i often tell myself to “be the candy machine” with my own children. I was looking up the link for one of my parents today and saw that you have so many posts and would like to read more of your thoughts. I am a fan of the book, “quiet” and suspect I will like a lot of your words. i cannot figure out how to follow you and am hoping that leaving this comment with my email will do the trick. thank you for your work. your words have helped me as a parent and a professional.

      Like

      • Thank you for both your praise and your interest. I looked for a way to add your name, but I think you have to do it. Let me know whether or not this works. Go to the home page: https://drgeraldstein.wordpress.com/ Below my photo on the right side there should be a link that will allow you to follow me. All the best.

        Like

  2. Thank you for this on a reflective Sunday morning Gerald. I sense from your writing you are perceiving ‘introversion’ as a problem? There are some of us who are relatively happy with ourselves and choose carefully to whom we give our time, I’m rarely bored with ‘me’. I enjoy my thoughts and reflections and sometimes get bored in ‘company’ where if the conversations are too trite and find myself thinking ‘when can I politely leave and go home’. Although I could not accuse you of being judgmental, I think society often is, the expectation being that we must fit into a prescribed ‘norm’? Happy Sunday! Nigel

    Like

    • Thank you, Nigel. As an introvert myself, I can identify with all you’ve said. As to the question of whether it is a problem, I’d describe it more as a temperament that creates the potential for a mismatch between oneself and the majority of our peers, especially in a world that worships an extrovert ideal. That said, the sensitivity and thoughtful seriousness of introverts can set the stage for challenges, especially if they lack your self-confidence. Moreover, the energy-depleting effect of large social gatherings make the introvert a bit more mindful — as you say — of how to get out of the crowd early rather than late. Meanwhile, the extrovert is energized by the crowd and wants to go back for more. Introverts also commonly are more challenged by such tasks as speaking in public. Many thanks for your engaging comment, Nigel.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh how much I love this post! And what a fantastic question to ask and address…….and just before reading your last lines I was thinking ‘that’s why the therapeutic relationship is so nourishing for this person’….but I guess also frustrating because it is deeper on one side than the other and there can still be a sense of not fitting where the client might most want to fit….but that is all part of the therapy. ..! Thank you for your interesting words 🙂

    Like

    • I’m pleased you enjoyed this. This post was one that was “percolating” for a long time before it came to a boil, due (I think) to reading the Sebastian Junger book. As to your point of wanting the depth and contact of a relationship with the therapist, the ultimate therapeutic challenge is to find “the missing person” or persons I referenced outside the therapy room. Thus, the counselor becomes a stepping-stone to what is possible elsewhere. If one is lucky in life, I think we encounter one or more people who cause us to recognize who we can be and what we can find in relationships with others — relationships we despaired of ever finding anywhere with anyone.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I still need to get over my despair of finding what she gives me, with anyone else. It can never be quite the same though, can it? In that ‘ordinary mortals’ ( 😉 ) are not trained in unconditional acceptance and positive regard and wonderful levels of tolerance?!
        An example of what you have written about this morning happened to me this morning. I was at a baby shower and as often happens these days when I’m in a group, I felt ‘apart’ from others and on the edge of tears a lot of the time. And yet I don’t remember feeling like that in my twenties. I think I was so much less self aware and so much more defended against being hurt and so used to always putting on a front and not being open, that I just didn’t think about the extent to which I felt like an outsider and an imposition on others……

        Like

      • I will concede the point — a therapist, because of the special conditions of the contact — provides something both greater and smaller than does a relationship on the “outside.” As to your experience at the baby shower, you live “intensely.” BPD may be a curse, but you describe an aliveness to it that might be thought of in opposition to those people at the other extreme who are deadened to the world. Those of us not quite so “alive” may have an easier time, but we also might be missing something.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. A very interesting post, I think that I am an extravert by nature but have become introverted by nurture, or lack there of. So I find myself constantly shifting between the two ends of the spectrum. I find being in company stimulating but only for a limited time before I get overstimulated then I need to be on my own to quiet my mind and have silence to find my own thoughts but before to long I find the loneliness takes over within a day and then Im out searching for company again and just keep going in that cycle, so its hard to fit in with either category. probably part of having borderline traits. Getting older helps, not to fit within a section of society but to fit in and be comfortable in my own skin.

    Like

    • “Getting older helps, not to fit within a section of society but to fit in and be comfortable in my own skin.” If one keeps learning, getting older does help. Very wise, Claire. Susan Caine’s book offers guidance in self-diagnosis, if you care to examine this further. Most people do fit somewhere in the middle. Thanks for your comment, Claire.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. For me being alone and the loneliness that accompanies that state also drives the necessity to be introverted. Being shy in nature to begin with and suffering from a lack of confidence to boot, introversion is more a state I’ve been forced into rather than one I chose. I’d love to be an extrovert, to be “part of the group”, to have lots of friends and people who enjoy being around me but that internal voice that questions everyone’s motives for even approaching me, the voice that says “better be careful”, keeps me always in the background and the fact that it has proven to be right more often than not, keeps me trusting that voice rather than chancing any more hurt or embarrassment. As for treatment, don’t you find that younger people benefit more and are more apt to respond positively than older people, who would like to find a way out of their head, but have been introverted most of their life?

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’ve raised several important points, Brewdun. The real key to knowing whether you are an introvert or not is the question of whether your energy is boosted by time alone away from social stimulation or reduced by time in animated groups. Therefore, an introvert is not necessarily shy. Shy people, as you’ve suggested, expect disapproval or humiliation and hesitate to put themselves in what they perceive as dangerous situations. Without experience in mastering their anticipatory anxiety and/or worry, they never develop confidence and continue to perceive dangers where someone else might not. The challenge for the shy person is to take risks despite what they believe will happen to them if they do, usually by beginning with small steps. Cognitive-behavior therapy has a good record of helping with this. With enough positive experience they then can get over their shyness/social anxiety, still maintaining an introverted predisposition. Introversion and extroversion, it is important to point out, are not choices. They tend to be built-in and depend very much on the nature you’ve inherited biologically. Regarding treatment, I’d say youth is an advantage, as you clearly understand. Age, however, doesn’t prevent change unless a person doesn’t want to try. Thanks for your important comment.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Interesting, as I always thought of an introvert as one who is shy and reclusive and an extrovert as someone outgoing and social. By your definition I am much more of an “extrovert” than an “introvert”, yet nobody who knows me either superficially or well would ever think of me as an extrovert. I live in my head because I’m usually alone but my brain is always engaged…thinking all the time, assessing all the time but speaking very little. I assume depression adds an additional layer to all this, correct? I love being in the middle of an outgoing and gregarious bunch of people, but at the same time their obvious happy state just exaggerates my aloneness and thus, like the introverts you describe, I need to walk away but not because they deplete my energy, but because being around them actually intensifies the loneliness I feel. Not sure this makes sense to anyone but me.

        Like

      • It does make sense. It also suggests a significant upside since you enjoy being in groups, at least those that don’t demand much participation. Yes, depression makes a big difference, but that can also be treated medically, which, if the treatment included an anti-anxiety component, leaves open the possibility of being able to participate with others more.

        Like

  6. Thank you for sharing this! I found it very helpful, particularly in validating aspects of my own struggles, enabling me to see them as other than “flaws”. I really appreciate the insight you’ve imparted through this post!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m delighted to have been of help, Andrea. Thanks for saying so. Susan Caine’s book has an excellent quote in the Introduction listing several great works produced by introverts like Isaac Newton, Einstein, Yeats, Chopin, Orwell, Spielberg, Proust, and J.K. Rowling (of Harry Potter fame), etc. You are in good (and positive) company. Take care.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. “The family and church might crush you, but they also provided decisive direction and unconditional, although superficial, acceptance, at least if you followed the rules.” In my case, I have come to realize that the family and the Catholic Church pretty effectively crushed the “me” out of me. Yes, there was decisive direction but it was a one size fits all kind of situation. In my older years, I am now just wondering how life might have turned out if I had not been influenced by the heavy hand of authoritarian parents and a controlling church. For the most part, I followed the rules and got patted on the head for that but it was a big price to pay for that acceptance.

    Re: introversion…. I have recognized for years that, though I am in no way shy, I AM introverted. I learned long ago that playing the extrovert got me places and so I did that quite successfully. Always, always, always though I need solitude and quiet in order to recover. During my work years, I was always 100% on during the work day (even when that extended into the evening) and my family knew that I needed a brief period of solitude when I got home (maybe only 45 minutes but that was enough). Then I could enjoy the more intimate company of my family. It helps that my spouse is also introverted. As my children get older, they tell me they too are becoming more introverted. I think they understand introversion b/c I was their model for how to be in public eye and still satisfy the introvert inside.

    I have been on the library request list for the Junger book for some time. Can’t wait. I also found the Susan McCain book to be valuable. The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World by Marti Laney came out in 2002. That book helped me to understand myself.

    One last comment:
    “The therapist’s transfigured and transfiguring task is to creatively enable his client to locate some way to connect, belong, and find meaning instead of settling for alienation — the extent of which few are permitted to know.
    Treatment is a serious job for this serious person, it is true. What could be more fitting?”

    It sounds like you have answered your opening question in the affirmative. I wonder if you could expand a bit on your last sentence?
    Thanks! JT

    Liked by 1 person

    • Your comments are always a thing to behold. Yes, we introverts must do some amount of “fake it to make it” early in life if we are to “succeed.” Too much though, comes at some version of the price you described at the hands of the church’s rules. As to the last sentence, “fitting” — the final word — is a pun I couldn’t resist. I meant to say this: therapy is both a place where you fit (in opposition to not fitting elsewhere) and a place where the serious person feels comfortable because 1:1 contact in depth is the kind of relationship he has been genetically built for. I hope that answers your question, JT.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Dr. Stein, thanks so much for addressing this topic. Over the years, I came to define myself as an introverted extrovert. My work, as a teacher and later an international trade professional – demanded that I reach out to and communicate with others. Now, as a writer working from home, I have become more of an introvert. Getting out and being with people takes effort, but get me started in a conversation and you can’t shut me up 🙂

    Like

    • You are welcome, Rosaliene. Lots of people find, as you do, that they have aspects of both kinds of temperament on the introvert/extrovert dimension. Interestingly, a real introvert will almost experience his skin crawling in the presence of someone who is too extroverted. Indeed, he is likely to be repelled by what appears to be the extrovert’s superficiality. If one can get over this, however, we discover many extroverts are bright and not really superficial.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Your reply to my comment made me smile, for many reasons 🙂 I’m sorry if I ever appear ‘argumentative’ or as if I want you to concede a point – it is not the case at all! But I do like a good discussion 🙂 And your comment about BPD was interesting – yes, I do live ‘intensely’, though much less so, I think, now that therapy is really doing its work. But the need for it is still there, not always as felt and as present, but it is as addictive once it rears its head, and as compelling and enthralling. But perhaps just a little easier to resist, than it was. But today’s experience, for all it was upsetting, was one that I would rate around a 3/10 on my intensity scale 🙂 Which made me wonder, again, what other people’s ‘intensity scales’ are like?! It’s not that 3/10 isn’t upsetting or means I was fine or that it was insignificant – it’s just that I know how much further my ‘intensity range’ can extend (my experience this evening, of an urgent need to inflict pain on myself, for example, being roughly a 6/10). (I resisted, and tried to be a therapist to myself and make use of what the same time was an interesting parallel with past feelings and associations). I _am_ glad, in some ways, for my ability to feel this way, dangerous though it is, in many ways. I wonder to what extent that ability is associated, perhaps, with introversion? Whether there is correlation, if not causation? I love the way your posts and comments generate more and more thought-provoking avenues…. 🙂

    Like

    • You weren’t being argumentative; at least, I didn’t take it that way. I think what prompted my kind of legalistic choice of words is that I wished I could have told you and other readers that the sum total of good things they find in therapy could be duplicated without all the conditions that pertain to therapy and therefore are also frustrating. The security one feels in a good treatment relationship is kind of like a hothouse plant: it can only live there. We often find not only our strengths and values by understanding and enforcing our limitations, but also by experiencing them outside of ourselves, imposed by the conditions of living and the temporary nature of life. With respect to intensity, I think extroverts who are also BPD live very intense lives, too. I’m glad to hear about your growing capacity for self-care. Brava!

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s