‘Ambivert’…or confused introvert?

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Introvert. Oxford dictionary definition: ‘A shy, reticent person’.

I dont think this can be me, because I’m not shy. Or should I say, I’m never knowingly seen to be shy.

I’d hardly describe myself as reticent: If you want opinions, I got ’em by the bucketful and if you’re ok with outbursts of emotion, I can supply those freely too.

Have you, like me, encountered some confusion about what an introvert or an extrovert even is? Well there’s the problem right there – it tends to be thought of as an either/or. For years, psychologists typically described introversion/extraversion as some kind of continuum, where one is be situated somewhere on a scale nearer one end or the other. This is a basic premise of the Big 5 Personality theory in which psychologists have attempted to describe people in terms of 5 sets of key characteristics. As if one must be more or less of something, such as agreeable or neurotic.

I am a tortoise at a party.

From a personal viewpoint, this makes little sense. It feels more like an ‘it depends’. I reckon I can have any or all of these traits at one point or another, depending on context, general mood, hormone levels…

I am a tortoise at a party. I’m up for it all right, but I may just need to tuck my head inside my shell for a while…and who knows if or when I’ll be ready to poke it back out. I don’t even know where the need to suddenly hide might spring from but I’ll reach my capacity for being with people.tortoise party

On reflection, it’s no surprise I was frequently a drunken mess when I was younger: most of my social life involved big, loud groups of people and a ton of strangers (think gigs, clubbing, the pub). This didn’t work for (real, socially anxious) me, so I let go of my social inhibitions through getting sh*tfaced, as you do. Then I was ‘free’ to be the hilarious party girl. Inevitably, there was an emotional hangover to go hand-in-hand with the physical one. Things are better now I’m older and socialising tends to focus around select groups of trusted friends. And bedtime is way earlier – I may even get through an evening without the need to tuck the head in!

I really do like and need people. But I also need an escape route.

I’m a Trainer, and there tends to be an assumption that I must be extroverted to do that job. People see me standing at the front of the group, so most likely guess that I’m happy to be the centre of attention. No so! I’m there to facilitate. I’m there to make it all about the learning and the learners, to get them thinking, talking, doing stuff – everything that takes focus off me in fact. I can deliver a great presentation, no worries, but it’s my least enjoyable bit. So, whilst I love being around people at work, feeding off their ideas, encouraging them to work together, challenge one another and so on, I am far from revitalised by the experience. What it means for me is that I tend to come home from work shattered – not just mentally, but physically and spiritually too. It takes a lot out of me. It’s really not that I hate people! Promise. It’s just I feel like the tank has been drained.

I’ve been wondering if I’m actually a secretly shy person. But then I do such crazy, random, outspoken things from time to time, I’m sure I cannot possibly be shy by nature. I read a bunch of online chats recently where lots of people said how they’ve learned to hide their shyness, as they felt being shy is so frowned upon. This shows the extent to which it’s possible to craft an entire persona for the world to see, that may not even feel much like our true self at all.  Argh, and I now I’m getting in a pickle, as I’m starting to interchange shyness and introversion (just like that silly Oxford dictionary did), but I don’t even believe they are homogeneous terms at all!

Big 5 traits
The ‘Big 5’ Personality traits

A perhaps more helpful concept of introversion/extraversion is to think of it in terms of how you recharge at the end of the day.  So there are those of us who simply have to get away from other human lifeforms for a bit in order to feel refreshed, whilst others feed off the energy of others and may struggle to feel buoyant if left alone for too long. This is closer to the Jungian theory of personality but even that seems more like an either/or type of assessment.

Turns out there is another way of thinking about this. “Ambivert” is used to describe “a person who has characteristics of both extrovert and introvert”, in other words, “falling somewhere in the middle of the spectrum”. Still this doesn’t seem to nail it precisely for me. Instead, I imagine myself sliding up and down the scale, at various times. (Yep, that’s me – the crazy lady slip sliding up and down the chart!). But it’s actually an interpretation that makes quite a bit of sense when you think of it this way:

An ambivert is moderately comfortable with groups and social interaction, but also relishes time alone, away from a crowd

Now I’m wondering if that is, in fact, about 90% of people!

Well, it will have to do: should anyone care to ask me to describe aspects of my personality, I shall henceforth say that I’m an ambivert. And hopefully that will make more sense to them than saying I am a tortoise at a party.

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