Can we stop treating introversion and extroversion like mental health conditions? Saturday, Feb 25 2017 

Most people are aware of these personality trait distinctions which typically separates people according to their prevalence for time alone (introverted), or time with others (extroverted). Whilst these traits were popularised by psycho-analyst Carl Jung in 1931, they are most widely understood in relation to the Big Five, or Five Factor, Model (1980s). This model asserts that various levels of the five factors when combined together form your personality type. The Five Factors are: openness (to experience), conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (OCEAN).

maxresdefault

But back to introversion and extraversion. Extraversion is defined as preference towards outgoing, talktative, enthusiastic, energetic, assertive, and specifically social, behaviour. Introversion on the other hand is defined as a preference for more solitary and reserved behaviour. Introverts are also considered to prefer to focus on one activity at a time, and become overwhelmed from too much (social) stimulation. The two traits are usually considered as existing on a scale, meaning that being high in one set of traits means you are low in the other. However this is not how Jung, or the Myers-Briggs Indicator understands the traits. They instead argue that everyone has both an extroverted and introverted part of their personality, with one merely being more active – or dominant – than the other. It is also worth noting that Ambiversion (a relative balance between the two extremes) is another recognised personality trait.

However you define or analyse them, these traits (along with the other four from the Big Five) are a very interesting aspect of personality, and human behaviour, studies. They no doubt have their merits within the discipline, and it is obvious that – of all the Big Five traits – everyday people find it easy to identify with one or the other of these two extremes. Many people identify themselves as one or the other, and also recognise these traits in their friends and acquaintances. My problem, however, is that the plethora of articles on a broad range of websites encourages people to treat these personality traits as something very closely akin to mental health issues. This is particularly true of introversion more than extroversion.

A quick Google of “Introversion” gives me the following hits:

Caring for your Introvert – The Atlantic

7 things every clinician should know about Introversion – Social Worker Helper

5 signs your child might be an introvert – Daily Mom

23 Signs You’re Secretly an Introvert – Huffington Post

When Schools overlook Introverts – why quiet time is important for children – The Atlantic

10 reasons why Introverts are Incredibly Attractive People – Lifehack

The Power of Introverts – TED

How to Shine as an Introvert – Activebeat

10 Life Changing Books for Introverts – Book Riot

 

Worse, are the images you often see on articles like this, which wouldn’t be uncommon in articles about depression, bullying or mental health articles:

 

These websites and articles all treat Introversion as if it is a special trait of sensitive people that need help with engaging in society, or need their rights to be solitary recognised by society. The same could be true of extroverts – that they need to be careful of their magnanimity and charisma, or tone down their personality in order to make other people more comfortable. This obsession with identifying, labelling, and associating people distinctly with one of these two traits and then fighting for their recognition and acceptance in society, to me, echoes the ways in which Mental Health issues raise awareness and tolerance throughout the media.

Introversion is NOT the same as Anxiety Disorder, it is not even the same thing as shyness. Shy people find it difficult to be in social situations, many people with Anxiety Disorder develop severe physical and psychological symptoms from being exposed to (among other things) situations in which feel they cannot control, sometimes these are social situations, sometimes they are not. People who tend toward introversion do not need to be molly-coddled or helped into social situations with tips and tricks. There is nothing wrong with them. Similarly extroversion is not the same thing as the manic episodes experienced by people with Bi-Polar Disorder, nor is it Narcissistic Personality Disorder. That is not to say that people with Social Anxiety Disorder do not have introversion traits. I am saying that these traits are NOT the condition.

These people have genuine and often sever problems which they struggle with every single day. To imagine your introversion as existing on anything like the same level as Social Anxiety Disorder does a huge disservice to those people with genuine conditions. Just because you prefer your own company and find social gatherings taxing, exhausting, or boring does not mean you have Anxiety Disorder or Depression. A personality TRAIT is not the same thing as a MENTAL HEALTH DISORDER. So can we please stop treating introversion (and extroversion) as conditions that need our understanding or sympathy, and start treating them as what they are: theoretical personality traits which help psychologists identify people along a spectrum along with four other equally important measures when studying human behaviour.

Crucible* Thursday, Oct 13 2016 

It is as easy to list the events that occurred in my life during 2015, as it is impossible to truly explain what the year has meant for me.

A handful of days following a very merry new year my partner left me for a younger woman he’d been sleeping with for several months without my knowledge. I suffered. Recovered. I spent meaningful and exciting time with friends. I lost 3 stone. I fought hard and passionately for a stronger body and was swiftly rewarded. I quit smoking. Delivered conference papers in Scotland, London, and Birmingham. Got a tattoo. I met my beautiful new baby niece. Gave blood. Finished a year of therapy. I completed my Masters, writing a thesis in barely 2 months. I met a man unlike any I’d known before, who ‘slipped into my pocket with my car keys’, surprising me with his genuineness and gentility. A man who is my mirror inasmuch as we share deep similarities, and yet he is my true opposite in the best of ways. I finally began my PhD. Invented a convoluted and exciting plot for my novels during moving and exhilarating encounters with the muses. Redecorated my bedroom. I reignited my passion for motorbikes and summer adventures. Adopted a rabbit. I met, and lost, new and interesting people. I bought rugby and gig tickets for the first time. I lived what can honestly be described as a relatively normal year for me, within the broader tapestry of my life. Yet, in all these things, during these twelve long months, I changed. Something shifted in me, something intangible and inexplicable happened to me. Something so intensely profound that it has caused me to pause and reappraise almost everything I know. Something I so want to share with you, but I fear that I lack the words. I can only describe it alchemically, only explain in symbolically, I can only call it a ‘crucible’, a ‘Renaissance of life’. But the words cannot fully convey the majesty.

Whilst what I am about to describe to you is deeply personal, I feel compelled to share it simply because I believe that the reading of my transformative experience will give some of you hope, others insight, and still others comfort. Whilst I as yet do not understand why this has happened to me, or how many amongst you have shared this experience before, I do know in my heart that this is the most profound thing that will ever happen to me. And I hope that it may happen to you too. Especially those of you who have experienced traumatic, troubling, or tempestuous times. I feel that my enlightenment is proof that decades of depression and the deepest of darkness can, and will, lift from you when you least expect it to. I do not accept that I am the only person to have experienced this liberty, and I want you to know of it’s joy and it’s transcendency so that even in your deepest despair you can hope for a greater tomorrow.

Some of you may have already discovered the key to quitting bad habits. Smoking, drinking, weight gain, OCD’s. The key is very simple, and infinitely difficult. They key is to choose no. To choose not to let that habit be part of your life any more. A powerful, candid, declaration to the self is in my opinion the only real way to stop once and for all. But when you make this decision, and mean it to your very core, it does more than stop your craving for a cigarette, or a dependency on the numbing riposte of alcohol. It rewires your brain. It makes the very idea of something you once relied so heavily upon, abhorrent to you. Once you have decided no. Once you have relinquished the power something has over you, it releases you. For those of you who understand the power of ‘no’, I would like you to imagine the ramifications of what happens when you say ‘no’ to a lifetime mentality. When you turn your back on instinctive Stygian reactions to the hardships life throws your way. When you say ‘no’ to automatic victimization. When the very fundamentals of the only mental cortex you have ever known are drastically rewired, the fallout is monumental.

For me, this happened when I was delivered from an emotionally abusive, tumultuous, and unnecessarily dramatic three year relationship with a man I thought I would be with for ever, but while he never loved me, could not stand the thought of not owning me. Though friends and strangers tried to point out the horror I was putting myself through, just like an addiction to nicotine, I could not see the damage I was allowing myself to suffer. In hindsight, even had I wanted to break free, he would never have allowed it – considering that after leaving me the first time, he repeatedly broke into my house and tracked my phone to check on where I was. Even had I said ‘no’, even had I broken free of my feelings for him, I would never have been free from his feelings for me. Feelings which he would have pursued, relentlessly. Yet I cannot hate him, for the greatest gift this man ever gave me was walking away from me. The best thing that ever happened to us was for him to fall in love with someone else. If I could thank him for that, I would. Most sincerely. On it’s own, this emancipation was not enough of a paradigm shift to rewire my brain, but it was the start. It happened while I was in therapy, something I began after a psychiatric break. Something I never believed had the power to fix me, or cure me of my past. Surely no amount of talking can change your history, no matter how qualified the therapist. I am who I am because of my past, I thought, and that will never change.

I was right, of course, no amount of talking can transport you into your past and alter events. No one has the power to reach back and revise the course of your life, to stop people hurting you, to save you from your self. But what even a small amount of talking can do, is redesign how you let your past affect you now. It is not about understanding why something happened, or seeing it from someone else’s viewpoint, or processing something you have suppressed – as if the cure for psychological trauma is sunlight. It is about saying ‘no’. It is about looking at yourself, about ‘knowing thyself’, and not doing so with an automatic arrogance of rightness which stems from our deepest sense of self-protection, but with humility and culpability. Many of us who do practice our own psychoanalysis, or compulsively self-reflect do so from the perspective of unconscious self-defence, even when we are prone to guilt or self-victimisation. By this I mean that in my experience many people who struggle with depression, self-loathing, or chronic guilt are by nature extremely aware of their psyche and their history – and how the two have interacted throughout their life.  Yet while they may blame themselves for their experiences or mental state, a part of them also blames others. The mindset; ‘he sexually assaulted me because I was too weak’ or ‘because I asked for it’ while self-negating, also simultaneously blames another for the actual experience. It was ultimately his act which caused the damage, regardless of whether you blame yourself or not. ‘My parents wanted too much of me and I was too ashamed to say I couldn’t cope’, ‘people ignore me because I am not worthy of love’. These feelings blame both the self, and yet focus on the other. For many people with difficult lives, even if they ultimately blame themselves, other people are blamed as well. However much they may hate themselves, their situation is to some extent someone else’s fault. This subconscious admission compounds feelings of victimisation, of physical, emotional, moral, spiritual, and psychological weakness. Now, I believed that the point of psychotherapy was to analyse these feelings, to draw out their historical origins, and to process them in order to somehow let them go. But this is not what therapy did for me.

Though it was never verbally admitted or consciously explored, therapy encouraged me not to seek blame, or culpability, not to process my experiences, or somehow engage with them. It led me to look at myself from the outside. To see myself objectively for the first time, to let go of instinctual self-preservation and reflect honestly on how I felt about my life, my interactions and experiences with others, and ultimately to confront the elusive veil of self-interest which is weaved of the lies we tell ourselves every day. This veil of self-preservation, for many who wrestle with negative mental health, forms the patterns of our cerebral reactions. Our history hard-wires our brains to react in certain ways, with guilt for example, or shame, or weakness, causing a cycle of negative mental hygiene which in turn promotes more negative experiences. Not because the experiences themselves are inherently harmful – but because our perception of them is damaged. Each time something unexpected occurs, its ramifications are blown out of proportion by a brain hard-wired to expect disaster – even when the unexpected is manageable, or fixable the brain chooses to magnify the problems and spiral into victimisation.

This is a habit.

We choose to experience our lives negatively. Yes, this happens because a lot of negativity in the past forged this response. I am in no way denying the magnitude of torment some people truly endure. But perceiving future experiences as threats is a choice. In the same way that certain circumstances led you to smoke, and to rely on smoking, other circumstances led you to respond to unsettling experiences with guilt, shame, and vulnerability. By the same token, in the same way that you can deny your addictions and habits with a resounding ‘no’, I discovered that you can do the same for our unhealthy perceptions. On its own I don’t imagine that this is news to many people. Maybe this is the point of talking therapy and CBT. Maybe the true ability to do this is not something that can be taught or explained. But I have to tell you that it is real, it can happen to you, no matter what you have suffered, you can choose ‘no’ if you can embrace a humble self-awareness and burn away the veil of self-preservation which leads your mind to lie to you.

I want to tell you how this has changed me. I want to try and explain how going through this crucible, this surrendering of ego, even an ego you didn’t think you had, can create a new life for you. What I have to say is an amalgam of all cliches concerning enlightenment, it truly is as if a cloud has been lifted from your soul. As if you never really understood how the world works. It lets you see, and feel, people around you – people you have known all your life – for the first time. It lets you love yourself and others. It is not about forgiving – because there is no longer any blame. It is not about forgetting – because there is no longer any guilt to forget. There is only the truest sense of you. While I do not claim there will be no more hardship or struggles, I know absolutely that they will never be as destructive as they were before. Because you are stronger. People may already call you strong, or brave, for surviving the experiences of your past, but this is a different strength entirely. This is a strength born of humility and understanding, not a hardy resilience to suffering. This is a strength which truly liberates.

Let me explain some of the things I have learnt about this strength in the past two months. I recently experienced a major career-based shock which ordinarily would have led to a spiral of self-doubt and depression which would have had me crying, distressed for weeks, possibly self-harming, and contemplating suicide. But this time? I didn’t even cry. This time, I said ‘no’ to my typical cerebral response. I denied its presence entirely. The result of this? I was present and clear-minded enough to seek advice and resolution, and in doing so I received some of the sincerest and most moving compliments I have ever heard. In the crowd of life events this is now a typical thing for me, so much so that I didn’t even see the web of silver linings that was forming all around me until I caught myself smiling in the face of my chronic illness. When I was set back physically, for the first time I didn’t focus on the present pain, but waited impatiently for the trough to be over. For the past thirteen years I have hit my physical limitations with melancholy, hopelessness, and impotence. Now, I take it in my stride.

The last realisation I would like to share with you concerns my love for my family and friends. I was raised to believe strongly in compassion, self-sacrifice, and love. In my life I held to these bedrocks to the detriment of my mental and emotional health. I fell into an emotionally abusive relationship because I gave too much of myself to others. I resented those I loved because my love for them felt forced, not optional, but a symptom of my guilt. I drained compassion for myself and poured it into others. Giving so much of myself that there was no love left for me. I not only hated myself, but could not accept love from others. So while the end result, niceness to others, was positive, the means – emotional and mental self-harm – were extremely damaging. Now I am stronger, psychologically more resilient,yet  it has not made me colder or more self-interested. Instead it has given me a well of compassion, filled with a genuineness that astounds me, for the first time since I can remember I feel tear-wrenching, stomach churning love for my siblings and nieces. Instead of accepting them as mere collateral from birth, I see them as individual, strong, and loving people. People I want to get to know, people I genuinely love.

I never used to think it was possible to have the energy to love others with such richness, without balancing the deficit within myself. Now I find double the passion and more, for others, for my life, and for my future. Emerging from my crucible is not just the end of 12 years of depression, it is not just the lifting of a cloud, or a gift of insight. It is a purification of the soul, a new life, and the strongest foundation of a new beginning.

*This blog post has been moved from womeninecstasy.wordpress where it was published in 2016