The Hidden Power of Introverts

Our Culture Misunderstands Them. Do Therapists, Too?

Michael Alcée

It’s easy for introverts to fall under the therapeutic radar. They often come to us for help with anxiety, depression, and relationship difficulties, and we typically offer them our usual trusted treatments for these common issues without pausing to take their personalities—or more accurately, their temperaments—into account. But there’s a direct link between their mental health issues and how they’re misunderstood and alienated by a culture that expects and rewards extraversion at every turn.

This invisible pressure contributes to the introverts I’ve seen in my practice becoming discouraged with therapy, as session after session fails to get to the heart of their feelings of failure, inadequacy, and disconnection. And I can attest that it makes treatment, from the therapist’s perspective, frustrating as well.

Recently, Susan Cain’s popular TED talk, “The Power of Introverts,” and her bestselling book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, have led some businesses and colleges to think anew about the strengths and contributions of introverts, a group, according to Cain, that makes up a full one-third to one-half of the population. But ironically, today’s psychotherapy world continues to pay introversion little mind, despite its first being named and popularized by our own eminent analyst Carl Jung and the mother-daughter team of Myers-Briggs, who created the personality type indicator.

Why have we lost sight of the fact that introversion, extroversion, or ambiversion (the middle ground between the two) are seminal parts of who our clients are and how they make sense of life? And how can we do a better job of shining a light on their personality types and helping them validate their own ways of being and belonging in the world? One particular young client on the college campus where I work started me on an unexpected and sometimes slippery journey to uncover the answers.

I’m Nobody

I first met my client Jessica when she was a first-year student in college. The oldest of three from a working-class Latino family, she was bookish, tech-obsessed (she’d happily tell you about the finer points of artificial intelligence), and prized in her family for being the first to attend college. She was also a bit of an outcast in her boisterous household—the inexplicably quiet one, who confused and concerned others with her need for time alone.

While her parents loved her, they didn’t understand Jessica’s sensitivities, like suddenly getting frustrated and running to her room during large family gatherings, or constantly diving into books and being uninterested in the kinds of fun that most kids her age seemed to enjoy. Worried that she’d ultimately squander opportunities for personal and professional success, her parents told her repeatedly that she needed to toughen up and be a bolder communicator. They saw her unnamed introversion as a problem in need of fixing—and by the time she’d gotten to college, she saw it that way, too.

Jessica had seen a variety of therapists from high school onward, all of whom quickly diagnosed her with social anxiety disorder. At school, she’d received a host of accommodations for the diagnosis, including testing in a separate space and extended time on assignments. It had become an article of faith that this was an immutable part of her personality to be managed, but not one that could be resolved.

She’d arrive in my waiting room and greet me with her head down, almost wincing as she crossed the threshold, as if she was being pushed to do something deeply uncomfortable against her will. Whenever she appeared, I got the sense that she saw me as a human interrogation lamp, eager to pry out her secrets for my own gratification.

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Early on, I took to greeting her by nodding softly at the door, concerned that if I spoke too soon, she’d bolt like a deer. “I need another note,” she’d murmur as she walked in. We both knew what that meant. She was asking me to legitimize her social anxiety to the professors who expected her to speak up in class, take part in group projects, and otherwise take on work that would force her outside her quiet and solitary comfort zone. She needed me to assure them she was different from your garden-variety slacker, and to get them to keep this in mind when doling out grades.

There was always little doubt I’d eventually write these notes, but not before urging her to endure a handful of sessions focused on her corrosive self-criticism and crippling anticipation of being shamed, in which I’d use cognitive techniques like disputation and restructuring. She was so accustomed to this that by the time she appeared in my office midway through her sophomore year, she immediately sat down, crossed her arms, and beat me to the punch by cataloguing her ongoing symptoms.

“It’s the same as always,” she started, her eyes fixed on the carpet. “I can write the essays and take the tests; I just can’t manage to talk to the person sitting next to me. It’s embarrassing to feel so bombarded by the noise of the other students and the bright lights swirling around me. And I’m sorry. I know it’s your job to convince me I can change, but it’s just no use. No matter how much I try, I can’t outrun this fear of being around people. It’s just who I am.”

Not wanting to invalidate her feelings, I temporarily went along with this assessment. But as we kept talking, I started thinking of novel ways to shift her self-definition. I thought about how much she’d already accomplished in her life despite the power of her fear. “I see how profound and all-encompassing your anxieties are,” I said. “And yet, your fears seem like real bullies for not letting you speak. I wonder if we might get to know a bit about the you that feels attacked by these bullies. What would that Jessica share with people about who she is if she could?”

The silence that ensued made me immediately question my line of inquiry. Only one more week remained in the semester, and I knew she was panicked that the tsunami of uncompleted work was about to crash down on her. Sure enough, she bristled at my question.

“Maybe there are bullies in my brain. That’s great in theory, but I don’t have time to really think of that right now,” she said. “I need to get your note, or else I’ll fail these classes, lose my scholarship, and then what will I have?”

It was a good question. Jessica hadn’t really felt buoyed by much in her life, other than her intellectual achievements and the world of her imagination. She also knew that most other college students wouldn’t take the time to get to know her and learn what she truly thought, or why she didn’t go to parties much, or fiercely detested small talk, or turned bright red when called on in class. Sometimes it felt as if the whole world was shouting at her that she was just no good, so why even try?

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“I’m just not cut out for being around people,” she reminded me.

I sighed, and we spent the rest of the session covering practical, in-the-moment solutions to her problems. We identified the most crippling forms of her self-criticism, which sounded like, “People are right; I’m really not likable,” and then disputed it with compassionate and affirming new scripts, such as “It just takes more time for me to feel comfortable with people so that they really know who I am inside.”

We role-played ways to increase her confidence in the social world, with me slowing down the kinds of small talk peers expected and her trying out ways of translating her deeper interests into a smoother, more polished response. Most importantly, we focused on how to speak frankly with her professors about her habit of self-medicating her anxiety with procrastination. We also established reasonable goals—like breaking down assignments into realistic parts, rather than a perfect whole—to keep her on track.

When we were done, I picked up my notepad and a pen. I understood that these efforts we’d made would be only marginally productive for her. As I signed my name to the note for her professors, it was perfectly clear to me that I was just stealing time, and that she’d be back, right where she was sitting, next semester.

I felt helpless when she left, but full of empathy, since I knew how drained and resentful I could feel in some social situations also. In fact, I thought that day, whenever Jessica would come in, it felt like the poet and famed introvert Emily Dickinson was sitting on my shoulder, whispering her famous stanza to both of us: “I’m Nobody! Who are you? / Are you—Nobody—too? / Then there’s a pair of us! / Don’t tell! they’d advertise—you know!”

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Michael Alcée, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and speaker with a background in music, literature, and art. He helps individuals, organizations, and schools make innovative connections to create systemic change.

This blog is excerpted from "'Nobody Knows!'" by Michael Alcée. The full version is available in the November/December 2018 issue, A New Generation of Clients: Is Therapy Keeping Pace?

Check out Networker Senior Writer Lauren Dockett's interview with Michael, where he shares more about his unique approach with introverts!

Photo © Svetikd

Topic: Anxiety/Depression | Children/Adolescents

Tags: 2018 | assertive communication | better communication | communication | feelings | Personality | personality changes | school | schools | TED

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