In high school, Alex MacNair created a public service announcement titled “What is an Introvert?” to explain how it feels to be an introvert in a society that he believes values extroverts. Given Alex’s description of himself on his website, it’s safe to assume Alex is an introvert. He explains, “I love learning about technology and utilizing it to express myself creatively. I enjoy programming, special effects, filmmaking, web design, photography, and graphic design...On a given day, you might find me in the woods taking photos, filming a video around town, or at home on the computer working on a new project.”
In the 1920’s Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung popularized the terms “introvert” and “extrovert” and suggested that every person falls somewhere between the two ends of the introvert-extrovert spectrum and also fluctuate according to situations. Simply put, extroverts get their energy from others while introverts recharge from time alone. Nobody is 100 percent introvert or extrovert. But researchers estimate that one third to one half of society lean more to introvert than extrovert.
In his “What is an Introvert?” video, Alex asserts that despite the significant incidence of introverts in the population, society values the daring, sociable extrovert leader over the soft-spoken introvert thinker, mistakenly labeling introverts as shy, lazy, or unsociable. He posits that the world needs both types of personalities to thrive. In the workplace, extroverts can make quick decisions, multi-task, and take risks while introverts work deliberately, concentrate intensely, and value attention to detail. In social situations, extroverts confidently talk up the group while introverts listen and think before responding.
Challenging Times for Introverts
In the teen years, where peer groups reign supreme, it is especially challenging to be a teen who needs time alone to recharge his or her battery. A Psychology Today August 2013 article, “Introversion and the Teen Years: Preference for solitude is harder on young teens than on older kids” supports the premise of Alex’s video. The writer Sophia Dembling, who also authored the book Introvert’s Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World (Perigee Books), explains the issues facing teen introverts at the beginning and end of high school:
According to research on 8th and 12th graders, preference-for-solitude can be problematic in early adolescence, even after controlling for shyness (that is, looking only at the participants who aren’t shy). It seems that in 8th grade, preference-for-solitude was “associated with greater anxiety/depression and emotion dysregulation as well as lower self-esteem.” By 12th grade, these were no longer problems. (Note that the researchers did not follow the same students from 8th to 12th grade, it was two different groups of students.)
There may be all kinds of reasons for this difference. For one, younger kids can be cruel to people who are different from them, so loner kids might be hassled. This can be depressing, especially if they internalize the messages telling them they’re weirdos. By 12th grade, people have better things to do than taunt kids who are different.
Also, by the time you’re in 12th grade and have some autonomy and a driver’s license, it’s a lot easier to get space when you need it. Younger kids might have to withdraw in plain view, which might either make them look weird to other kids, or make the other kids feel rejected and cause them to lash out.
Another author, Susan Cain, chronicles a personal view of life as an introvert in her New York Times bestseller, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. A former Wall Street lawyer, Cain shares how she finally embraced her gifts as introvert and stopped pretending to be an extrovert. Her TED Talk, which she starts with a vignette of her experience as a summer camper, is enlightening and entertaining.
Let’s help our teens understand that the world needs, and show them that we value, introverts and extroverts alike!