By Jill D. Burruss and Lisa Kaenzig.
Citation: From the Virginia Association for the Gifted Newsletter. 1999 Fall 21(1). Reprinted with permission.
You know at least one or perhaps are one: the child who immediately, when he comes home from school, escapes to the privacy of his room for time alone; the speaker who presents beautifully in front of 1200 people but who leaves a few minutes into the social hour because he says he can’t deal with large groups of people; the quiet student who always has a book in hand, commonly plays alone, and whose favorite place is the reading corner; the adult who is vocal and social in a small group of people but who becomes silent and withdrawn if she is made to work in a larger one; the adolescent with only one best friend who lives in another city or state and who is content with that situation; or the individual who when attending a conference or convention can only take so much socializing and hustle and has to retreat to the privacy of her hotel room to ‘re-center’ herself.
These are just some examples of introverted individuals. These aren’t simply shy people, although certainly many are shy. They also are not simply depressed individuals, although introverts just as extroverts can be depressed. And they aren’t all social outcasts, although it may appear this way to the extroverts who need that ongoing social contact to be healthy and happy. Introversion is not a pathological condition; it is not an abnormal response to the world. It is simply a personality trait found in a small percentage of the total population. Introverts are different from extroverts and this difference is very difficult for the extrovert to understand because they do not operate in that fashion. And because they do not understand it, many continually try to help the introvert become more social, more gregarious, more outgoing, and have more fun from the extrovert perspective. Such is the situation of the introvert, a minority in the regular population but a majority in the gifted population (Gallagher, 1990; Hoehn & Birely, 1988). And that difference from the ‘norm’ is the reason this factor needs to be considered when developing educational programs and parenting strategies for gifted students.
What is introversion? And how does it differ from extroversion? Jung (1923) was one of the early leaders in the exploration of personality and is credited with developing the constructs of extroversion and introversion. He saw human behavior or habits as patterns and attempted to understand and explain differences in personality according to those unique and variable patterns. Although he focused primarily on sensing, intuition, thinking, and feeling; introversion and extroversion were important components of his mental or psychological traits theory. Most people utilize elements of both introversion and extroversion in their daily lives; however there generally is a dominant personality trait that reflects best how the individual prefers to work or deal with the environment, especially in times of stress. The introvert’s main focus is within his/her head, in the internal world of ideas and concepts; the extrovert’s primary focus is on the external world of people and activities (Myers & Myers, 1980). Such prefernces or personality traits impact many other elements such as perception, learning style, judgement, and sociological preferences (Meisgeier, Murphy & Meisgeier, 1989; Dunn & Dunn, 1978). Myers reminds us however that introverts typically hide their inner worlds and rarely let others into them, which may lead people to make erroneous decisions about them and their needs. Introverts get their energy from themselves and are drained by people; extroverts get their energy from other people and are drained by being alone.
Henjum (1982) sees introverts as belonging to two distinct groups:
Group A: Self-sufficient, confident, hardworking, with firm goals, self-actualizing, reserved, preferring activities that involve inner experience and introspection; and
Group B: Shy, timid, withdrawn with low self-concept, lacking in communication skills, demonstrating fear of people, dread of doing things in front of others, who prefer being left alone.
One can only conjecture whether or not some of the elements in Group B are a result of being constantly criticized for not being more social or more outgoing. Since most individuals belong to the extrovert category (3 to 1), being introverted commonly means being misunderstood, just like giftedness!
This is not to say however that introversion cannot be a problem. It is similar to perfectionism in that a little is beneficial and too much is harmful. Some things to look for:
· When the individual has no friends and spends all their time alone… but not by choice.
· When the individual is depressed about having no friends.
· When the individual refuses to work with others for any reason.
· When the individual demonstrates marked behavior changes (marked weight loss or gain, sleeps much more or less, physical distress, withdrawal, etc.)
All of these warrant immediate attention by a psychologist, counselor, or another appropriate caregiver. Commonly it is not the introversion that causes these but it may be a general inability to make and keep friends that does it. Social skills can be learned and such training is appropriate even for gifted individuals.
Now overlay the characteristics of giftedness and note the many similarities with our general gifted population. The intellectual elements, the organizational and operational style elements, and the environmental preference elements are very similar. Adding the intensity and sensitivity of the gifted to the needs of the introvert makes this a situation that needs to be actively addressed by educators and parents.