How Introverts Can Thrive in an Extroverted World

I’m an introvert.

This is a shock to exactly no one who knows me well (although apparently people have been surprised meeting me at a conference or when I’m preaching).

Particularly over the last decade, I’ve had to work really hard to learn how to function as an extrovert. It doesn’t come naturally to me and it is exhausting. But it’s absolutely necessary in order to function in a culture dominated by the Extrovert Ideal, what author Susan Cain describes as “the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight.”1

As you can imagine, this ideal creates a whole host of issues for a number of people who would identify themselves as introverts. The prevailing attitude seems to treat introversion—and along with it sensitivity, shyness and seriousness—as “a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology.”2 I’ve personally experienced this attitude on numerous occasions. The work culture I’m a part of places a very high demand on “face-time,” physical availability, and being seen as bright, cheery and nice. These are not bad things in and of themselves. We should certainly be kind (even if we can’t do that super-out-there kind of personality) and willing to meet with people when they need to talk. But how do those of us for whom high degrees of personal interaction do not come naturally survive and even thrive in such cultures?

“Paradoxically, the best way to act out of character is to stay as true to yourself as you possibly can—starting by creating as many “restorative niches” as possible in your daily life,” Cain explains.3 The best way to get through the day, the best way to thrive, is to develop a series of helps—restorative niches— that allow you to be who you are.

Here are a few of mine and how I incorporate as many as I can into my day:

1. I work outside the office as much as is possible and realistic. Doing this makes my time in our office as intentional and productive as possible. It also has the added benefit of giving people the impression that when I’m around, I’m happy to have a conversation about whatever.

2. I work in places where I can choose the amount of social interaction I require. Although I have the option to do so, I rarely ever work at home (my children’s fierce love for Daddy typically prevents me from getting anything done). I do, however, spend a lot of time at the local Starbucks. Normally I’m left alone, but sometimes people will strike up a conversation or I’m able to do the same with the baristas, other patrons and even my colleagues who are coming in for their afternoon coffee fix.

3. I find times to read. For me, my greatest restorative niche is reading (which explains why I do so much of it). One of the healthiest things I can do is to take 15-20 minutes somewhere in my day to just stop and read, particularly if it’s a day that requires a lot of social interaction (read: meetings).

Those are a few of my restorative niches and overall they’re pretty helpful for me. Because I have been given a great deal of freedom when it comes to how I manage my time, I’m allowed to implement these things during my work week. For some reading this, implementing your restorative niches might be a bit trickier. You may need to look at how your evenings and weekends are set up to ensure that you’re providing yourself adequate time to recharge. It might mean a few less activities and it may mean disappointing people on occasion, but in order to serve others well, we need to make the time and develop the habits that allow us to embrace the natural personality traits that God has given us.

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  • Nicholas

    Appreciate this post!  I especially identified with the admonition to find those “restorative niches.”  As introverts, we need “recharging” after being around people all day (particularly our family).  And reading does that for me, too.  Thanks!

  • http://blog.hillsbiblechurch.org/ Don

    This one applies to many extroverts as well. 

    It’s been my experience that many (if not most) introverts use faux-extroversion as a cover. I’ve done it myself.Taking an up-front ‘out there’ role usually provides a mask to hide behind. You don’t have to be involved in up-close one-on-one conversation, you simply hide behind the false persona you have created. So many public speakers do this, and rather than being the confident self-assured individuals they are taken for, really struggle in personal conversations. I’ve come to see this as living a lie. The fear of being ‘found out’ is overwhelming, driving one deeper into the hole they have dug for themselves. It can be a debilitating condition. I recall my experience of attempting to talk, during a social dinner with a group of friends, with the Lead Pastor of one of the largest churches in our city. He was an exceptional speaker and respected as a gifted leader. But he was incapable of carrying on a normal conversation as equal to equal. If he wasn’t ‘pontificating’, he couldn’t communicate. He withdrew into a shell and became only a shadow of the persona he had created. I saw this characteristic in my father, a school teacher by profession and a lay-pastor by avocation. I struggle with this as well, but with the help of my wife who’s one-on-one communication skill I greatly admire, I’ve overcome this tendency. As a result, I no longer take up-front leadership roles at church. I know if I did, I would fall back into this old habit. 

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