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Introversion and Re-imagining Identity


(Janita Chalam)– Lately, it’s become trendy to talk about introverts. In addition to the popularity of Susan Cain’s book and TED talk, a plethora of articles about introversion have surfaced around the internet, many painting an image of the cool, indifferent introvert who enjoys books and lurks in corners. However, as much as discussion of “introversion” is prevalent in recent culture, I question the depth to which we truly embrace it.

I definitely identify as an introvert. As a child, I always preferred playing by myself and I was never discontent with being alone. However, as I grew older, it quickly became evident that my personality was not ideal. From teachers who chastised me for not “participating” enough in class, or kids who would disdainfully ask, “why are you so quiet?”, I soon grew to despise my apparently unfavorable personality.

Being more extroverted then became an implicit motivation that shaped my social life. Whether it was working in group projects, sharing in class, or speaking to peers, I constantly evaluated myself by this ideal. By the time I got to high school, I had developed a “social character” through which I could act out the identity I thought was expected of me. But after a while, I grew frustrated at having to maintain this image—and since coming to college, I’ve begun to reevaluate the extent to which I am willing to act against my nature. However, I still wonder: is it possible to live successfully while fully embracing my introversion?

In our culture, speech is power. We’re used to being told to “speak up,” and we cherish the right to “have a voice.” Consequently, dialogue, in its many forms, is often a spectacle of overlapping voices, and those whose speech is not loud and obviously present are often overlooked or cast aside. It seems that we must continuously assert our presence by being vocal, and by speaking we fight to be viewed as confident, or even competent. I am especially aware of this pressure as a student and also as a female, for I feel as though I must deliberately extrovert myself in order to prove my worth. And as someone for whom most dialogue is internal, maintaining this duality of character can be quite exhausting.

What bothers me the most, however, is the fact that societal expectations not only affect how others view me, but also how I view myself. Throughout the years I have developed an insecure habit of attempting to see myself as I think others see me, and I find that the line between this imagined identity and my own self-identity has become impossibly blurred. This can sometimes result in a nervous distortion of my thought and behavior: I berate myself for not speaking up enough, and this in turn lowers my confidence in my speech, and the less I speak, the more I berate myself. And so on.

It seems an insult to my individuality to think that I am so influenced by a standard outside of myself. But as I think back upon all of my teachers, friends, and peers whose words and actions have repeatedly hammered this standard into me, I realize that being shaped by the external is in fact inevitable.

We in Western society are the champions of the individual—but we hardly recognize that we do not individuate ourselves. Our self-identity is not something over which we have full control, because from birth, we are subject to a barrage of ideals and attitudes which we then take as our own. As we claim autonomy, little do we realize that our bodies are the site of myriad social and political projects.

This notion is not only disturbing to our sense of individuality, but it also becomes problematic when the very identities born from our societal environment are what we rely on to survive in the same environment. One manifestation of this is the idea that our personality correlates with our income. However, this problem unquestionably expands into areas deeper than the introvert/extrovert taxonomy; for example, minorities who cannot access better education because of their given socioeconomic context and women who struggle with body image issues in a society that objectifies them are also victims of this vicious cycle.

But once we become aware that our identities are not in fact constructed by us—what next? Because it is impossible to fully erase society’s influence on our individuality, I think it is necessary to look inward to find some conclusions. That is, we must begin to radically question ourselves as products of our societal context. To what extent is your self-identity informed by the prevalent attitudes and expectations of your environment? How much of your personality can you actually claim as your own? The results we find will allow us to empathize with others who have received more in terms of societal disadvantage, and consequently create new modes for identity in the public sphere—for example, by being more inclusive of introversion or dismantling the structures which oppose oppressed identities. Hopefully, re-imagining our own identities can lead to more compassionate individuality and a healthier society.

4 comments on “Introversion and Re-imagining Identity

  1. Evelyn
    November 20, 2013

    Thank you for this article, Janita. I, too, identify as an introvert and have trouble reconciling my “quiet” nature with the extroverted personality that society demands. I agree that we should be “more inclusive of introversion”, as you mentioned. In grade school, people all too often equivocated “liked to play alone” with “antisocial” and the more negative term “loser”. This is a stigma that needs to be corrected. I know of very socially competent people who prefer to spend their Friday nights reading a book instead of going to a party.

    However, I believe that introverts do need to speak up–in the classroom and on issues of critical importance. In fact, your posts on this blog are an excellent example of this. Introverts bring a unique and valued perspective to public conversations. Introverts are not traitors to their identity when they “act extroverted”. They do not change who they are when they expend energy in meeting new people, deliver a speech to the public, or run for office.
    Introverts can become extroverted for short periods of time, just as extroverts should become introverts for short periods of time. “Introverted qualities” are especially useful in the context of group meetings, since the most effective leaders listen, and take everyone’s ideas into consideration.

    Yet, I think the difficulty at Amherst is in finding the time to “recharge” and “renew”. College is a unique time when you are in a community of individuals all relatively the same age as yourself. You are motivated to socialize, in the rare times that you are not doing homework, or playing sports, or involved in activities. Many activities require socialization as well. Introverts SHOULD speak up. But there is nothing wrong with declining a party invitation to read a book.

  2. Evelyn
    November 20, 2013

    *I misspoke when I used the term “equivocated”. I would like to edit this to say: “people all too often ASSUMED “liked to play alone” MEANT “antisocial” and the more negative term “loser”.

  3. Jenny xiao
    November 21, 2013

    Beautiful article. I do need to say that, human beings are, in fact, social creatures, and established social norms are hard to break. I agree with Evelyn that introverts need to speak up in the sense that sharing opinions with others is valuable to everyone. Speaking up also takes more form than simply talking: writing is a good alternative, which you are actively engaging in. To equate extroverts with eloquent is also false: extrovert could be shy too. Being unafraid to express takes effort for anyone, extroverted or introverted. I do believe that public speaking skills can be cultivated, and for a select few extroverts it comes naturally, but certainly not for all extroverts either.
    As to embracing being an introvert, I agree: the college culture is stressing partying out over staying in over the weekend. But I also think that partying out in the socials is a LOUD, but not a majority part of the campus over the weekend. It is very easy to feel pressured because of its seemingly omnipresence, but the exclusion introverts feel is partly due to the fact that introverts’ voices are rarely heard, therefore harder for introverts to identify each other and form a collective presence like the socials.

    Just my thoughts…

  4. Charlie Gill
    November 21, 2013

    Nice article, Janita, and an enlightening one (as I consider myself an extrovert). I wonder though… You recommend that our culture be “more inclusive of introversion.” However, you also claim that, as an introvert, you prefer often to play alone and find dialogue most comfortable when it is internal. How does the extrovert, then, go about inclusion when the introvert appears to shy away from it? I just have a hard time reconciling the two threads I think I am hearing here: I prefer to be alone…yet I want to be included. Thoughts?

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