Sunday, October 09, 2011

Extroverts And Introverts

Back in the 80's, during my years working for the man, the entire office took an afternoon off for a kind of personal development seminar at which we all took the well-known Meyers-Briggs personality test. Afterwards, we discussed the results in small groups. I was the only one in my group not surprised that I fell into the classification of introvert. I remember my assistant manager saying, "This test is crap. You're the most extroverted person I know." 

The pioneering psychologist Carl Jung was the first to popularize the concept of extroversion-introversion during the early 1900's, a notion that has become a centerpiece of just about every personality theory out there. The terms are commonly used as synonyms for "outgoing" and "shy," but that's a misunderstanding of the concept. The basic idea, as I've taught myself to understand it, is that those with the personality trait of extroversion tend to get energy from being with the other people, while introverts tend to get their energy from being alone or with only a few intimates. 

I live with a pair of women who are classic extroverts. They come home from parties, temple, work, and school with bright eyes, chattering, enthusiastic, and in general seeming "all filled up," ready to make phone calls or turn around a do something else. I come home from those same places, places where I talked and laughed and engaged at least as much as they did, but I'm all emptied out: I crave the quiet time to sort through what just happened, to muse, to fantasize, to veg out, to tank up. In other words, I love all of you, but you take it out of me. 

This blog has become one of the places I get filled up. I can't exactly say I enjoy the process of reflection, but I do crave it, nevertheless. I've always done it, of course, even before I became a teacher, going over my day, reveling in things that went well, trying to figure out what I could have done differently when they don't. My extrovert wife, who is quite often my sounding board, used to say, "Stop obsessing," and it would draw me up. Am I obsessive? I don't think so. I think of obsessiveness as a largely destructive trait, one I associate with perfectionism, or a mind that just won't shut off. It's never felt that way to me. I might not always like it, but I really need to mentally process my day. That's what gives me energy.

Some people think of extroversion-introversion as a continuum with the majority of people falling somewhere near the middle (ambiverts). Others, Jung among them, believe that we all possess both traits, with one being dominant, but that there are times when the less dominant side is expressed. 

I'm in the second camp, judging from my own experiences. It's become clear to me, that one of the reasons I am a teacher is that I'm a true extrovert when it comes to spending time with young children. They fill me with energy. I often drag through my early mornings, preparing for the advent of the kids, but once they start arriving it's like a switch is thrown and when our days together come to an end, I find myself wanting them to go on. I often stay too long afterwards, chatting with parents, horsing around with kids, not wanting it to end. And once they're all gone I pass through a period of loneliness which explains why I so often leave the classroom a mess until the following morning -- I just don't want to be there in the quiet building without the children, while in the rest of my life, alone does not equate at all to loneliness.

I've found a few other places in my life where my extrovert side expresses itself, but none so much as my time with the kids. 

We all live with these two sides of ourselves, as do our children. It's important, I think, as adults in the lives of children to make an honest study of them, to understand when and where their introversion and extroversion are expressed. And perhaps more importantly, to recognize that they are not us. The excitement you feel about the lights of the carnival may strike your child as a chore, one that requires summoning up the enthusiasm that comes naturally to you. The peaceful evening at home toward which you looked forward, may loom in your child's mind as grim loneliness, especially after a day of tanking up with the other people.

I often say that school is the place where we practice being together, which is why I don't particularly value having a lot of nooks and crannies where kids can be on their own, at least for extended periods of time. Whether we are gaining energy or spending energy in social circumstances, it's only through experience that we can come to better understand ourselves. While this time might be harder work for the introverted child, the aftermath is often harder work for the extrovert.

Of course, personality is far more involved than this, and although I've not seen any data, I suspect that our fundamental personality type can actual grow and change as we gain experience in life. I know I'm a far different person today than I was 30 years ago when I took the Meyers-Briggs test and I've seen young children over the course of their 3 years at Woodland Park transform themselves, while others are just more sophisticated versions of who they were at 2. 

Personality is not a fixed thing. And all the tests that purport to measure it really are crap because each one of us defies categorization throughout our lives. There is always a danger that terms like "introvert" and "extrovert" become labels to conveniently and inappropriately slap on other people. Still, if we understand that the concepts describe nothing more than a point in time for an individual, they can give us a framework for thinking about personality, especially the personalities of the other people with whom we spend our time each day, including the children in our care. And every tool that helps us reflect on our relationships with others is a good one.

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The Knitty Gritty Homestead said...

Very interesting. I'm also considered an extrovert by those who know me: performing on stage, the life of a party, talkative and expressive...but I crave time alone to think and process and reflect on all that went on in my day. I love your statement that our personalities evolve, and of course, as teachers of small children, we see it in action: the little girl who wouldn't clap or sing along, or even dance last year, now wiggles her hips to "Shake Your Tailfeathers" and smiles a bit...a huge step for her!

CARRIE said...

I am glad to read this.

As a kid, I hated hanging around the house. I always wanted to be out doing, visiting friends---getting my energy from being engaged with others. My parents were both very much happy being home-bodies---getting their energy from being home doing quiet activities.

I'm 38 years, and my parents were not terribly good at explaining themselves as I try to do with my children, so for the longest time I thought there was something truly wrong with me because being stuck at home felt like extreme loneliness.

Now I understand that this is simply how I am, not good or bad. Just me. I hope to instill this knowledge in my children at a much younger age.

Shelley @Little Explorers said...

I feel like I could have written this post! We took the Meyers-Briggs test a year or two ago and I was not the least bit surprised to find I am generally an introvert. However, put me in a group of children, or now early childhood people, I am much more of an extrovert.

Monkey's Mama said...

There is a book I skimmed over back in the baby fog days that was really interesting (and I've been meaning to read it now that my child's personality is fully out there!) - "MotherStyles: Using Personality Type to Discover Your Parenting Strengths" by Janet Penley and Diane Eble

It was interesting to see the strengths and challenges of the different personality pairs, etc. Thanks for the reminder - I'll go put it on my library list now!

Michaele Sommerville said...

LOVE this post Tom- I am another person who is energized, spontaneous and socially inclusive when at work with my kiddos, colleagues and students' families. When I'm home I re-energize (reboot?), and operate quietly, multiple voices and noises of the day reduced to one or two. I work through the household chores on autopilot, tidying up my sanctuary, with most actions routine to the point of being my "white noise." Time with family or hours spent in my crafty nook on the weekends are how I recharge my batteries so I can be my students' teacher for the upcoming week.

All praise to the three day weekend!


Aunt Annie said...

Yes, yes, yes... that's me too. Desperate for my quiet time after a certain amount of social interaction, though I can fuel myself off the kids for an eternity... and finding solace and refuelling time in my blog.

David Armstrong said...

My name is David Armstrong and I am taking EDM 310, a class at the University of South Alabama. I love your post! Most people state that I am extroverted because I love interacting and being around other people, but I am most happy when I am with close friends and family. I value alone time and feel most comfortable when I am around the people closest to me. Thanks for the post. I have never considered personality in this way before!

Scott said...

A great reflective post, Tom. I am definitely on the introvert end of the scale. I do enjoy being with other early childhood teachers, talking and learning. But that kind of experience exhausts me. After doing that, I'll go home and tell my wife that I'm tired because I had to "be social" all day. Maybe that's why my blog seems to lean toward so much reflection. Hmm. Now I need to go and think about that.

Sarah said...

I'm great with my class, but terrible before and after too. I have so much to do, but I can't stand being there by myself. I wander around for hours but get nothing done. I've been beating myself up because I'm so inefficient, but maybe there's another reason. Thanks for the reflection. A new idea for me to think about.

Sarah said...

I'm great with my class, but terrible before and after too. I have so much to do, but I can't stand being there by myself. I wander around for hours but get nothing done. I've been beating myself up because I'm so inefficient, but maybe there's another reason. Thanks for the reflection. A new idea for me to think about.

AK said...

Oh my! Thank you so much for this--you have given me words for something I've been noticing for a long time. I'm like you--being out and about, with people, interacting, what have you, just takes it out of me and when I get back home I need some time to retreat back within myself and regroup. My husband just does NOT understand why when we come home from running errands I need to sit and veg for a while before I'm ready to hop up and get to work again. Now I have words to express it, and something for him to read that might--just might--help him understand bettter.

Mullin Avenue Workshop said...

I enjoyed your post. I have been thinking about this recently. I have tested myself a few times with the Myers Briggs as well, and am one of the more "rare" souls - according to this scale. I am an Intuitive-introvert-feeling-judging type(and I did the test a few times with the same result). It makes me quite an introvert-quiet kind of person, and I do need lots of time alone to recharge. But I too become extremely extroverted with my kids, they allow me to open up, and give of myself, and so I am grateful for them.However, I think my reflective part is always gauging myself, and my children, and thinking about what is behind behavior, which is an important teatcher skill, too.

I just felt I wanted to share here. Thanks for your post!

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