Updated: Jul 11, 2020
Susan Morton, MSW LICSW shares her perspectives on introversion, ambiversion, empath, social anxiety through her own journey
My Aha Moment
I remember about ten years ago, the word “introvert” seemed to start popping up all over the place and as it did, along with definitions of what an introvert is, I started to recognize some of those qualities in myself. Then, I came across Susan Cain’s book, Quiet – The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Despite being able to identify with the term, I wasn’t totally convinced I was an introvert until I read this book; I also was a bit reluctant to accept that I was not an extrovert. The most significant quality that rang true to me is that introverts become drained by being around people and need their down time to re-energize. That sealed it for me and suddenly so many things in my life made sense to me. It was like the heavens had opened up and the angels sang!
Not a Freak or Weirdo...
The realization that I was not some type of freak or weirdo because I did not get excited being around a lot of people but liked connecting with smaller groups of people, was such a huge relief. It was the ‘aha’ moment I had waited for all my life, but didn’t realize I was waiting for it until it happened. Suddenly, I understood why I loathed small talk and preferred connecting with people in small groups and being part of a more intimate connection with others. Aka, I do not want to talk about the weather or sports. Let’s talk about the things you are passionate about, the things that move you or cause you great happiness.
Ambivert - That's Me!
However, I was still perplexed about the fact that I actually enjoyed speaking in front of a group of people and have always possessed the desire to lead and teach people. Low and behold Ms. Cain explains there are introvert variations into which I fall into the category of being an ambivert. Ambiverts like socializing and social situations, but value alone time evenly. I would say I am an ambivert, but still lean more towards the introvert side.
Introvert or Social Anxiety?
During the time I read Cain’s book, I was working on my Master’s in Social Work. Eventually, I started to question whether or not introverts are just people with social anxiety and we’ve found a fancy name for it. Turns out, they are 2 very different things. People with social anxiety experience intense fear of being in one or more social situations and are being scrutinized by others and this has lasted for six months or longer. People with social anxiety avoid social situations all together, to avoid experiencing the anxiety they create for the person. While introverts don’t relish being in social situations, we don’t necessarily experience fear in groups. However, someone could definitely be an introvert who also has social anxiety.
Empath - Absorbing Other's Emotions
Not too long after discovering the introvert definition, I came across another term which is “empath”. An empath is capable of feeling and absorbing other people’s emotions or physical symptom due to their high sensitivities. Yet another ‘aha’ moment for me as I possess that characteristic, too. In some ways, it makes me a very good therapist as empathy is a key factor in my work. On the other hand, I need to be very mindful and protective of my energy as I can become quickly drained which leaves me feeling exhausted. I’m also learning to observe and not absorb other people’s feelings and energy. Being an introverted empath is kind of a double whammy in terms of energy depletion.
A Clinical Perspective
From a clinical perspective, I consider introversion when clients describe to me how they do not like being in social situations as I need to discern whether or not they have a clinical diagnosis or are just an introvert or perhaps both. This especially rings true for kids and teens as there is always a push to socialize them if they tend to isolate themselves. Of course, I will screen for a possible clinical diagnosis, but just because a kid or a teen likes to read books and stay home, does not mean they have clinical depression or social anxiety. They might just be an introvert! It always amazes me how people are quick to pathologize the introvert which only reinforces how extroverts are lauded in our society. If someone has a bubbly personality and likes to be around people, it certainly conjures up a much more positive image!
"I Celebrate My Introversion..."
Since I discovered the definition of an introvert, I celebrate my introversion and will tell people that I am an introvert. I also no longer try to fit into social situations by being more “extroverty” (yes, I made that term up). I’ve also become more mindful of making sure I get in my downtime on a weekly basis as that keeps me on a more even keel. I am more keenly aware of my powers of observation and because I observe more than I talk in social situations, it also tends to make me a better listener. My circle of friends now includes friends who are more introverted than extroverted, with an actual extrovert peppered in here and there to keep it interesting!
Susan Cain’s book seemed to pioneer the terminology. You can now find many books about introverts as well blogs, podcasts, and Facebook groups! We therapists would call that “normalizing” introversion. I can’t believe that it’s taken so long for introversion to be defined and accepted, but I’m glad that it finally did. This is just another chance to recognize and celebrate our differences!
By being more accepting of my introversion, it has allowed me to be in social situations and no longer feel the pressure to be more social or to be like everyone else. I can sit in a meeting at work and not feel the pressure to speak more or do more in fear that others will see me as being antisocial or aloof. I’m far more comfortable turning down invitations to social events that might overwhelm me or if I need my downtime to re-energize. Don’t get me wrong, there are still times when I slip back into my old patterns of thought and behavior when it comes to my introversion, but it’s now far easier to take a step back, not be so hard on myself and move back into acceptance.
I’ll close with one of my favorite introvert sayings which explains us quite well, “Introverts unite, separately in your own homes”!