The secret life of an introvert


The secret life of an introvert

Homebody. Solitary. Socially awkward. Shy. Introverted. Reclusive. Fearful of people. Hermit. Human shield. No, says ANNELIESE BURGESS, introverts are just wired differently. Too many people at once drain us, and we quite enjoy our own company. Silence, seclusion, and solitude are our life force.


THE editorial WhatsApp buzzes as I suggest writing something about introverts.

“You'd better not say a bad word about introverts," Max jokes.

“Oliver Sacks believed shyness is a disease," says Annelize.

“But that's precisely the thing," I say. “Introverts enjoy human interaction, they just don't like small talk and large groups of strangers."

“Yes, as a child they always said I was grumpy or sullen," someone explains. “My parents always thought I was shy and introverted, but I was actually just bored," another says.

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Everyone has a story. “My confession is that I get so anxious at social events with strangers that I always drink a lot of wine, then I become the jester who invites random strangers on vacation," one person half-jokingly adds. “The worst part is that you have to stay in that flamboyant persona, otherwise they'll find out how boring you are."

“I also have to drink wine to cope, but it doesn't make me happier," someone responds.

“They say introverts look at their feet when they talk to you, while extroverts look at YOUR feet when they talk to you," Willem interjects with his characteristic dry humour.

The enthusiasm of the conversation convinces me this is a topic our readers will also be interested in, and Susan Cain, author of the New York Times bestseller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, estimates that one in three people is introverted.

(And on the question of whether it's really possible for so many people in our group to be introverts, I later discover that many introverts say they express themselves better in writing than verbally, and that they are drawn to solitary activities such as reading and writing.) But perhaps it's not quite that simple, because the theories about personality types are complex.

Let's start at the beginning.

Listen rather than speak

What is an introvert not?

Introverts do not hate people. Introverts are not socially maladjusted. And introverts are not necessarily shy or socially anxious. Like all human beings, introverts need human interaction, but they feel more comfortable with a specific type of interaction: smaller groups, especially one-on-one; small talk and chitchat are not their thing.

Cain puts it this way: “They are the ones who prefer to listen rather than speak; who are creative and innovative but shy away from self-promotion; and they prefer to work on their own rather than in teams."

It's about how individuals channel their energy. One hundred years ago, Carl Jung suggested that the most significant difference between personalities is the origin and direction of an individual's psychic energy. And this idea also forms the basis of other prominent theories about personalities that have subsequently developed, such as the Big Five and the four personality domains encompassed in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI).

One thing that is clear is that the extremes of introversion and extroversion lie on a continuum, and individuals tend to lean towards one or the other. Thus, there can be a multitude of permutations depending on where an individual falls on that spectrum.

Is it a brain thing?

On Introvert, Dear, a “website for introverts," reference is made to a book by Dr Marti Olsen Laney, The Introvert Advantage: How Quiet People Can Thrive in an Extrovert World. Laney says the difference between introverts and extroverts lies in the brain and revolves around two powerful chemicals, dopamine and acetylcholine, which influence human behaviour.

Dopamine is responsible for the sharp sense of happiness when we act quickly, take risks and pursue new things. Acetylcholine, on the other hand, provides us with a different, more subtle kind of reward: it makes us feel relaxed, alert and content.


According to Laney, one of the explanations for introversion versus extroversion is that extroverts are less sensitive to dopamine and therefore need more of it to feel happy. The more they talk, move and socialise, the more they experience the pleasurable effect of dopamine.

Introverts, on the other hand, are easily overstimulated by dopamine, and they feel good when they read, concentrate, and engage their minds in some way because then the brain releases acetylcholine — a subtle happiness stamp that extroverts may not even feel.

This, the article says, would explain why extroverts enjoy new and exciting situations (such as social events), while introverts  prefer to stay at home and read a book or engage in more intimate socialising with another person.

This article refers to the amygdala, the “emotional switchboard" of the brain that is responsible for the fight-or-flight response, and which, according to the writer, is more sensitively wired in introverts. “While a noisy nightclub will give an extrovert the desired dopamine boost, an introvert's amygdala will overheat."

Social hangover

Not all introverts are the same; it depends where they fall on the spectrum. But one thing they have in common is that intense social interaction, especially in circumstances involving many people, exhausts them.

Some may recharge their social batteries relatively quickly, while others may want to be alone for longer periods to regain their equilibrium.

Cain talks about an “introvert hangover", the feeling of exhaustion or being overwhelmed that introverts experience after excessive stimulation or too much time with too many people. The way you recover from that hangover varies from person to person but it usually involves some form of silence, withdrawal and solitude.


One of the big myths about introverts is that they are necessarily shy or timid. Cain uses the example of Bill Gates on her blog at Psychology Today: “He is an introvert, but not shy. He is quiet and a bookworm but doesn't care what people think of him."

Sophia Dembling, author of The Introvert's Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World, says: “The biggest misconception about introversion is that it's about shyness. The best distinction I've ever heard comes from a neurologist who says shyness is a kind of behaviour — it's being self-conscious and anxious in a social situation. Introversion is about motivation. It's about how much [motivation] you want and need to be in that social interaction."

A place for everyone

Cain says we live in a culture that is biased against introverts. “Instead of embracing the serious, quiet and reflective style of introverts, they are encouraged to be like extroverts; those self-assured, outgoing types who enjoy teamwork, brainstorming, networking and thinking aloud." This, she says, leads to a tremendous loss of talent, energy and happiness.

This article puts it this way: “Regardless of where you fall on the extroversion spectrum, there is no better or worse personality type. If we all work to understand our own motivations and energy, we will also understand the motivations and energy of people around us."

I couldn't agree more. The extroverts can do the partying and the socialising and the networking drinks. And the conferences. Someone has to. And they get a dopamine kick out of it, so it's not painful for them.

But can I then stay at home and drink wine on my porch with my best friend? Or read my book? And occasionally stay alone in a cottage in the Karoo for a week to think? Or in a cabin in the mountains to write in silence? I need that for my acetylcholine.

It's a win-win situation for all of us on the continuum.

♦ VWB ♦

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