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.