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Thriving as an Introvert in the 21st Century

By Nancy Okerlund

Ive read The Introvert Advantage but I find no advantage in being an introvert, said Sarah, frustrated. Her new job teaching, research and administration at a large university was big, exciting, demanding and taking over her life. She greatly admired her boss. People see me as his sidekick but the model hes mentoring is extreme extrovert, highly charismatic. Its not who I am. One part of her thought the best she could do was find some new ways to cope with being an introvert. But coping is below Sarahs standard, so she decided to take on the challenge of creating her own leadership style, authentic to who she is as an introvert. One morning, months into her process Sarah said, happily, Im allowing myself to be an introvert. She had been working diligently: becoming more aware of the traits of introverts, learning about how to take care of her energy, getting really good at saying no to things, developing her unique ways of meeting the challenges of her work. And the advantages of being herself as an introvert were becoming apparent. A few months later, as she and her extreme extrovert boss discussed her performance review, he said, Youre one of the top 5 to 7 faculty in this department and youve done it in one year. And you can say no and no and no and it wont affect that.

Introverts experience life quite differently than extroverts but most people dont realize it. Because of the widespread use of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), many people know that a key difference between introverts and extroverts is in how we get our energy. As introverts, we draw our energy from the internal world of ideas, impressions, feelings. Extroverts get their energy from the external world of people, places and things. What most people dont know yet is that this key difference is physical: were hardwired to be either introverts or extroverts and we experience life as an introvert or an extrovert very physically.

Heres something else not widely known by introverts: were surrounded by extroverts! Research says about 75% of people are extroverts and the United States is a very extroverted society. The American way wasnt designed with introverts in mind. Becoming more aware of what it means to be an introvert

Nancy Okerlund

Introvert Energy

www.IntrovertEnergy.com

2 might not have occurred to you as a high priority. But turning yourself into what I call a conscious introvert can transform your life, as it did Sarahs. Read on! Some examples: Introverts longer brain pathway requires more processing time than extroverts but it integrates complex intellectual and emotional information better; Its harder for introverts to move our bodies because we predominate on the side of the nervous system that requires conscious thought; We use our long-term memory more often than short-term, which requires more retrieval time; We speak after collecting, processing and drawing conclusions about our thoughts and feelings; We tend to be very observant and go deeply into our interests; We tend to be hesitant in unfamiliar situations; We need a low-stimulation environment to recharge our energy.

Introvert Hardwiring Simplified


Everyone is born with an introverted or extroverted temperament and it doesnt change at will. As introverts, our brains and bodies are wired differently than extroverts. To take a brief visit into the fascinating world of brain physiology, the dominant pathway of blood flow in the brains of introverts is longer and more complex than the main extrovert pathway. And the key brain chemical (or neurotransmitter) that travels on the pathway is acetylcholine. For extroverts the dominant neurotransmitter is dopamine. These two chemicals have very different characteristics. Another important hardwiring difference between introverts and extroverts is that they use different sides of the autonomic nervous system. Introverts predominately use the parasympathetic or put on the brakes system; extroverts use the sympathetic or give it the gas system. Introverts have more blood flowing to the front of the brain; extroverts have more blood flowing to the back. No one is either completely introverted or extroverted but just as were dominant with the left or right hand, were all either dominantly introverted or extroverted. But so what?! How do these invisible physical differences between introverts and extroverts translate into daily life?

All these ways of behaving are consistent with how our bodies are organized as introverts. But we live in a world that isnt geared toward our ways.

Life in an Extroverted World


Not only are 75% of people extroverts, but the United States reflects the extrovert majority. Extroverts, with their shorter brain pathway and dominance of the neurotransmitter dopamine and the sympathetic nervous system, naturally seek lots of external stimulation. Extroverts need action. They operate on a quick reward system, tire of the familiar easily, talk and think at the same time, and like a broad focus. American society supports the extrovert way. As Marti Olsen Laney writes in The Introvert Advantage, America was

Nancy Okerlund

Introvert Energy

www.IntrovertEnergy.com

3 built on rugged individualism and the importance of citizens speaking their minds. We value action, speed, competition, and drive. Its no wonder people are defensive about introversion. We live in a culture that has a negative attitude about reflection and solitude. Getting out there and just doing it are the ideals. The negative attitude extends to introverts in general, with numerous misconceptions, including that introverts are unfriendly, withdrawn, lacking social skills, party poopers, shy, and nerds, and they dont like people. The pace of life in the 21st century is faster than ever and showing no signs of slowing. We live with more information, more technology, more choices, more challenges, more decisions, more stress than ever before. As introverts, we feel overwhelmed with the pace, overwhelmed with the complexity of the stimulation. We struggle to keep our batteries charged. We struggle to express ourselves authentically. We often think theres something wrong with us because we dont seem to be in sync with the crowd. Our valuable ideas get lost in the rush or we dont express them at all. We wonder if the misconceptions are true. Some of us unconsciously try to be extroverts. Others withdraw more than wed prefer. Or we do both. Whatever our strategies, as introverts we cope with a challenging environment. Whats beyond coping? Whats involved in thriving feeling at ease in the world and functioning at our natural, optimal effectiveness?

The Opportunity for Thriving


Its a curious thing that even though most people are familiar with the words introvert and extrovert, this aspect of our temperament isnt well understood. The terms were first used by the psychologist C. J. Jung in the 1920s in his theory about personality types. During the 1950s Katherine Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers used Jungs work as a foundation for their own research and developed the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Millions of people every year take the MBTI, which has definitely increased our general awareness about introverts and extroverts. Now were in yet a new era of understanding. Brain research has documented the biological reality of introversion and extroversion, that being an introvert or an extrovert is a very physical experience. Marti Olsen Laneys work synthesizes the brain research, provides a comprehensive profile of the introvert experience, and describes the challenge of being an introvert in an extroverted society. Scholars and practitioners of the MBTI continue to offer new interpretations and applications of that tool. New ground in awareness has been broken.

Nancy Okerlund

Introvert Energy

www.IntrovertEnergy.com

4 As a society, the potential for understanding the dynamics of both introversion and extroversion, and developing them fully, is stronger than ever before. But whats involved in thriving as an introvert feeling at ease in the world and functioning at our natural, optimal effectiveness? What would it mean for you? Introverts have rich inner lives; Introverts know how to smell the roses; Introverts have a love of learning; Introverts think outside the box; Introverts excel in the creative arts; Introverts have a high emotional IQ; Introverts are gifted in the art of conversation; Introverts enjoy their own company; Introverts are refreshingly modest; Introverts develop healthy habits; Introverts are good citizens; Introverts are good friends.

Thriving as an Introvert
Thriving as an introvert isnt business as usual we live in a world that mainly doesnt recognize or value our experience. Thriving as an introvert calls for changes that I consider transformative: big change. Reframing how you see yourself. Understanding new information. Understanding old information in a new way. From this new perspective, finding new ways to behave, new ways to be an introvert. Its transformative change, but its within your reach. Reframe: Being an Introvert is an Asset Like my client, Sarah, you may not think of your introversion as an advantage. Even if you dont pay much attention to the stereotypes about introverts, even if you feel quite alright about who you are, its a powerful practice to be more conscious of the strengths of introverts. Thats the first step in the reframing work. In The Hidden Gifts of the Introverted Child, Marti Olsen Laney outlines a set of twelve introvert advantages for parents to nurture in their introverted children. As you look at the list, think back to your childhood and see which of these introvert characteristics you identify with and how they looked in you as a kid.

What did you notice about yourself? If you read the list in extrovert mode, you skimmed it quickly and vaguely identified with some or many of the characteristics. Give yourself permission to go back, slow down into a more naturally introvert pace, and find at least five on the list that you easily know about yourself or make you curious. See what memories or questions they stimulate. Then spend a few moments looking at all the characteristics, as a whole, and notice the strength, depth and beauty of this profile of introverts. George is a very sensitive introvert who headed a medium-size division in a large organization. As we began looking at who he is as an introvert, it wasnt hard for him to recognize himself in the profile and to own and appreciate his many strengths. (After all, introverts are wired to be self-aware.) What was challenging was to trust that he could stop second-guessing his natural

Nancy Okerlund

Introvert Energy

www.IntrovertEnergy.com

5 introvert style (while swimming in a sea of 75% extroverts!) Week after week he experimented with being more himself, and admiring it. He began to notice how good it felt and one day said, I think Ive had a shift in my brain: what I bring to this job is the thing, its not the job I do. His confidence allowed him to gracefully move into a new challenging leadership position in the organization. Not long after he started the new job, one of his colleagues said, When you speak, something happens thats a good thing your message is always listened to carefully. Reframe: Introvert Bodies Really Do Work Differently The second part of the reframing process is to understand and trust the new information about the hardwiring, the physical design, of introverts and extroverts. Its as important as developing a more positive perspective about introverts and it doesnt mean becoming an expert on the brain and nervous system. After years of being self-conscious about my habit of relying heavily on flip charts when making presentations, I now understand and trust that it has to do with my complex retrieval system and my adapting to intense stimulation and not with lack of preparation. Knowing that my nervous system is more naturally oriented to stillness than movement makes me compassionate with myself about not jumping out of bed in the morning, frisky as a kitten. An introvert friend of mine has a husband who loves to talk. When she comes home after a work day thats been filled with talking, she says, Im sorry, my brain chemicals are gone and itll take some time for them to be replaced. Once you have a basic idea about the physiology of introverts and start being curious about how your body functions in your daily living, insights come. Reframe: The World is Full of Extroverts Heres the third part of reframing: start assuming most people around you may be extroverts. (Remember, the ratio is 3 to 1.) Typically people dont identify as introverts or extroverts temperament is mainly invisible. Experiment with being more aware of it. On a Saturday evening not long ago I went to a backyard birthday party. About 25 people already beyond my party comfort level and I knew very few. At some point I decided to do an innie/outie scan and realized I could easily pick out the handful I suspected were introverts. That didnt automatically erase all my discomfort but I felt a sense of kinship with the

Nancy Okerlund

Introvert Energy

www.IntrovertEnergy.com

6 quieter ones and got into an interesting conversation with one of them, off in a corner. Make Re-energizing Serious Business One of my clients wondered, How do I build in down time so its just part of my life, so its not negotiable? Right now its negotiable. If theres one thing introverts may know about ourselves its where we get our energy from. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator makes it clear: introverts get their energy from the inner world of ideas, feelings, impressions. We define ourselves on the basis of our inner world and it gives us energy. Its one thing to know and quite another to take care of. To maintain our best energy, its essential that we stay connected with our inner life. But remember, an extroverted society loves doing. These days ours is moving so fast that even extroverts, who thrive on external stimulation, are feeling overstimulated. Chances are good that youre not getting enough down time. For the past year or so, one of my clients has been on the track of what she calls her natural rhythm, experimenting and watching herself to learn how to create her right balance of inward and outward time. One morning she said, Im spending more time in my yard, not working, just being there. Not only have you encouraged me specifically to do that, our work lets me be okay with it and know that its a necessity. I spent several hours there yesterday, reading and watching the birds. Another client, who works in a highlycharged, stressful environment, has This is a very individual and fluid process whats right one day may not fit the next and involves being determined and being tuned into your body in a concrete way. But the benefits are big. When we work well with protecting our energy, our introvert advantages are more naturally available. Intentionally Develop Introvert Ways of Being in the World Some years ago I realized Id unconsciously been trying to be an extrovert. It hadnt worked, of course. It was a big relief to figure that out but I noticed I didnt magically know how to be an introvert either. Now that the physical dimension of introversion and extroversion has been confirmed by science, its easier to imagine the possibility of an introvert or extrovert way of doing something. Cultivating your unique, introvert ways of being in the world, like managing your energy, is an ongoing process, and a very important aspect of thriving in an extroverted world. It involves experimenting. Now that Ive stopped trying to be an extrovert, I notice my natural pace is slower than the worlds. One of my experiments is to get better at slowing down. When do I need to ignore my slower pace and stay with the crowd? What helps me remember I usually have a choice? What happens around me when I decide to slow down? (And the report from the come to recognize that playing solitaire for hours isnt laziness or procrastination - sometimes its exactly what she needs, to recuperate from days of meetings.

Nancy Okerlund

Introvert Energy

www.IntrovertEnergy.com

7 slow down front thus far is: very good idea!) Once you begin giving yourself permission to live more intentionally as an introvert, the possibilities are everywhere - at work, socially, in your intimate relationships, in your relationship with yourself. One of my clients, in a work setting where she was frequently asked for on-the-spot input, developed the habit of telling people shed get back to them after shed thought about it. A seasoned introvert I interviewed described how shes learned to accept dinner invitations in part based on the number of people wholl be there, no matter how many of her favorite people are included, because of the toll it takes on her energy to be in too large a group. It can be as simple as feeling good about going to movies by yourself. Going to the movies with somebody is about as American as anything a very common way for people to socialize. For an introvert, going with one other person might be very pleasant. But remember that our introverted brains are constantly processing external stimulation and relating it to our inner selves. Imagine coming out of a stimulating movie by yourself, no conversation needed, quietly allowing the experience to settle in as you gradually re-orient yourself to the outside world. The challenge is to understand our gifts, give ourselves permission to be them, pay attention to our energy and maybe even start educating people around us about this aspect of ourselves. The reward is ease. Before I became conscious about my introversion, I almost always felt out of place and I was confused by it. It seemed as if Id been sentenced to a life of mysterious discomfort. Recently I spent several hours tabling a booth at an Earth Day celebration, talking to lots of people about a subject I didnt feel expert at. I knew it was going to take a lot out of me and it did but I felt comfortable being uncomfortable; I was choosing to extrovert and I was impressed with how well I did it. All the strategies Ive suggested for thriving as an introvert reframing how you see yourself, protecting your energy, developing your unique introvert ways are individual, multi-faceted processes. Its an art to thrive. Developing extroverting skills is no different. See Extroverting as a Skill, Not a Life Sentence The good news is that introverts have all the equipment we need to extrovertits just not our predominant mode. Thriving as an introvert includes being comfortable using extrovert skills, which is quite different from living an extrovert lifestyle.

Nancy Okerlund

Introvert Energy

www.IntrovertEnergy.com

8 Here are a few suggestions: Explore Your Own Tolerance All people hold the introvert/ extrovert continuum within us. Our home place on it is determined by our genes, our physical make-up. As introverts, some of us are at the extreme end of the continuum, others are more toward the center. Our life experiences also influence how we relate to a given environment. What may be excruciatingly uncomfortable for one introvert may be hardly noticeable to another. Have fun paying more attention to whats easy, whats challenging for you. Learn to Speak Extrovert Learning to speak extrovert is a very useful skill. Extroverts tend to think out loud, speak in shorter sentences, use a faster, more forceful style than introverts, switch subjects often, and dont always attach great meaning to what theyre saying. Consciously practicing that style of communicating can give you easier reception in extrovert settings. Doing it in small, low stress doses when youre feeling energized is a good way to start. Trust That You Know Enough As introverts were naturally reflective and prefer to go in depth. A related challenge is that you may have a tendency to assume you dont know enough about something, no matter how much experience or expertise you have. In more introverted situations, like one to one conversations, it probably feels comfortable to acknowledge that. But the thought of exposing your self-perceived lack of preparation to the larger world may feel so uncomfortable that you stay silent in group discussions or turn down opportunities to make presentations. Experiment with the possibility that you do know enough (because its probably true!) and start taking some manageable risks. Recuperate Before and After Plan to make breathing space both before and after something you consider extroverting. Even going to a concert or a baseball game that you know youll enjoy immensely will use lots of energy. Especially with pleasurable activities, it may seem indulgent to be rested before you go and to make less demands on your energy the day after, but for introverts its basic self care. Do It in Reasonable Doses With any behavior that could be considered extroverted being in crowds, going into unfamiliar places, making presentations in front of groups, doing lots of activities one after the other the basic guidelines are to be conscious that youre doing something challenging, do it in reasonable doses, take good care of your energy before and after, and be compassionate and understanding with yourself.

What we gain from developing our extroversion is more choice, more freedom of movement.

The Gifts of Introversion


The gifts of introversion are many. Introverts are likely to be responsible, flexible, independent, studious and smart. We have a strong ability to

Nancy Okerlund

Introvert Energy

www.IntrovertEnergy.com

9 concentrate, are good observers, feel experiences deeply and comprehend the vastness of any subject. We maintain long-term friendships and work well with others, especially one to one. Were creative, willing to make unpopular decisions and, because of our keen observation, understand the complexity of the world and people. And we have the capacity to bring a slower pace to life. Envision a world where this combination of traits is held in high esteem. Envision yourself flourishing in this environment. The world is longing for more introvert energy. Cherish yours and share it when the moments are right. About the author: Nancy Okerlund, MA, owner of Introvert Energy, is a certified professional coach. Since 1998 Nancy has been using personal/professional coaching as a vehicle for facilitating transformative changes in her clients lives. You can contact Nancy by visiting her website at www.IntrovertEnergy.com. There you can subscribe to her free biweekly online newsletter, The Introvert Energizer, and explore the world of the conscious introvert.
2007 Nancy Okerlund

Nancy Okerlund

Introvert Energy

www.IntrovertEnergy.com