Introversion Is Not a Life Sentence.

Anxiety today does not mean anxiety forever.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

There is a belief rooted in old and outdated psychological theories that being extroverted or introverted is an immutable personality characteristic. Originally, these were understood to be subtle positive or negative affinities for social interaction. As such, an introvert could and would often enjoy spending time with other people, though they might appreciate solitude later a bit more than an extrovert. The original introvert was not by any means a shut-in, nor did they fear social interaction.

The very notion of introversion (and extroversion) as personality traits is no longer believable, since the idea that something as complex as social behavior could be baked in to a person’s biology is no longer in agreement with what is known about human development. We understand that someone exhibiting a behavior does imply they do so without choice because of biology. For example, there is no ‘computer usage’ gene, since that is emergent behavior based on learning and environment rather than anything innate.

We also know far more about how the brain is plastic for our entire lives, always changing, which means even behaviors rooted in specific brain structures are not necessarily persistent over the course of a lifetime. We are more than just organic robots blindly executing instructions. Our thoughts and knowledge can lead to significant changes in our behavior, including in the realm of social behavior.

Despite this, however, the idea of introversion has remained largely unchallenged in popular culture. Worse still, it has not only persisted but been extended by lonely people on the internet to encompass not only a mild aversion to extended social interaction, but to mean any sort of fear of other people. This includes social anxiety so intense it traps people in their homes. This has led to a lot of lonely people deciding that their acute social anxiety is impossible to deal with, and that they cannot change it because it is literally part of them. This prevents them from even trying to cope with the issues that keep them lonely.

I’m not exactly sure why people are so convinced they are done changing, but it seems to be the norm. People want to think of themselves as unchangeable and uncontrollable. Maybe this is to avoid feeling responsible for their lives, I’m not sure.

My own lived experience, however, makes it impossible to believe that introversion is a fundamental characteristic that cannot be changed. Ten years ago I scored a perfect 100% for introversion, but now I’m comfortable in almost any social situation and enjoy meeting new people. The reality of my life contradicts the common misconception of introversion as inescapable.

Being socially isolated is well-documented as being terrible for your health. I’m not aware of any research that shows remaining socially isolated is good for one’s health, but plenty of studies show it breaks down the body and mind. Solitary confining is considered torture for good reason.

It isn’t so much that being alone is good, it’s more than introverts feel less tortured by isolation than they do by people. This feeling of being tortured by people is real, of course, but it isn’t inescapable.

Self-identified introverts also feel that people are tiring even at the best of times. This leads to a lot of canceled meetups. Just because something is tiring doesn’t mean it’s bad, though. A party might be tiring, but it helps reduce the stress of social isolation, which is healthy. Just like exercising at the gym is tiring, but better for the body than remaining sedentary. Simply hiding from all discomfort is not the path to health or a life best lived.

It’s possible to improve social skills and change your attitude such that what used to be scary and tiring is now fun and no more tiring than any other activity.

It’s like someone who is deathly afraid of flying. You could hook them up to a brain scanner and measure their stress hormones in the blood stream over time as you put them in a plane. This would indicate that they are experiencing fear on a physiological level. This does not, however, mean that they have an innate and immutable fear of planes. If they came to believe that flying was safe, and if they practiced calming routines that eased their subconscious reactions to flying, then they would not longer indicate physiological fear and stress.

As a perhaps more extreme example, if we believe ghosts are real and live under beds we’ll be afraid of what’s under the bed. Once we know ghosts aren’t real, though, there is literally nothing to fear. There is no anxiety to overcome because there is simply nothing to inspire that fear anymore.

In general, it’s possible to react with real fear to something which is actually harmless. A person could do this for their entire lives and die thinking a harmless thing was worth fearing. Every physical measure of fear would be present, yet there would be no real threat. They might even mistakenly believe that a persistent confusion constitutes a fundamental aspect of the personality.

It’s the same with social situations. The fear and stress and exhaustion is coupled to our thoughts and expectations. Our social skill further affects our experience, since it can lead to negative reactions from others which further reenforces a pattern of social anxiety. (Anxiety being a subset of fear.)

However, simply because we are afraid of a social event doesn’t mean we are biologically obligated to always be so fearful. It’s possible to take a more positive attitude towards others that opens up a person’s warmth and social grace, making social events joyful instead of harrowing. It takes some practice to ease out of a fearful mindset, just as it does with any phobia, but it can release a person from the prison of social anxiety.

If we realize that everyone around us is basically like us, just human beings with human desires and fears, we no longer have to be afraid of them. It’s an understanding mindset that makes social anxiety evaporate. When the fear is gone it’s a straight-forward matter of practicing the difficult art of social skill so a person can engage with others and feel joy instead of just fear.

Instead of an introvert demanding all of society change to fit their preferences — which will not happen — a person can adapt to living in a social world. If a person doesn’t adapt, of course, the sun will still rise in the east and everyone else will get along OK. No one really cares if you go to the party. Speaking from experience, though, life is a lot more enjoyable when shared with others.