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Why We Shouldn't Treat Introversion Like a Mental Illness

Most people are aware of personality trait distinctions which typically separates people according to their prevalence for time alone (introverted), or time with others (extroverted). While these traits were popularized by psychoanalyst Carl Jung in 1931, they are most widely understood in relation to the “Big 5,” or “Five Factor” Model (1980s). This model asserts that various levels of the five factors when combined together form your personality type. The Five Factors are: openness (to experience), conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism (OCEAN).

But back to introversion and extraversion. Extraversion is defined as preference towards outgoing, talkative, enthusiastic, energetic, assertive and specifically social, behavior. Introversion on the other hand is defined as a preference for more solitary and reserved behavior. Introverts are also considered to prefer to focus on one activity at a time, and become overwhelmed from too much (social) stimulation. The two traits are usually considered as existing on a scale, meaning that being high in one set of traits means you are low in the other. However this is not how Jung, or the Myers-Briggs Indicator understands the traits. They instead argue that everyone has both an extroverted and introverted part of their personality, with one merely being more active — or dominant — than the other. It is also worth noting that Ambiversion (a relative balance between the two extremes) is another recognized personality trait.

However you define or analyze them, these traits (along with the other four from the Big 5) are a very interesting aspect of personality — and human behavior — studies. They no doubt have their merits within the discipline, and it is obvious that – of all the Big 5 traits – everyday people find it easy to identify with one or the other of these two extremes. Many people identify themselves as one or the other, and also recognize these traits in their friends and acquaintances. My problem, however, is that the plethora of articles on a broad range of websites encourages people to treat these personality traits as something very closely akin to mental health issues. This is particularly true of introversion more than extroversion.

When I Google “Introversion,” I come up with articles called, “Caring for Your Introvert,” “7 Things Every Clinician Should Know About Introversion,” and “10 Life-Changing Books for Introverts.” 

Worse are the images you often see on articles like this, which wouldn’t be uncommon in articles about depression, bullying or mental health articles.

These websites and articles all treat introversion as if it is a special trait of sensitive people that need help with engaging in society, or need their rights to be solitary recognized by society. The same could be true of extroverts — that they need to be careful of their magnanimity and charisma, or tone down their personality in order to make other people more comfortable. This obsession with identifying, labeling and associating people distinctly with one of these two traits and then fighting for their recognition and acceptance in society, to me, echoes the ways in which mental health issues raise awareness and tolerance throughout the media.

Introversion is not the same as an anxiety disorder — it is not even the same thing as shyness. Shy people may find it difficult to be in social situations, many people with anxiety disorders develop severe physical and psychological symptoms from being exposed to (among other things) situations in which feel they cannot control. Sometimes these are social situations, sometimes they are not. People who tend toward introversion do not need to be coddled or helped into social situations with tips and tricks.

To imagine introversion as existing on anything like the same level as social anxiety disorder does a huge disservice to those people with genuine conditions. Just because you prefer your own company and find social gatherings taxing, exhausting or boring does not necessarily mean you have anxiety or depression. A personality trait is not the same thing as a mental health disorder. So can we please stop treating introversion (and extroversion) as conditions that need our understanding or sympathy, and start treating them as what they are: theoretical personality traits which help psychologists identify people along a spectrum along with four other equally important measures when studying human behavior.

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Unsplash photo via Noah Silliman

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