The Myers-Briggs personality indicator is widely used in the business world, and is also helpful in personal and work relationships, as we learn to understand other people. If you have not heard of this before, there is a broad outline in my article Understanding Personality Types. Unfortunately, any general outline tends to lead to stereotypes. So this article will examine just one of the pairs of preferences in more depth.
Introvert or Extravert?
The function usually listed first is related to how we deal with the world: each person can be described as either Introvert or Extravert. These terms, as used in everyday conversation, tend to imply either hermits or wild socialites respectively, but in Myers Briggs terms they are merely descriptions of how we are most comfortable. Do you like best to be with a few close friends, rather than a large group, and need time alone to recharge after a busy day (Introvert), or do you love to be with lots of people, needing to spend time with other people in order to recharge when stressed (Extravert)? Are you most energised by spending time by yourself (Introvert), or are you most energised by others (Extravert)?
The stereotyping comes when we imagine that the two functions are opposing extremes, whereas reality is that verybody needs some time by themselves, particularly if they are in a busy job with lots of social contact, and everybody needs some time with other people. There are also those who for various reasons find it hard to deal with change, and noise, and bright lights, and who may need time in a peaceful, darkened room to recharge, making them seem more introverted than they necessarily are. And there are those who seem well-balanced, able to socialise and also to enjoy their own company.
However most people, if they think about it – and perhaps take one of the relevant tests – feel most comfortable, most of the time, as either an Introvert or Extravert. Some theorists suggest that Introvert brains are wired differently from Extravert brains; we certainly can’t change who we are in this respect, and are all valuable in society.
It’s important when looking at careers to consider our preferences, and how much time we can spend with others before we become uncomfortable. A busy open-plan office or a noisy classroom may be ideal for an Extravert, but draining for an Introvert. On the other hand while an Introvert can work well in an office by himself, an Extravert could quickly become frustrated and tired if he has to spend several hours without other people. If your career does not suit your personality preferences, you will need to spend extra time outside work hours ensuring that you keep a balance.
Understanding the differing needs of Introverts and Extraverts is very important in any relationship. An Extravert may crave company all weekend, whereas his Introverted spouse will need time alone. If either one insists on their preference the whole time, it will cause stress. Being aware of our loved ones’ needs means that we can accept them, and encourage them to have time to fulfil them. An Extraverted spouse may need to join groups at evenings or weekends, or go out with friends, while the Introverted spouse spends time alone reading. Each will recharge, and then be able to give more to the relationship when they are together.
When our sons were at school, one of them – a strong Introvert – needed time on his own in his room as soon as he got home, and the other – a strong Extravert – wanted to play with his brother. Squabbles ensued for many weeks until I realised what the problem was. So we compromised: the Introvert had an hour to himself to read and recharge on his own, while I spent time with the Extravert, perhaps cooking together or reading or playing a game. Then, later on, they could play together and both would be happy.
Not all clashes of personality are solved as easily as this, and we realise now that our Introverted son, much as he enjoyed school, did find it draining. When he started being educated at home he blossomed and gained in confidence, partly because he had all the time alone that he wants, and so could enjoy, far more, the various activities he did with other people. Our Extraverted son found it quite difficult to start with, but he made friends easily and was able to find a good balance of friends and time with just the family.
Introverted and Extraverted functions
One of the reasons why some people seem to be a mixture of Introversion and Extraversion is that, according to Myers-Briggs theory, there are also two different ways of learning – abstract or concrete – and two different ways of making decisions: feeling or thinking. We each have a preference for one of each, and we also prefer to use one in an inward. or Introverted fashion, while the other is used outwardly, in an Extraverted fashion. An Extravert’s dominant, or best-used function will be outward, while an Introvert’s dominant function will be inward. But the Extravert will then have an auxiliary, second function which is Introverted, and an Introvert will have an auxiliary function which is Extraverted.
Confusing? Yes. It took me years to understand this, and to see how it worked for me, let alone for anyone else. But it does make sense. My main function is ‘Introverted iNtuition’ – meaning, in a nutshell, that I daydream, and imagine things, and grasp concepts when I’m on my own, and am not very interested in the concrete details of life. My secondary function is Extraverted Feeling, meaning, in brief, that I tend to do things for the comfort of a group, and feel happy when others around me are contented. If I’ve had plenty of time to myself and am in a familiar group, I may come across as fairly outgoing because I’m using my secondary, Extraverted function. I can’t do it for long periods without feeling drained, but it serves me well when needed.
It’s important to note that while our root preferences stay the same throughout our lives, they can be affected by circumstances. A traumatic childhood can make any child squash his innate preferences and learn to adapt to what he thinks his parents want, in the hope of pleasing them.
A shy child in an extraverted culture such as much of the USA may feel ridiculed, and put on a mask of extraversion, while hurting inside. An outgoing child in a more introverted culture may be criticised for being precocious or too noisy, and equally develop a protective shell. It can take years to recover from being forced to live outside one’s preferences.
It’s also observed that the focus changes at different life stages. At around the age of 11 or 12, a child who has been strongly extraverted will start to develop an introverted side, perhaps reading a great deal, or spending time writing or painting, focusing on his imagination and no longer wanting to talk. That’s because the childhood years are used developing the dominant preference, while the teenage years are much more focussed on the auxiliary.
On the other hand, an Extraverted child who becomes silent as a teenager can seem as if he is sulking. If parents have been used to a bright, cheerful child who tells them everything, they may even think that the child is rebelling in some way. But it’s quite possible that he is merely satisfying his needs to grow up and mature, and develop an Introverted preference for a while.
Equally, an introverted child at similar age will start to explore an extraverted function. He may suddenly start wanting to spend time talking or arguing, or to study drama or play in a band. This too can be difficult for parents, used to a quiet complaisant child, who suddenly seems demanding or argumentative. But if we understand that this is a natural change, made all the more dramatic because it happens around the time that puberty hormones are wreaking havoc, we will be able to stand back and give the acceptance our child needs.
Further reading on this site:
Understanding personality types
Are all teenagers horrible?
Further reading on other sites:
Type Talk: The 16 Personality Types by Otto Kroeger and Janet Thuesen
Please Understand Me by David Keirsey
An Introduction to Interaction Styles by Linda Berens (only available in the USA)
The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World by Martin Olsen Lany