When I learned to think of myself as an introvert, it changed my life for the better.
When I learned not to think of myself as an introvert, it changed my life for the better.
Both times, detail was added to my self-model.
The first definition of introversion I learned was the Myers-Briggs model: extraverts gain energy from social interactions, introverts spend energy on social interactions. Extraverts need people time or they’ll wilt, introverts need alone time to recharge. At first, this seemed exactly right - and I identified as a clear introvert. I started being able to notice when I was feeling overwhelmed, and explicitly express my need for some alone time. Life was much better.
Then I noticed that on days when I had no social interaction whatsoever, I kind of puttered around doing nothing. If I only had evening plans, I did very little up until I hung out with people in the evening, at which point I would gain energy, and feel up to going home and getting stuff done - except that it was late and I had to go to sleep. So I ignored the recommendations of the “introvert” model and started scheduling breakfasts with friends, in order to start my days on a good note - and this worked well. I was happier, and I was motivated to get out of the apartment and get things done.
The second definition of introversion I learned was a nonsocial generalization of this: extraverts are chronically understimulated, introverts chronically overstimulated.
The third definition of introversion I learned, from a blog post by Venkatesh Rao, is one I’m still trying to wrap my mind around. Before I get to his model, here are the predictions he generates from it:
- require a minimum period of isolation every day to survive psychologically
- are energized by weak-link social fields, such as coffee shops, where little interaction is expected
- are energized by occasional, deeper 1:1 interactions, but still at arm’s length; no soul-baring
- are energized by such 1:1 encounters with anyone, whether or not a prior relationship exists
- are drained by strong-link social fields such as family gatherings
- are reduced to near-panic by huddles: extremely close many-many encounters such as group hugs
- have depth-limited relationships that reach their maximum depth very fast
- need a minimum amount of physical contact everyday, even if it is just laying around with a pet
- are energized by strong-link social fields such as family gatherings
- like soul-baring 1:1 relationships characterized by swings between extreme intimacy and murderous enmity
- are not willing to have 1:1 encounters with anyone unless they’ve been properly introduced into their social fields
- are made restless and anxious by weak-link social fields such as coffee shops unless they go with a friend
- are reduced to near panic by extended episodes of solitude
- have relationships that gradually deepen over time to extreme levels
The introvert description fits me almost perfectly. I am energized by 1:1 interactions, especially time-boxed ones like breakfasts with friends before a workday. I love being in coffee shops where there are people around and I mostly don’t have to interact with them. I am typically ready to dive immediately into the maximum depth I’ll ever be at in a relationship. These aren’t predictions generated by the more common psychological introvert-extravert model, so my initial inclination was to endorse Rao’s model wholeheartedly. I’m not sure I buy the underlying theory, though - or, at least, that it quite applies to me as stated. Here’s how Rao defines the introversion/extraversion binary:
One way to understand the introvert/extrovert difference is to think in terms of where the energy (which behaves like money) is stored.
Introverts are transactional in their approach to social interactions; they are likely to walk away with their “share” of the energy generated by any exchange, leaving little or nothing invested in the relationship itself. This is like a deposit split between two individually held bank accounts. This means introverts can enjoy interactions while they are happening, without missing the relationships much when they are inactive. In fact, the relationship doesn’t really exist when it is inactive.
Extroverts are more likely to invest most of the energy into the relationship itself, a mutually-held joint account that either side can draw on when in need, or (more likely) both sides can invest together in collaboration. This is also why extroverts miss each other when separated. The mutually-held energy, like a joint bank account, can only be accessed when all parties are present. [...]
Extroverts accuse introverts of selfishness: from their point of view, the introverts are taking out loans against jointly-held wealth, to invest unilaterally in risky ventures. Introverts in turn accuse extroverts of being overly possessive and stifling, since they cannot draw on the energy of the relationship without the other party being present. The confusion is simple if you note that the introvert is thinking in terms of two individually held bank accounts, while the extrovert is thinking in terms of a single jointly held one.
This only feels half-right. I often hear people talk about relationships, and feel like I don’t know what they’re talking about. Other people seem to feel the need to reconnect in contexts where the interaction isn’t intrinsically energizing to me, and feel as if the relationship itself is dwindling if we don’t do this. I definitely don’t have a sense of a jointly held account of energy that can only be drawn on when we come together.
When people I’ve had relationship difficulties with have talked about doing things to save “the relationship,” it felt to me like they were sacrificing real things for a fake thing. I wanted them to care - not about the relationship - but about me. It sounded like the sort of thing someone who was dutifully trying to fulfill their role, but didn’t care about me as an individual, would say. It makes so much more sense that people who cared about me would say that sort of thing, if the relationship itself felt real to them, like a precious thing we held in common.
This is a clue to a puzzle that had perplexed me for a while. When I have tried to build a relationship - whether romantic or simply friendly - with someone, it’s because I had already identified them as someone I’d like to spend time with. I wanted some of their time and attention, and the world seemed to require that I go through an arbitrary, laborious bonding ritual in order to have the kinds of nice interactions that I already knew we could have. I want to be in a relationship with them because I want to spend time with them. Other people seem not to do this - instead, often they want to spend time with me because we are in a relationship.
This has led to a lot of misalignments. Often I appear to be extremely enthusiastic about a relationship at the beginning - willing to “invest” a lot up-front - simply because I’m confident we can have good interactions, so I don’t feel the need to dip my toe into the water and gradually increase my level of involvement - I just want to jump in. But once I’m in, it’s the other way around - my level of interest and commitment often doesn’t increase, because I’m already all-in, but theirs does, and they expect mine to as well. And for romantic relationships in particular, which tend to end more discretely than friendships, it’s obvious how this can lead to hurt feelings on my part after a breakup - because if they don’t still want to spend some time with me, it feels to me as though they were been lying about wanting to spend time with me in the first place.
On Rao’s model, though, their behavior makes perfect sense. Before we’d bonded, they weren’t interested in a lot of high-quality interactions because they didn’t have access to the benefits of that the way I did. If the bond was broken, so was their access to our joint account. I saw a collection of good things we’d once shared, many of which still seemed good to experience. They saw a doubly-locked safe, which we could only open together, but one or both of us didn’t have the key.
I suspect that some of this has to do with my unusual relationship with vulnerability - once I’m consciously persuaded that the people around me consent to my sharing personal stuff, I don’t feel inhibited about it at all. Improv games - and other sorts of social interactions where people may feel vulnerable and inhibited - often begin with a sort of icebreaker trust-building exercise. I never understood this, and it never seemed to help me, probably because the limiting factor in my sharing my inner life or spontaneous reactions with others was never my distrust of them, but my own lack of access to those aspects of my inner state. But for them, this sort of showing and sharing is almost entirely limited by trust - so building up tacit trust is both necessary and sufficient to get them into a high-intimacy mindset.
I still find this puzzling, but at least now my confusion is focused and directed. I understand what it’s like to not know enough about someone to find the good interactions I can have with them, but I still don’t have a good sense of what it’s like to only really get value from social interactions through the relationship itself. Now I have a clue where I need to look in order to understand.
And yet, I don’t identify with the introvert half of this binary as described - I don’t feel like I have no investment in the people I’m in relationships with. Because while I don’t feel investment in relationships, I feel investment in people. When I become close with someone, when I trust them and love them, I incorporate their preferences as a part of my own. This feels real to me - doing them a service, even when they’re not around, feels every bit as real a benefit to me as doing me the equivalent boon. And this is permanent.
I don’t do my truest long-term friends favors in the hope that I’ll get some set of favors of equivalent worth back in return. What I hope for is that they’ll reciprocate the alteration I made in my soul, so that they reliably desire and work towards the achievement of my preferences. Even if they never get the chance to act on this. Even if we never see each other again. When I feel lonely, it’s not because I don’t have access to the physical presence of friendly-acting people. It’s that I don’t believe that I have enough of this kind of friendship.
It might just be impossible for people to enact this kind of friendship without a deep, emotional object permanence about people and their preferences. It might be too much to ask. It might even be too much to ask that they believe on an emotional level that I’d do it for them. This skill might have to be taught, and learned. It might require too much trust, more trust than can exist between humans in the world in which we now find ourselves. This trust might have to be built.
I don’t know if I can build the world where it can happen. I’m trying.
You can help me in two ways. First, if you seem to fit into (or feel you understand well) the Rao-Extravert schema, if relationships feel real to you and interactions aren’t energizing without the relationships as a frame for them, then help me understand:
- What does drawing energy from a relationship feel like?
- What do deep 1:1 interactions without a relationship feel like to a Rao-extravert?
- Why and how is a relationship important?
- What are the important components of a relationship in this sense?
- How do they come to be?
- How are they maintained?
- What causes them to decay faster or slower?
- What do you get out of a relationship per se?
Second, if you are, or want to be, friends with me in the way that’s more natural for me - if you decided you wanted to be friends with me in order to spend time with me (and not the other way around), if the main benefit of being friends with me is that you get my attention, let me know! I’m curious who else, if anyone, really feels this way.