Friday, February 23, 2024

The Quiet Resolve of Introverts In an Increasingly Loud World


I was drawn to yoga in large part thanks to the solitude I enjoy in the company of others. The best instructors make you feel comfortable being alone in the midst of everyone — the best instructors for me, that is. As an introvert, I appreciate that feeling of aloneness, together. It suits my temperament. 

Introversion and extroversion are debated as psychological types as well as fluid in nature — anyone can be solitary and social depending on context. For example, my lifelong love of sports allows me to be immediately social in competitions. In a bar or at a party, however, I rarely take the initiative to socialize, instead clinging to the one or two people I know before leaving early.

My extroversion, as with many introverts, depends on my environment.

This phenomenon is known as the Free Trait Theory. According to the man who coined the term, former Harvard psychology professor Brian Little, it means that people born with introverted traits can perform “out of character” in the service of “core personal projects.” An introvert’s bandwidth is limited, mind you: I’d need plenty of alone time post-basketball, be it burying myself in a book or going to the movies by myself. But there’s rarely a pure introvert or pure extrovert, even though the personality types are generally fixed in many situations.

Knowing your situation is everything, though more and more, we’re being taught that extroversion is right in every situation.

American extroversion

America champions extroversion in leadership roles across domains, treating introversion as a form of weakness. Social media often rewards this character type by glorifying the extrovert’s robust ability to chatter endlessly — a trait that has come to dominate yoga and wellness feeds, even when the influencer is championing the soft power of breathwork or meditation.

Image courtesy Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

What they’re selling often means most to their bottom line, not your liberation or even comfort. Influencers who boldly declare they really care about you offer little more than a well-tested sales technique. Common examples include life coaches and MLMs

How did we arrive here as a culture? How did yoga, commonly known as an “inner practice” with plenty to offer to introverts, become exploited by the extroverted among us?

I take no issue with extroversion — as often happens, some of my closest friends are social movers and shakers. But as with much of our culture, extroversion is treated as the true mark of success, which leaves many introverts questioning their value, as if their path is about becoming more verbose rather than honoring their character, one that needs long periods of time to rest and recharge, often in solitude.

These are the thoughts that arose when reading Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a Society That Can’t Stop Talking. The book has always been on my “I’ll get to it” list, a growing library of titles that catch my interest but don’t have immediate utility — mind you, not every book has to have a purpose, but in my career, I’m often reading nonfiction to prepare for an interview or write about a topic for work.

As a lifelong introvert, I simply wanted to learn more — about myself, and about who we are as a society.

The road without

American society went from championing inner virtue to outer charm at the turn of the 20th century. Self-improvement guru Dale Carnegie usurped the quiet wisdom of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Forget long stretches of contemplation broken up by thoughtful and measured speech. Forget 19th-century manuals heralding qualities like duty, citizenship, honor, reputation, and morals. Carnegie introduced a new language into the social dictionary: magnetic, fascinating, glowing, dominant, and energetic defined the leaders of the day. 

A century later, that remains the case. 

Photo courtesy Ron Lach

Sure, Steve Jobs’s LSD experiments still inspire mythical awe, yet for the most part, executives are expected to steamroll in both boardrooms and on social media.

In the 1920s a new concept was introduced into psychology, guaranteeing the rise of the extrovert: the inferiority complex. Naming a disorder is to watch it proliferate in the culture that defines it. Americans were ready to reinvent themselves. As Cain writes, 

Early Americans revered action and were suspicious of intellect, associating the life of the mind with the languid, ineffectual European aristocracy they had left behind.

In 1921, the terms “introvert” and “extrovert” were introduced by Carl Jung in one of his most influential books, Psychological Types. In classic Jungian, he defined introversion as an “attitude-type characterized by orientation in life through subjective psychic contents” and extraversion as “an attitude-type characterized by concentration of interest on the external object.”

As American society and work-life transitioned from the contemplative to the bombastic, people like Carnegie made millions offering workshops to pull the extrovert out of you. A debate over nature and nurture, then and now, persists: can an introvert become the charismatic life of the party? For Cain, disentangling the two isn’t so simple.

To ask whether it’s nature or nurture is like asking whether a blizzard is caused by temperature or humidity. It’s the intricate interaction between the two that makes us who we are.

Interestingly, even the most introverted among us can become charismatic leaders — in certain contexts. There’s no coincidence that Cain cites Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the man who coined the term “Flow States” and who, sadly, passed away last in 2021 at the age of 87. 

Photo courtesy of Disruptivo

Cain notes that the secret to entering Flow is to choose an activity that brings an intrinsic reward. Csikszentmihalyi realized that people in Flow work on their craft for the sake of it, not for an external return. “Being relatively unmoved by rewards,” Cain writes, “gives you the incalculable power to go your own way.” This is an exemplary state of existence to the introvert, who can write, paint, read, or partake in any number of activities they’re passionate about and find satisfaction without the need for social acknowledgment. 

Yet this is also at odds with much of the modern leadership as presented by Carnegie and the many business coaches that followed. To be powerful means to be extroverted. Leave behind the quiet power of introspection and talk, just talk, loudly and confidently. The words aren’t even as important as the conviction behind them.

To captivate is to seduce, to entrance, then to suggest, to pull toward you, manipulate, and monetize. This is as true for life coaches and yoga instructors as it is for presidents, yet it leaves introverts wondering: is there something wrong with us? 


To answer that question, Cain, an introvert herself, chose the perfect place to investigate the phenomenon of extraversion-as-destiny: the $11B self-help industry; specifically, a Tony Robbins conference. Unleashing the power within is another way of claiming that glory resides in affirming your existence loudly. Cain reports that dancing to ‘80s hits and walking on fire coals does indeed have a way of bringing out the extrovert in you.

But there’s something more going on here. The extrovert coaching style, a sort of pull yourself up and be a man or woman lingo, sometimes expressed through negative sentiments and yelling, works — for extroverts. This style doesn’t work for introverts, however, leading to a conflict that many in wellness communities have to battle.

It often comes down to trust. Cain notes that introverts tend to trust those they meet as allies. Perhaps they share a song or book that they both love. A common interest signals that you might be someone they can form a connection with.

Extroverts, however, tend to trust competitors. There’s a recognition of fight in someone they’re matched against that inspires them. 

Of course, introverts and extroverts form deep friendships and love relationships. Throughout her book, Cain details what one offers the other. Extroverts can be awed by an introvert’s ability to spend long periods of time in contemplative repose, whereas introverts gawk in amazement at the socialite extrovert.

Courtesy of Henri Mathieu-Saint-Laurent | Pexels

In digital spaces, where much of the holistic industry is now run, a different power dynamic exists. Extroverts dominate these spaces. Their tendency to talk in broad yet shallow strokes is ideal for short videos, where they can talk about how much you, person they’ve never met and likely wouldn’t care about if they did, mean to them.

In reality, we’re not built to care about millions, much less thousands of people. When the performative nature of the extrovert kicks in, however, charisma trumps introspection. Real-world society has primed us to be taken by their rhetoric as a form of strength and leadership. 

This can all be confusing to the earnest introvert seeking space and clarity in an industry that’s become its own spectacle. Marketing tends to revolve around finding your own voice, which often implies a loud voice. You can imagine the type of guilt an introverted practitioner endures when being told they should be the life of the party.

What’s wrong with me? Am I doing it all wrong?

The answers, of course, are no and no, but when an extroverted influencer tells an introverted seeker that she’s finally going to meditate “the right way” (as detailed during Conspirituality 74), the quiet seeker closes themselves in their shell. And because, as Cain writes, introverts tend to observe behavior better yet act on it less, a form of paralysis emerges in the shameful power dynamics of what’s presented as a healing discourse. 

Practice and all is coming

None of this is set in stone. Influential introverts can shine in their own domains while successful extroverts aren’t necessarily in it to manipulate their following, but are simply expressing who they are in front of a crowd. Both cohorts excel and both can be sloppy. That’s what happens when people from different places congregate and try to get along.

An outsized problem exists within the most manipulative of the bunch, those who really do talk too much and say very little, or who knowingly manipulate their following by roping them into their downlines — the lineage of Dale Carnegie more concerned with influencing people than winning friends. I’m not sure they understand the wreckage behind them, and I’m not sure they care.

Photo courtesy Alisa Anton

I know that I’ll continue to vouch for the power of introversion, however. I don’t have much choice — it’s my lot. At times, I felt bad about it in the past, but I realized that was because I was placing unfair expectations on myself. 

Even though I’ve been talking with my fingertips for a while, I’ll spend the rest of today reading and hanging out with my wife and cats, enjoy a glass of whiskey, and finish the Velvet Underground documentary.

That is, I’ll recharge in my own way. 

Cain’s book leans toward the introverts because that’s the point: extroversion has enjoyed a century-long run in the limelight. Still, she’s fair and honest in her assessment. She reminds us not to fall entranced by the bright, shiny toy, but instead to contemplate the arduous path that brings you true satisfaction, regardless of orientation — and double if you’ve come to healing spaces for quiet only to be told you need to speak up.

Persistence isn’t very glamorous. If genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration, then as a culture we tend to lionize the one percent. We love its flash and dazzle. But great power lies in the other ninety-nine percent.

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