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The extroverted introvert

I am the type of person you would likely label an extrovert within the first few minutes of meeting. Most of my interactions involve lots of hand gesturing, talking far louder than I realize and an abundant energy stemming from a dork-like enthusiasm.

So when my mood switches to that of my more introverted side, people can be a bit thrown off. I’ll get questions like, “Is everything okay? You seem… not yourself.” For the longest time, I felt confused and even downtrodden by these questions. Was something actually wrong with me? Was I upset? And, if so, what was I upset about?

I’m sure many Duke students can identify with this scenario. If you are someone who usually operates at 150 percent when in public, people express concern if you go down to 95 percent. It has always made me want to yell, “But I’m still at 95% and that’s still above average! Leave me alone!”

It’s frustrating to feel called out in this way. I felt a pressure to strain and force myself into a higher gear, as though I had to maintain that extroverted front at all times or I wasn’t truly being myself. I began to confuse tapping into my natural introversion with a loss of identity. If I felt too tired to go to a party or social event and chat people up, I felt ashamed. I was operating in an all-or-nothing frame of mind that wasn’t leaving room for the complexities of my identity.

Extroversion and introversion are far from all-or-nothing. Just like the majority of things in life, they belong to a non-exclusive spectrum. In truth, I am an extroverted introvert—or an introvert with extroverted tendencies. And though this sounds like a simple realization, it has been life changing. By finally embracing my introverted side instead of trying to “overcome” it—as if it were something that needed to be overcome in the first place— I am no longer discounting a trait that goes to the core of who I am. I have been given a newfound sense of entitlement to be more fully myself.

In her book "Quiet" Susan Cain explains that, in a culture such as America’s that has set up an “Extrovert Ideal”, the one-third of individuals who fall on the more extroverted side of the spectrum can struggle with the negative connotation of labels placed on them. She defines this Extrovert Ideal as “the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight.” She adds, “Introversion—along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness— is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology.” Cain deconstructs the labels that introverts have racked up by simply being themselves and explains from where these misconceptions arise.

When people think “introvert”, they think: shy, quiet, withdrawn. But temperament is so much more complex then that. The biggest determinant of whether someone is an extrovert or introvert is from where one draws energy. Extroverts gain energy from social interactions with others, whereas introverts often find these interactions tiring and need alone time to recharge afterwards. Introversion and extroversion has less to do with how people outwardly interact with others and much more to do with how these interactions make them feel internally. It was reassuring to read that my cringing away from small talk in favor of deeper one-on-one conversation, and my habit of letting my phone go to voicemail was not something that I alone experienced. Rather, it was a common trait of my more introverted temperament.

Furthermore, it was empowering to read about the strengths that accompany being an introvert. These include: strong concentration skills, powerful drives to resolve conflict and overall perceptiveness. I’ve stopped pushing back so hard against my introversion and the results have been magical. The best way I can think to describe it is that, in the beginning of my time at Duke, I had this huge cup I was constantly trying to keep half full. I thought I had to be everything for everyone in order to be myself and push myself to engage as fully as possible in every interaction. Now that I’ve embraced my introverted side and allowed myself to enjoy the simple content that brings me, it’s as though I’ve made that cup smaller and suddenly it’s overflowing. To those of you who view your introversion or introverted tendencies—to whatever degree—to be a negative, I urge you to step back and reevaluate. Introversion as a gift to be cherished.

The biggest thing about being an introvert that I believe to be far too underrated is the drive it creates to be reflective and form a relationship with one’s inner self. I was only able to reap these benefits once I stopped running away from the alone time and solitude so frowned upon by the Extrovert Ideal. I think the need many Duke students feel to be busy all the time partially comes from a fear of what we would stumble upon if we had some time alone with our thoughts. We are taught to fear the uncertainty lurking in the less-ventured parts of our brains. We don’t realize how many treasures are waiting to be discovered there, as well.

My recent introverted expeditions into this space have shown me that my inner self has just as many needs, fears and anxieties as she has joys and curiosities. I believe we are meant to connect with all of them. The “flaws” we try our best to evade, to push to the far corners of our thoughts, they are the deepest manifestations of our humanness. They are our aliveness. They have power over us whether we choose to acknowledge them or not. So why not learn to harness their power for our own good? Daring to embrace our introversion or introverted tendencies is the first step.

Cara Peterson is a Trinity senior. Her column runs every other Thursday. Follow her tumblr and her twitter @the20_something.