Many of us are familiar with the concept of introverts and extroverts. Some people, according to this theory of personality, recharge socially in environments with a lot of people, while others expend a lot of energy in social situations and need to recharge their batteries on their own. The former are extroverts, the latter introverts — but the boundaries between these two categories are pretty fluid. Experts tell Bustle that there's some evidence that even the most dyed-in-the-wool introverts can adopt some extrovert tendencies. However, they say, a complete category shift — changing from an introvert who loves staying at home with the cat to an extrovert who finds time at parties invigorating — is virtually impossible, particularly as we get older.
The concept of introversion and extroversion isn't actually that old. "It was popularized around the 1920s and 1930s by the writings of Carl Jung and later utilized in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator," Dr. Trey Armstrong, Ph.D., of the Texas A&M Department of Psychiatry, tells Bustle. You've likely taken Myers-Briggs personality tests online. These days, we know a bit more about introvert and extrovert tendencies — including the fact that introversion isn't necessarily shyness, and that extroverts aren't necessarily socially invincible.
Clinical psychologist Dr. Josh Klapow, Ph.D., tells Bustle that introversion "is a tendency to respond to the world in an inward fashion versus an outward fashion. Introverts process information, synthesize the world around them and make decisions about how to engage in the world in a much more solitary and internal manner. This is not to say they are antisocial, shy, afraid, anxious, or aloof." However, introverts can sometimes long for the other side of the equation; as a definite introvert myself with an extrovert partner, I've often been annoyed that I feel so exhausted after a social occasion, and wondered what it would be like to be less internal in my processing.
I'm not alone. The pressure to be less introverted can be intense. "We live in a society that celebrates extroversion," psychologist Dr. Erika Martinez, Psy.D., tells Bustle. "In many cases, it's a desire to belong and be accepted that prompts introverts to change."
In fact, a 2020 study of over 800 college students and adults found that, when asked, most people said they wanted to be more extroverted, conscientious, or emotionally stable. Everything from our workplaces to our customary social spaces is structured to reward extroversion; if an introvert has a job that involves networking or public speaking, or wants to meet somebody and start a relationship, they need to push themselves outside of their comfort zones. This, says Klapow, is called "social necessity."
If you're an introvert who occasionally shows extroverted traits in public, it's possible that it's happening because of this social necessity, Klapow explains. "Because we live in a world where outward social interaction is valued, and is the norm, introverts often find themselves interacting in a more extroverted manner at work, in social situations, in relationships in order to gain the approval and acceptance of those around them," he tells Bustle.
An introvert changing their behavior to be more extroverted is definitely possible, but it has to be intentional — and it's also difficult. "Think of it like swimming upstream against the current — it's possible, but draining, too," says Martinez. Introverts will also encounter differing levels of success in the endeavor, experts tell Bustle. Some introverts may adopt extrovert tendencies to get by in public, but never feel completely at home with them, while others may become more comfortable with them through habit. An introvert who practices extroversion regularly, says Klapow, may find that extroverted behaviors "begin to feel more commonplace, and are embraced and even looked fondly on."
However, this doesn't mean that introverts with these capacities are becoming more extroverted by nature. Introverts, says Martinez, can look like extroverts — "they can learn to exhibit extroverted behaviors, manage their anxiety, and environmental stimulation," she says — but that won't change their fundamental nature. "Their temperament will still lean toward introversion, and they'll likely need periods of rest to recover after being extroverted," she tells Bustle.
Research also indicates that it's extremely unlikely you can shift your introversion to be entirely extroverted, or vice versa. Armstrong tells Bustle that studies show personality traits are pretty stable after you turn 30. "There are some minor changes that occur over time but usually to a nonsignificant degree," he says.
The 2020 research on adults and college students, published in the Journal of Research in Personality, found that largely, people weren't able to consciously change their personalities. When they followed up with the college students six months later, they actually changed to have less of their desired personality trait than when they were first asked. Even if an introvert has refined or altered their behavior to become more extroverted, they'll likely fall back onto their original ways when they're tired, stressed, anxious, or exhausted. This, says Klapow, is called our "fallback state." If you're an introvert who's gradually trained yourself to show more extroverted traits, you may find that when you're under a lot of pressure, you begin to show introvert tendencies again.
Introverts aren't fixed in their introverted state and can learn extroverted behaviors that make them seem more like extroverts — and even become very comfortable with extroversion. However, that doesn't mean they're innately extroverts. If you're an introvert who has learned to fake it till you make it in extrovert-friendly situations, you'll always need to go home and recharge eventually. Preferably with the door shut and a nice cup of tea.
Dr. Trey Armstrong, Ph.D., of the Texas A&M Department of Psychiatry
Dr. Josh Klapow, Ph.D., clinical psychologist
Dr. Erika Martinez, Psy.D., psychologist
Erica Baranski, Jacob Gray, Patrick Morse, William Dunlop. From desire to development? A multi-sample, idiographic examination of volitional personality change. Journal of Research in Personality, 2020; 85: 103910 DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2019.103910
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