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A Tale of Two Minds

A discourse on intro-extroversion and its relationship with depression

“Why are you always alone by yourself? Don’t you want to come to the party and get socialised with other people? There are so many people that we have not met before!”.

Whenever my friend A invited me to a place that is crowded with other people, I would decide to tag along even if it is against my own will. The truth is, I knew that deep in my heart I would be better off being in solitude meditating or with only a few of my best friends, sharing some ideas and reflecting upon ourselves.

I did not follow my own heart.

Even though I would not call it a mental breakdown and I really much appreciated A’s generosity towards me, I felt that the very prospect of socialising with others at an extremely noisy place has become an overwhelming burden and always depressed me quite a bit. Seeing other people in the party having so much fun, I began to antagonise myself as being ‘antisocial’, believing that there was fundamentally something wrong with me that I needed to get rid of[1]. I thought it would be ideally better for me if I could polish my social skills by going to these social gatherings as frequently as possible so that I would one day become a ‘social butterfly’, just like A is. By all means were my social skills getting better and better with the repercussions that struck me hard when I started to realise that I was not happy within and content with myself at all. I can still remember the times that I succumbed to depression and wept all over my bed when sleeping. The sorrow and loneliness deep inside me was inexplicable.

It was not until when I saw the inspiring TED talk by Susan Cain, a former attorney and a self-proclaimed introvert, that I got a totally new perspective on the topic of introversion[2]. Through this TED talk, introversion manifests itself as a strength instead of weakness. This is something I started to learn to appreciate and embrace. This quietness-seeking part of myself has become empowering as ever and now I would go out socializing only when I want to. Every week, I would assign myself some downtime to get recharged to make up for the time I spent socializing with others. I have discovered a treasure trove that I have long forgotten deep in mind and I no longer feel that depressed. I loved her speech so much that I also bought her New York Times bestseller, Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that cannot stop talking> that embarks on the discourse of finding a serene self without worrying too much about how others judge you. The book has given me a revelatory insight into the world of introversion itself to my heart’s content and angles into some psychological cases.

The meaning of extroversion or introversion

Extroverted people see the happiest time when interacting with others, while introverted people tend to spend their most cherished time alone.

Do you have to be extroverted to be creative and influential?

“If you are an extrovert, you are more likely to express your idea to the point and come up with creative ideas, and as a result, more likely to influence others” , this is a common value that a lot of people nowadays still uphold. But what I am going to tell you might shock you. Contrary to popular belief, what researchers have found out is that there is a zero correlation between how well one is able to deliver a public speech and how introverted he or she is. With practice and enthusiasm, introvert Susan Cain was able to deliver one of the most popular TED talks ever (in fact, introverts are oftentimes more insightful in terms of explaining things) .

Among other original thinkers are Rosa Parks, Steve Wozniak, Mahatma Gandhi, who at their best moments like to be in a quiet place without any interruption while being extremely creative at the same time.

Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian national hero who led the independence movement against the British rule, was perhaps surprisingly, an introvert in his nature. In his autobiography, he mentioned that in his childhood he had always been the first student to rush out of the classroom, fearing for any contact with other people. For Gandhi, talking to other people was one of the hardest things to do; his teeth would even chatter upon seeing them. But with his intense shyness also came his strength. Instead of trying to conquer his intrinsic tendency to be reserved, his cautious selection of words and contemplative nature won him the respect of others and led to the success of his non-violent campaign[3].

Rosa Parks, a well-known civil rights activist in the 1950s and the 60s, was considered to be very soft-spoken and reserved. Small in stature and composed as she may have been, her very act of refusing to give up her own seat in the so-called Montgomery bus boycott exerted a momentous impact on the progress of equality in the United States. Had it not been for her silent act of defiance against the racial segregation system in the United States, the world we now know today would be drastically different[4].

Steve Wozniak was one of the pioneers in the field of personal computer who co-founded Apple along with Steve Jobs in the late 1970s. When he worked on Apple I (one of the first personal computers), he would lock himself up in the cubicle for almost an entire day (except when the time for dinner), displaying his introversion through his complete dedication to his work. He did not like to socialise with others too much and he always preferred to work alone. He would relish in the very thought of working by his own, enjoying the quiet nights and watching the sun rise all by himself.

These three people are all extremely creative and influential in their own respective right. Yet, they all have a serious streak of introversion that flows through their veins.

Free trait theory

Now you may start to wonder, what prompts the introverts to speak or act so effectively when they are given the chance to do so? The answer to this question lies in the so-called Free Trait Theory put forward by Brian Little, a self-proclaimed introvert and a psychology professor at Harvard. According to him, there are two kinds of traits in all of us. On one hand, there are the fixed ones known as “fixed traits”, which are endowed upon us the very moment that we are born and dictate, for example, whether you are an introvert or not (i.e. whether you will feel most at ease during your downtime). On the other hand, there is also another kind which are the “free traits”, that are created in the need for an emergency, a “personal project” that one considers crucial to his or her core value. For instance, for Professor Little, his moment of relish comes right after his lecture is over. He would bolt to the bathroom within a matter of ten seconds and lock himself there, avoiding speaking to anyone and be away from the “personal project” (lecture in this case) to get fully recharged. As Professor Little puts it in one of his TED talks, “to talk to an introvert on the john is the best way to make him or her constipate”[5].

To sum up, introverts are able to act the same as extroverts for the goals that they deem very important if the tasks that they do are not excessive and the reverse also holds true. That is why Abraham Lincoln, the former U.S. president who was also an introvert himself, was able to deliver The Gettysburg Address, one of the most extraordinary speeches ever, while an extroverted scientist might spend hours at the laboratory doing a project without any pause, demonstrating his or her ability to focus on something he or she regards as important attentively without being distracted at all. They all unleash some part of themselves and, provided with enough downtime (or uptime for extroverts) outside their time for their goals, they will also exude confidence and be in the optimal state of mind. Depression, in fact, may partly be due to the imbalance between a goal time and a recharging time, and it is crucially important to understand this.

The balance struck between introversion and extroversion is so delicate yet so wonderful.

Wired differently

Did you know that extroverts and introverts have different brain structures? According to research by Dr. Katherine Benziger , we have a structure in our brainstem called the ascending reticular activating system (ARAS) which regulates the adequate level of stimuli in order to keep us in the optimal state[6] . The fundamental differences between an introvert and an extrovert lie in the fact that extroverts crave for more stimuli by interacting with other people to reach the same level while the introverts need some downtime to alleviate the level they experience in ARAS[7].

Also, a parenting book called <Quiet Kids, Help your introverted child succeed in an extroverted world> by Christine Fonseca highlights some of the mechanisms with which extroverts and introverts operate differently. For extroverts, their brain area responsible for producing dopamine, a neurotransmitter that induces the feeling of pleasure, will become much more active compared to that of introverts, while introvert's brain is much more active in terms of producing acetylcholine, a substance that can tranquilise the mind and help them reach a state of peace in mind[8]. Science really makes a difference.

A time for change

Ever since the last century, the world has become one of commerce, and communication skills have become crucially important. As a result, many people start to mistakenly contribute effective communication to extroversion. While I am not being critical of the extrovert, introversion has ever since carried a negative connotation. Even though I am not an expert in this field, I hope that whenever you see this article, it will serve as a reminder and encouragement when you face similar struggles in life. Depression resulted from others’ misconception about introversion and extroversion is simply not worth it. I believe that in this society, there are many people like my friend A, who is firmly convinced that one has to be an extrovert to be successful and urges others to do the same. Little do they know it is also vitally important to assign yourself an appropriate amount of uptime and downtime to make sure that you will not be overburnt[9].

Living in the 21st century where people are more closely connected, I am firmly convinced that we no longer need to create barriers among ourselves and attach any stigma to either introverts or extroverts. The creation for a society where everybody is independent while being closely connected lies in the respect for personal freedom and space. While some might prefer to speak vociferously when they feel under the weather, others will feel liberated when they cozily have a sip of hot tea and exercise their imagination through writing or reading in their leisure time. This is the worst of times, but this is also the best of times, where every one of us can cooperate together on making this world a better place[10]. It is high time that we stop victimizing others in our own light due to misconceptions and embrace each other’s differences.

Explanatory notes and further readings: [1] People usually misuse the word antisocial and use it to refer to those who prefer less interaction. Asocial would be a more precise term for that. Anti-social behaviors would be those that show general hatred of human nature. [2] “The Power of Introverts” TED Talk by Susan Cain [3] How introversion helped liberate a country [4] Five super successful introverts, and what they did right [5] really_the_puzzle_of_personality?language=en#t-470441 Who are you, really? The puzzle of personality [6] The physiology of type: introversion and extroversion [7] Introverts and Extroverts have different brain structures [8] Why introverts and extroverts are different [9] Are introverts more depressed? [10] This sentence is reminiscent of the first sentence in The Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. Even though we have long been in the grip of misconceptions about the relationship between introversion and extroversion, it is also one of the best times where we can improve upon our society by dispelling them.

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