You’re probably not an introvert. Or an extrovert.

What it means to be an ambivert
(Adobe Stock Photo)

Carl Jung has a confession to make. When he coined the terms “introvert” and “extrovert” back in 1921, he also mentioned a third group — one that was “the most numerous and includes the less differentiated normal man.”

Today we call them ‘Ambiverts’. You’re probably one of them.

There’s much disagreement about what exactly makes up an introvert or an extrovert. Still, the fundamental and generally agreed-upon distinction (one Jung himself set down) is this:

  • Introverts lose energy from social interaction. They need time alone to ‘recharge’.
  • Extroverts lose energy when alone. They ‘recharge’ through social interaction.

Sounds simple right? You might’ve already labeled yourself as one of the above. But tell me this —

  • At times, haven’t you ‘recharged’ from being alone?
  • At other times, haven’t you also ‘recharged’ from spending time with certain people?

Organizational psychologist Adam Grant estimates that ambiverts make up a half to two-thirds of the population. This means most of us flip-flop between these two ‘recharging’ methods depending on the context.

That’s not surprising. We know how personality is expressed depends mainly on the situation—your immediate environment, the people there, your physical state, a wide range of factors. Acting ‘out of character’ is the rule, not the exception. One reason you know your S.O. and closest friends better is because you’ve seen them in many different contexts, in distinct variations of themselves [1].

The whole concept of a singular ‘you’ is flawed. We may have preferences and patterns of behaviour— personality tests seek to find your ‘default’ personality traits — but in reality, most people’s personalities change significantly throughout their whole lives. It’s a myth that personality stops developing by adolescence, or even 30 [2].

Moreover, introversion-extroversion is a sliding scale. The Big 5 personality theory, which measures introversion-extroversion traits and their intensity compared to the general population, shows the distribution resembling a bell curve — meaning most of us are somewhere in the middle, ambiverts in all but name.

Finally, labeling ourselves ‘introvert’ or ‘extrovert’ in many cases isn’t just incorrect — it can be dangerous. Here’s why:

Discrimination

We can’t help but judge people on this dichotomy. Extroverts are said to be outgoing and sociable, but less intelligent and thoughtful than introverts. Introverts are even more negatively stereotyped; shy, awkward, anti-social, depressed, non-leaders, the list goes on.

In her best-selling book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking”, Susan Cain outlines the ‘Extrovert Ideal’; how Western cultures lionize the outgoing, assertive, and sociable personality above all others. Extroversion is seen as the quintessential good, introversion something to be ashamed of and possibly corrected. Quiet kids are seen as ‘off’. Group work (or an open office plan) is forced upon all.

It’s widespread and it’s harmful. The Extrovert Ideal overlooks, stigmatizes, and devalues those who are — and think they are — introverts.

However, most of what we assume about introverts/extroverts is flawed… and most of us are actually ambiverts, with the power to assume traits of both.

The correct definitions

Here is an understanding of introversion-extroversion, according to current personality science:

Introvert:

  • Gains energy spending time alone
  • More easily stimulated than average; prefers low-stimulation activities
  • Prefers group conversation to one-on-one conversation (gregariousness)
  • Has few ‘shallow’ social relationships (which doesn’t necessarily mean introverts have ‘deeper’ relationships)

Extrovert:

  • Gains energy from spending time with other people
  • Less easily stimulated than average; Prefers high-stimulation activities
  • Prefers group conversation to one-on-one conversation (gregariousness)
  • Has many ‘shallow’ social relationships (which doesn’t mean extroverts lack ‘deep’ relationships)

Aside from the above, introversion/extroversion means nothing more— none of the stereotypes, fatal flaws, or magical advantages you’ve heard of are true or statistically significant.

There are many shy extroverts. There are more ‘outgoing’ and ‘sociable’ introverts than you’d think. Extroverts can be thoughtful, good listeners, and idea-oriented too; introverts can also be the opposite of these.

One problem is this; being an ‘ambivert’ isn’t even an option on major personality tests. This means we’ve been thinking of ourselves as either one or the other. Buzzfeed quizzes, Myers-Briggs, relationship articles all reinforce this idea.Worse, believing you’re purely introverted or extroverted — and with a flawed understanding of either — can become a self-fulfilling prophecy [3].

Still, most of us are somewhere in between.

Beyond Ambiversion

Thinking you’re ‘just’ an introvert, or an extrovert, is the same thing as living in the fixed mindset.

Fully identifying as one or the other is so enticing because it seems like the key to understanding so much about ourselves. We say, “I am this; I need this; I prefer this; I shall live like this.”

But you’re not just one of the other. You’re likely an ambivert, and if not: introverts can take on extrovert traits, and vice versa.

At the end of her book, Susan Cain outlines several ways for introverts to survive and thrive under the Extrovert Ideal.

It comes down to this; we have more control over our personalities than we thought. We can exercise that control, and develop the traits we choose [4]. Personality is defined by patterns of behaviour, but we can develop traits of our comfort zone in service of ‘core personal projects.’ Thus the introvert can raise a family, build a circle of friends, and become a pillar of the community; the extrovert can reflect, inspect, and analyze themselves and the world around them as deeply as anyone else.

Where you fall on the introversion-extroversion scale is not an excuse — it’s a realization, a revelation, of all the possibilities out there… of all the possible you’s.

Think of your personality as serving like an anchor — instead of constraining you, it keeps you from drifting too far as you pursue new possibilities.” — Adam Grant

How you think of yourself should never pull you under. It should set you free.

Photo by Joseph Barrientos on Unsplash

Bibliography:

[1] Susan M. Andersen, “Do I know you?” The role of significant others in general social perception. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2231277

[2] James R. Council, Context Effects in Personality Research. https://www.jstor.org/stable/20182194

[3] Paul W.B. Atkins, Measuring self and rules in what people say: exploring whether self-discrimination predicts long-term wellbeing. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2212144716300217

[4] William Fleeson, Moving Personality Beyond the Person-Situation Debate:
The Challenge and the Opportunity of Within-Person Variability.
http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.0963-7214.2004.00280.x