Monthly Archives: March 2013

Introverts and the Be Gretchen Principle

– Alexia Larcher

One of the things that struck me about David’s last post was that many people, for whatever reason, believe that introversion actively hinders their lives. Actively. Hinders.

Now of course it depends what you want out of life. Introverts can very well become rich and famous. Or popular. We have Audrey Hepburn in our ranks, Grace Kelly, and Guy Kawasaki. (Here’s a nice, diverse list.) We can end up changing a lot of lives with our work. We can travel the world. But most of us end up having a hard time with a simple concept, which Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project calls “Be Gretchen.”

Several years ago, Gretchen Rubin found herself on a bus wondering what she wanted out of life and she realized she wanted to be happy. So she took a year-long sabbatical from her job as a lawyer to test out every single hypothesis she’d heard about happiness. She published her results in the book The Happiness Project and posted the 12 most important happiness-inducing principles for her life on her blog, which she calls the 12 Personal Commandments. The first one is “Be Gretchen” on that list for a reason. Here’s what she has to say about it:

But being Gretchen, and accepting my true likes and dislikes, also means that I have to face the fact that I will never visit a jazz club at midnight, or hang out in artists’ studios, or jet off to Paris for the weekend, or pack up to go fly-fishing on a spring dawn. I won’t be admired for my chic wardrobe or be appointed to a high government office. I love fortune cookies and refuse to try foie gras.

Now, you might think – “Well, okay, but why does that make you sad? You don’t want to visit a jazz club at midnight anyway, so why does it make you sad to know that you don’t want to do that? If you wanted to, of course you could.”

It makes me sad for two reasons. First, it makes me sad to realize my limitations. The world offers so much!–and I am too small to appreciate it. The joke in law school was: “The curse of Yale Law School is to try to die with your options open.” Which means — at some point, you have to pursue one option, which means foreclosing other options, and to try to avoid that is crazy. Similarly, to be Gretchen means to let go of all the things that I am not — to acknowledge what I don’t encompass.

But it also makes me sad because, in many ways, I wish I were different. One of my Secrets of Adulthood is “You can choose what you do, but you can’t choose what you like to do.” I have a lot of notions about what I wish I liked to do, of the subjects and occupations that I wish interested me. But it doesn’t matter what I wish I were like. I am Gretchen.
Once I realized this, I saw that this problem is quite more widespread. A person wants to teach high school, but wishes he wanted to be a banker. Or vice versa. A person has a service heart but doesn’t want to put it to use. Someone wants to be a stay-at-home mother but wishes she wanted to work; another person wants to work but wishes she wanted to be a stay-at-home mother. And it’s possible — in fact quite easy — to construct a life quite unrelated to our nature.

This is the problem many introverts face too. Many of us wish we were extroverts because we believe it would make our lives significantly easier. We look at extroverts and they look like they’re enjoying their lives. They look as if they are always surrounded by people who love them and it’s tempting to compare these situations to our own lives and wonder what’s wrong with us.

But honestly, we’re using the wrong measuring stick. We’re wondering why we are not someone other than ourselves and then get frustrated because we can only be ourselves. We don’t think about the downsides of being extroverted: regularly seeking a higher amount of stimulation, getting bored if others aren’t around, to name a few possible ones. It only looks easier to be an extrovert because our society is built for us to join crowds. It’s ridiculously easy to text someone and meet up at a popular restaurant or a packed club, compared to a time when telephones and cars didn’t exist. We can still build our own lives so that we don’t burn ourselves out on socializing. And then we can go out and conquer the world if we want to.

More on applying the Be Gretchen principle here. It’s not easy, for sure.


There’s no such thing as an introvert

-by David Mein

If you call yourself an introvert, what do you mean? Do you mean that you prefer to stay home and watch a movie over going to a party? Do you mean that you find small talk tedious? Do you mean that you and all other introverts belong to one camp and all extroverts to another? Do you mean that extroverts are the enemy?

That might be taking it a bit far, but that’s certainly how it can sound when “introverts” get into a group (particularly on internet message boards or *ahem* blogs) and start complaining about extroverts. This is why I think it’s important to remind ourselves that there is no such thing as an introvert or an extrovert. Of course, there is such a thing as introversion and extroversion, but these exist on a continuum, and no one is entirely one or the other. To quote Carl Jung, the psychologist who coined the terms introversion and extraversion*, “there is no such things as a pure extravert or a pure introvert. Such a man would be in the lunatic asylum.”

That’s not to say that such terms are useless. “Introvert” and “extrovert” are perfectly fine words to describe another person or yourself. Of course, it would be more correct to say that someone is “more introverted” or “more extroverted,” but there’s no problem as long as everyone is on the same page.

“Introvert” as an identity, is also a useful way of understanding yourself. If you prefer quiet nights at home to parties, it’s great to be able to find other people like yourself. It’s particularly useful to have an alternative to extroversion. If you prefer quiet nights in to loud nights out, it’s a good thing to know that you’re just introverted, not that there’s something wrong with you.

This becomes a problem, however, when people start using introversion not to understand themselves, but to define themselves and, in particular, when they use it to divide themselves from extroverts. There’s no harm in complaining every now and then about little everyday annoyances, including annoying people, but it should be clear why a statement like “I can’t stand extroverts” is completely ridiculous. Since no one is either one or the other, the complainer, of course, has their own extroverted tendencies. The complainer is also assuming that the person being complained about acts the same way all the time. In fact, we can imagine a scenario in which there is some other “introvert” out there who happened to meet the original complainer at a moment when they were being more extroverted, complaining about the “extrovert” they ran in to.

At the same time, defining yourself as an introvert becomes a problem when you use it as a reason to limit yourself. As I explained in an earlier post, introversion should never be used as an excuse for why you can’t do something.

Understanding introversion is a great way to understand ourselves, enabling us to grow as who we are, rather than trying to be someone we’re not. There’s no need for introversion to become another dividing line among people. We already have enough as it is.

*Throughout this blog, and even in this post, I intentionally use the spelling “extrovert,” something that Susan Cain does, too, and even makes a special note about in her book Quiet. I am using the difference in spelling to differentiate between the actual scientific term “extraversion” and “extroversion” as it’s popularly understood and used.

Introvert Character Tropes

– Alexia M. Larcher

Two days ago, I started coughing every few minutes at work, to the point where I was getting seriously worried. It’s not unusual for me to catch a cold at this time of the year; I discovered several years ago that I can’t handle sudden changes in the weather. It doesn’t bode well for me, considering climate change has already arrived in Canada as it has in the rest of the world. Anywho. I’ve been doping myself with extra-strength decongestant syrup to survive the weekend and I spent most of my free time in the past two days sleeping, which is why I’m late with this post. My apologies.

Every once in a while I end up on TvTropes and play a game I called “If I were to summarize my life into one trope, what trope would it be?” The last time I played it, I wondered if they had an Introversion section. They do! So how to introvert tropes compare to extrovert tropes?

Introvert tropes seem to center around the quiet sidekick. If the introvert is a positive addition to the team, they are often violent and quietly dispatching enemies left, right, and center. They are never quite considered as part of the team (Beware the Quiet Ones) or they are outright loopy (Absent-Minded Professor or Mad Mathematician). The inner lives of introverts are depicted as generally scary and negative (Rant-Inducing Slight or Ice Queen) and explain their silence to the audience. Does silence have to be explained? Apparently. Of course, you will find introvert characters who do not have these issues, but aside from the strong, silent hero, a generally male trope that David mentioned in an earlier post, they are nowhere near as common.

In contrast, extrovert tropes seem to center around their being loveable or hateful, but generally loveable. They can be the Life of the Party (loveable), the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (loveable), the Perky Female Minion (loveable) or simply Big Fun (indeed). Sometimes they are the Gossipy Hens or Affably Evil, but overall, extrovert characters seem to revolve on how much other characters love them.

So why don’t we see more positive introverted main characters? Television and movies are, ultimately, visual media. It’s incredibly hard to convey the internal life of a character without “externalizing” it through objects or relationships. To give an example, Kubrick’s 2001: Space Odyssey has a lot of internal subtext, but leaves many people confused simply because Kubrick tried to convey what his main character thought through imagery and not a narrator’s voice. (I realized this when I read the book. Yes, the 2001: Space Odyssey book exists, and it was written by Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote the movie script.) Script writers, for whatever reason, decide that introverted characters are “media boring” if they’re not blowing things up and so they don’t bother spending a lot of time on them. This is also why you’re more likely to find introverted characters in books more than anywhere else.

Some good examples of introverted characters (introverted characters depicted as having large inner worlds):

– Will Farrell’s Harold Crick in Stranger Than Fiction is depicted as an introvert finding his own stride.

– Monsieur Lazhar, from the same movie,  might an introvert, but it’s hard to tell because of the situation he’s been put in.

– Captain Benjamin L. Willard in Apocalypse Now, who you only hear speak through his diaries for 90% of the movie.

– Neo, from The Matrix, disputably. (I feel like putting a Keanu Reeves snark, but I won’t.)

– Amélie Poulain and her boyfriend in Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain.

– Fight Club’s main character, though it manifests as utter insanity.

– Many of Clint Eastwood’s characters are introverted of the I Work Alone type, but they’re still subtly different enough that you can tell that they’re self-sufficient internally as well, a sign of a large inner world.

– Terence Mann from Field of Dreams.

– Could The Doctor be an introvert? It would probably depend on which incarnation, since some have been known to travel alone for hundreds of years on purpose. Inevitably he always comes back for a companion, but how different is it to introvert hanging out with friends on purpose?

– For anime fans, most of the cast of Genshiken could be considered as introverted. So is Shiori from The World God Only Knows (in the picture for The Quiet One). Her only “flaw” is that she takes so long to decide what to say that the other person is gone. Her inner dialogue is quite entertaining.

N.B. – Batman, Spiderman, and Superman are rather introverted by default: if too many people know their superhero identities, it would blow their cover. It’s hard to tell how much of an inner world they actually have considering the nature of serial American comic books, which didn’t spend much time brooding over their characters’ psychology.

Introversion Isn’t an Excuse

I think it’s important to begin this post by pointing out that I’m an introvert. I need time to recharge after being around people, I prefer solitary activities, I’m very quiet, and so on. I’m pointing this out because if I don’t make it clear that I understand what it’s like to be an introvert, comments like these can come off as coming from someone who thinks you should “just get over/deal with it.”

In fact, there’s nothing to “get over.” There’s nothing wrong with being an introvert and it’s entirely possible to live a happy life as one. We may live in a culture biased toward extroverted characteristics, but understanding that you’re an introvert just means understanding that there’s nothing wrong with wanting to spend some time alone, or that you don’t have to measure your happiness by how many friends you have. The type of attitude that I want to address can best be expressed with the sentence “I’m too introverted to _____.”

Being an introvert doesn’t mean you can’t do something. It may mean that you do things differently, or that there are some things you may just not want to do and that it’s ok to not want to do them.

The point is, don’t use your introversion as an excuse for not doing something. Realizing that you’re an introvert is part of understanding who you are, but if you use that to limit yourself, you’re doing it wrong. When you look inside yourself, you should be learning about who you are, how you do things best and what you want to do. If you look inside yourself and expand your possibilities, then you’re doing it right.

-David Mein