Hi, my name is Ben and I am an introvert. I don’t hate you, I’m not mad and I’m not a loner, I’m just an introvert. I am comfortable saying that now, but it took me years to embrace the fact that I was an introvert.
I didn’t want to be an introvert. All my heroes were outgoing, bold, loud, extroverted people. Naturally, I wanted to be like them and I thought that meant I had to be extroverted. I read books about bold believers who stood on street corners and preached the gospel. I listened to stories of the heroes of the faith that changed the world through great acts of courage and radical faith. I went to church and watched as the people who were the most outgoing and loud were the ones who were on the stage and in leadership roles.
So I tried, I really did. I surrounded myself with those kinds of people. You know, the “fun” ones. I played the game the best I could. The problem was, I just couldn’t do it. I was exhausted just by the thought of it all. I had to work up the energy to be around people and after enduring any crowd for more than a few hours I was ready to crawl into a hole.
I spent a lot of time thinking about why I was like this. Am I not a brave enough witness for the gospel? Why couldn’t I get the impetuous to spark up that conversation with the guy on the street like all my friends did? Why couldn’t I be the fun guy that everyone was drawn to so that I could use my “influence” for Jesus? Why was it that when I got into public situations I wanted to put the hood over my head and head for the back of the room?
I thought there was something wrong with me. I genuinely thought that my issue was a lack of boldness and courage in regard to my faith. I thought I just needed to suck it up and be more fun. Added to that self diagnosis was the pressure of growing up as an evangelical Christian in a “go out there and save souls” church setting. Success was measured in how many people you talked to and how many souls were “won for Christ.” Success was measured by your ability to command a room and get people to laugh at you, cry with you or respond to an “altar call.”
I felt like a failure. When I didn’t want to talk to the person next to me on the plane, I would hear a voice inside my head telling me that I had no compassion for the lost. When I noticed someone in a wheelchair and I didn’t go right over to them and tell them about a man named Jesus who heals, I felt like I was letting God down.
I tried, really, I tried. At one point, I accepted a job as a youth pastor at a large church. As anyone knows, to be a youth pastor means you have to be the loudest, craziest guy in the room. You have to be “fun” and “dynamic” and all the things that define an extrovert. I didn’t last long. At one point we were organizing a missions trip that involved a long bus ride with a whole bunch of students from the ministry. Instead of being excited about the missions work, I dreaded the thought of having to be on a bus, alone, with a whole bunch of students. I didn’t want to be the guy forcing conversation, keeping up morale and being the cheerleader. But, I was the youth leader and I thought that’s what having influence meant. I thought that the only way to get people to listen to you was to be the guy that everyone liked and from what I had seen, everyone likes the extrovert.
John Maxwell says that leadership is influence, nothing more and nothing less and I assumed that meant you had to be an extrovert. My conclusion was that to be a leader you had to be the biggest personality in a room. Anything less was a failure or leadership.
The problem was, I wasn’t an extrovert at all.
Ironically, I have spent most of my adult life on some kind of a stage. First as a musician, then a singer and now a preacher and a teacher. Most people would think that the only way you could be those things is to have an extroverted personality and be someone who loves the limelight. That’s what I thought as well. Initially, I tried to model myself after the people I had responded to the most. Add a little comedy in, a little self deprecation, say things to add a little shock value. But it would fall flat. I would walk away wondering what happened as the joke I tried to tell missed the mark. Maybe it was me?
Way down deep inside, I started to question my worth. It got to the point that a serious inferiority complex started to creep in. My time alone was filled with “if only’s”. If only I was more outgoing, if only I had been more brave in that situation, if only I was like him or her then people would notice and I could become what I thought I needed to be happy. Self pity had been knocking on my door for years but now it became a way of life for me. I was a helpless victim and if only I could change my personality to be more outgoing then maybe my life would take a different course.
It was the psychologist Carl Jung who introduced the world to the terms “introvert” and “extrovert” in the early 1900’s. Much has been written in the years since that has helped develop our understanding of the way our personalities shape our responses. You can now go online and take a multitude of different tests to determine your unique design and get a better grid for how you function as a human being. But as is the case with so many things, sometimes it takes years before you “discover” that any of these helpful tools exist.
The difficulty is that introverts, without a clear understanding of how they are wired, wrestle with what appears to be inconsistencies in their lives. We live internally and are difficult to understand. We don’t enjoy big crowds, we don’t like “small talk”, we take criticism personally and mull over the details of that criticism for hours, days, weeks. We might genuinely be happy people but we don’t show it in the same way that other people do. We constantly measure ourselves with a predetermined picture of what things should be like. We compare ourselves to others in everything from success to wealth to happiness. We create a picture of what the perfect life should look like and then take a step back to see how different our life is from the idea of perfection we have created. And all this happens inside our heads on a day to day basis.
We are constantly misunderstood. As recently as 2010, the American Psychiatric Society considered classifying the “introverted personality” as a disorder in the manual they use to diagnose mental illness. If that doesn’t make you try to fake being an extrovert, I don’t know what will!
Recent studies have suggested that introversion may be due to an increased sensitivity to external stimulation. Apparently our brains are wired differently than the rest of the population. “It is very difficult for an extrovert to understand an introvert,” write education experts Jill D. Burruss and Lisa Kaenzig. Brilliant deduction. I wish I could be paid for stating the obvious. Oh, also, introverts are also typically sarcastic.
Introverts, however, are incredibly valuable in society. Bill Gates is an introvert. Abraham Lincoln and Albert Einstein were both introverts. You see, the world needs introverts and if the world needs the power of the introverted personality, the body of Christ needs it ever so much more desperately. The problem is that the church at large doesn’t value it and because it doesn’t, those of us who are introverts prefer to pretend we are anything but that. We will fake it till we make it if we have to. Why? Because we get tired of hearing these kinds of questions –
“Are you all right?
“What’s the matter?
“Why are you always frowning?”
“Are you in a bad mood?”
We get tired of people thinking we are too serious, or aloof, or rude, or quiet or shy. Most of us are anything but that. We are not simply “private” or “guarded” or a “loner”. We can love being around people and in front of people. We enjoy deep conversations and social settings – under the right conditions. We enjoy the company of people but typically only people that we consider “safe”. The problem is that we don’t get energized by those situations.
Let me put it this way. For an introvert, being in a room of people that you don’t want to be around feels like a giant vacuum was just attached to your soul. Every moment you stay in that environment, the capacity to be friendly or gregarious is slowly sucked out of you until you want to crawl into a hole. It is possible to just put on a brave face but more often than not, we retreat to a corner to get away from it all. That’s when the comments I stated above start coming. Nothing makes an introvert retreat quicker than being made to feel like something is wrong with you because you don’t want to engage in the various (at least in the way it appears to us) asinine activities that others seem to enjoy.
So take all that information and consider what it is like to be an introvert in our modern church setting. It’s no wonder that I felt like something was wrong with me. Add to that the pressure of being a “leader” in a church setting. I knew I was called to help people. I knew I was called to lead and teach and model the life of Jesus for others. I just didn’t know how to do that when it seemed like my personality was everything but what the church considers a “leader”.
The ironic thing is that I am married to an extrovert and two of my three children are extroverts. So I have had the unique opportunity to be able to study extroverted behavior in its “natural habitat” for years. Extroverts get recharged by being around people, engaging with conversation and feeling needed by others. That doesn’t mean they don’t need time alone, they just don’t need as much time alone as an introvert would. For them, life is about extracting as much fun and enjoyment as possible from whatever situation they are in. Extroverts typically do make great leaders because people (including introverts) like to be around extroverted people because they exude life and fun.
Extroverts are “let’s do it together” kind of people. They like ice breakers and large group gatherings and group getaways. They hate it when the conversation lulls, when it feels awkward or when they perceive a disconnection. Obviously, these are broad brush strokes but from an introverts perspective let me tell you what we think about all those things.
Ice breakers – I would rather sit on thumb tacks
Large group gatherings – Anymore than 6 people in a room makes me claustrophobic unless I am in charge
Group getaways – The idea of a getaway is to getaway from people. Why would you do that in a group
Conversation lulls – That just means I am thinking about what you said and don’t have a formulated answer for you yet
Awkwardness – It’s only awkward because you are staring at me like I am an alien
Perceived Disconnection – It takes time to earn my trust, maybe I’m just not ready to let you into my internal world yet.
Extroverts are a much larger portion of the population and therefore more readily understood. It is estimated that only 25% of the population are introverts and considering that introverts prefer to stay out of the way, the chances of you interacting with a true introvert on a daily basis is probably pretty low. That means you might misread the social cues when you actually encounter one.
I feel for you, I really do. Nobody wants to feel like they have to walk on eggshells because some random person can’t handle social situations without freaking out. I’m not asking you to be anything other than who you are. Just realize that we want the same freedom as well. Don’t make fun of us for being introverted, that doesn’t help. It’s not your job to make sure that everybody in the room knows that we are introverts and we need “special attention”, that doesn’t help.
You want to know how to help? Make room for us at the table, listen and watch and learn about how we operate. We have a whole lot to offer but it comes in a slightly different package than you might expect. Introverts are dynamic thinkers, problem solvers, life long friends and world changers. Introverts are compassionate and funny and engaging. Introverts make great teachers and in my humble opinion, great leaders.
So the next time you come across someone you know is a little more introverted, remember what I told you. Smile, don’t feel the need to strike up a conversation unless they look like they want it and for goodness sake, please don’t try and give them a hug unless they initiate it. You will thank me later.