Work was almost over, and I was dreaming of Kim Kardashian.
I was really ready to go home. I had spent every night that week out with friends or family, dining and drinking or playing bar trivia, having a great but increasingly exhausting time. But tonight would be fine; tonight I had nothing to do. I could just go home, curl up on the couch with my husband and my cats, and not talk to anyone if I waited three more hours. As I was fantasizing about just which sweatpants I would change into the minute I walked in the door, a vision bounced before my eyes—a vision of a fat silver lightning bolt. The lightning bolt from Kim Kardashian: Hollywood.
For those of you who haven’t played the game, the goal is to get famous. To accomplish this, you must complete tasks like going to photo shoots or parties, and those tasks take energy. You can get energy one of three ways: you can wait for it to replenish on its own over time, you can find it hidden in pets and other objects, or you can buy it. If, like most players I know, you don’t put real money into the game, buying energy means spending coins you could otherwise use to accomplish personal goals. Sure, you can joke about the celebrity “exhaustion” trope as much as you want, but the concept sounds familiar. Speak to anyone who identifies as an introvert, and they might explain their social life in similar terms.
The phrases “introversion” and “extroversion” were first popularized by Carl Jung in his theory of temperaments, in which Jung specifies that “no one lives completely as one type or another.” People with extroverted tendencies have an outward flow of personal energy, and can be motivated by outside factors and people. They’re sociable and confident and comfortable in unfamiliar settings, though sometimes that can lead to being superficial and conventional, two things nobody wants to be accused of these days.
Those with introverted tendencies are “drained by social encounters and energized by solitary, often creative pursuits,” according to Psychology Today. They may lack confidence and seem egotistical and self-centered, but they are “happy alone with a rich imagination.” They may come off as shy sometimes, but they can also seem perfectly comfortable in some social situations. They’re just giving out their precious lighting bolts in those moments, at a bar or on a conference call, before they can sit in silence and reflection while waiting to recharge.
Introversion is having a moment on the internet. And really, if you ignore the down sides like social anxiety and sometimes physical illness, it can be an intoxicating way to think of oneself. Susan Cain published Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking last year, arguing that introverts are “dramatically undervalued.” In 2003 Jonathan Rauch published “Caring for your Introvert,” saying that the world would be a “calmer, saner, more peaceful sort of place” if introverts were in charge. Last year Buzzfeed’s “27 Problems Only Introverts Will Understand” included situations like “When your friend wants to invite more people over, and you don’t want to sound like a dick by saying no.” Evidently, only highly sensitive introverts are bothered by obvious breaches of etiquette.
Fewer people seem to feel the need to identify themselves as extroverts (25 Frustrating Things About Being An Extrovert got 3 million fewer views than its introverted counterpart), most likely because history has been kind to them, or because it’s just been calling them “normal” the whole time. Extroverts are the politicians and schmoozers of the world, the friendly cheerleaders, the popular kids. And it’s true that an outgoing personality is what much of Western culture has come to value. We could do with a little more balance.
Unfortunately, we’ve set up a system pitting one against the other. You often have introverts accusing extroverts of being the bulls in the emotional china shop, stampeding through parties desperate for an interactive fix, incapable of quiet or self-reflection. Rauch argues that introverts are “more intelligent, more reflective, more independent, more level-headed, more refined, and more sensitive than extroverts.” Introverts complain that extroverts think of them as shy weirdos who don’t want any friends—but it’s no more helpful to cast extroverts as uncouth loudmouths.
Especially because it’s never that simple. The books and memes and Buzzfeed posts would have you believe that introverts are Eloi and extroverts are Morlocks—two mutually incomprehensible races, one of which must protect itself from the other. But Jung knew from the start that nobody is an introvert or an extrovert full-time. We just have different stores of lightning bolts that recharge at different rates.
I got curious about how people manage their lightning bolts, so I asked some friends. Megan Patterson, a self-described introvert, operates along textbook introvert lines: drained by large social gatherings, uncomfortable with long-term houseguests, feeling like “the battery that charges the room.” Despite this, she admits “there is a point where if I go too long without seeing people I do get depressed. I just have to recognize what my limits are, know how much is too much.” Most self-identified introverts agree there’s a misconception—that it’s not about being antisocial, but just understanding how quickly you reach your limits. Sara Lowe described a good social interaction like being drunk: “I enjoy it, I want it to keep going, and I know that eventually I will hit a wall and the hangover will be a monster.” Kelley Gardiner describes people as cookies: “I love cookies. I eat plenty of them. But most of what I eat is salad and oatmeal, or else I’d feel terrible.” And as with alcohol or sugar, everyone’s limit is different. Introverts are just the social lightweights.
But that doesn’t mean extroverts never hit a wall. “I do not have UNLIMITED social reserves, just a very high need for socializing,” says Christian Brown, a self-identified extrovert. “If I go too long without social stimulation I will get all anhedonia-y, and it took me a while to figure out that’s what was happening.” Emily Stryker describes it similarly, saying she needs regular human interaction in order to feel healthy, but that recharging is necessary after too much. She also has to balance things to accommodate her more introverted husband. Illustrator Roxanne Palmer simply says her extroversion is not a compulsive need to party every night, just that she is “utterly comfortable talking to anyone.”
It also seems that one person’s social lightweight is another’s binge drinker. Some of the self-professed introverts I talked to described the same social thresholds as the extroverts (weekend houseguests seem to wear everyone out), but assumed other people had higher tolerances. Everyone has friends and everyone has limits. The words “introvert” and “extrovert” are just shorthands for larger experiences, a quick way for someone else to know what you’re about without having to get into specifics (“I’ve been out for four nights in a row and I usually need to be home to recharge every other night unless I’m going out with particular people and that’s why I can’t concentrate”). But if you break past the labels and listicles, everyone understands that sometimes enough is enough, that sometimes you just don’t have enough lightning bolts.
The more times we cry they wouldn’t understand the harder it becomes for any understanding to actually happen. And many fear treating personality traits as a diagnosis, either pathologizing normal behaviors—“what’s wrong with her, why won’t she stop talking”—or excusing pathological ones because “that’s just how introverts/extroverts act.” (Those friends who want to bring extra buddies to your house when you only invited them? They’re not doing that because they’re extroverts. They’re doing it because they’re rude.)
But labels have a purpose, too. External labels can be reductive, making us a race or a gender or a personality type instead of a fully-realized person who happens to include those things. And sometimes, it’s easy to get lost in these outside definitions, chicken-and-egging with “what I am” and “how I behave.” Sometimes, though, the words we use for ourselves have the ability to break us from those outside definitions. “Most of my self-identifying as extrovert is a sort of reminder to myself. My social needs, my tendency to steamroll over shy people in conversations if I’m not careful, etc.,” says Brown. “By calling myself an extrovert I can be more conscientious.” For Lowe, it’s about not feeling like there’s something wrong with her for needing what she needs: “The word that was used was ‘loner’ and being a loner was bad. Serial killers were loners. I’m glad we have a word that’s not loner anymore.” Some labels tear us down, and some give us strength. It’s up to the individual to figure out which are which.
When I got married, I expected it to be an emotionally draining day that would push me to the limits of my ambiversion (I took some internet quizzes, that’s what I got). I got into fights with family trying to limit the amount of social interaction that would be expected of me on the morning of the wedding; I assumed that if I spent all morning “on,” I’d be spent by the time the ceremony actually started. But that morning I woke up with an unexpected reserve of social energy. I was hanging out and setting up with friends and family, excitedly jumping on anyone who walked in, chatting with people until about 10 minutes before I had to line up to walk down the aisle. By the time I left the after-party at 2 a.m., it was only because everyone else had made their way home.
In Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, there are moments when you can find a surprise lightning bolt, bouncing out of a cat or a tree on the street. Sometimes a successful accomplishment, or even just a mundane action, gives you extra lightning too. There are also moments when actions you thought took two bolts actually take three or four, and you’re stuck waiting at a photo shoot, unable to complete your task in time because you ran out too quickly. This happens in real life, too: you encounter a moment of grace, or an unexpected hardship. It lets us glimpse what life would be like on the other side. Or maybe it reminds us that there aren’t sides at all—that in the end, we’re all playing the same game.