Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Book Review: The Introvert Advantage

I saw this on a friend's bookshelf a few weeks ago and decided that the title was too intriguing not to buy: The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World was worth reading for providing a little more self-awareness. According to Marti Olsen Laney, Psy.D., the most basic determinant between whether you're "at heart" one or the other seems to be how you expend and derive social energy. If being among crowds of people energizes you and leaves you wanting more, you're most likely an extrovert; if being in said crowd fills you with discomfort and you'd rather recharge by staying at home with a good book, you're most likely an introvert.

I've balanced on the border between introversion and extroversion since childhood. Hardly a shrinking violet, I've been in theater, worked in customer service jobs in retail and at Walt Disney World, and taken on public speaking and leadership roles that are more characteristic of extroverts than introverts. But there's usually a cost. I started noticing this particularly after a year or two at a hotel front desk: I could do the job, but it was starting to make me miserable. I'd get off work and have little to no energy to socialize or even be friendly with my friends and coworkers. I continue to remain single and haven't had so much as a roommate since I could afford to live on my own.

Some of this isn't just me being ornery. According to the author, there are biological and psychological reasons behind the introverted temperament, from the predominant chemicals in our brains (acetycholine) to the physical pathways thoughts and memories are stored, which differ from extroverts. Laney is quick to point out that this is not bad, just different. In general, though, the important things to know about introverts are simply that they spend most of their time in their own heads and less time in the physical world. While extroverts are more excited by and interested in the inputs of their five senses, introverts are paying more attention to how the inputs from those senses are affecting them and making them feel.

Another useful insight for me was Laney's discussion of how introverts come by and cope with stress. Extroverts can get stressed out by lack of inputs from others. For instance, I recall a friend at Disney who nearly freaked out when she came into the break room and found that I had turned off the TV so I could read a book in peace. On the other hand, I had turned off the abominable contraption because there was too much noise in the room. I was behaving like a typical introvert, as we tend to reduce the amount of sensory input we get so we can focus on the essentials of whatever's in front of us--in my case, the book I was reading.

This is not to say that biology is destiny or that introverts should always revel in their uniqueness (according to Laney, we're only 25% of the population). The author offers both supportive words but also advice to the introvert reader on issues ranging from work to dating to parenting. She reminds introverts that, while we have unique gifts of insight and concentration, we also need to stretch our extrovert muscles occasionally. For example, it surprised me not at all to note that I'd had nearly all of the challenges she listed for introverts dating extroverts. She also offered insights on why I might be more attracted to extroverts and what strategies the "innie" might use to account for the challenges.

I am mailing this book to my mother, who is much more introverted, quiet, and private than I am. I believe she'll find it worthwhile. I'm also thinking my sister--who's about as extroverted a person as I've ever met--might benefit from reading this book, as I've noticed that her kids are a bit less "E" than she is. In any case, Laney's book is worth reading to help introverts understand how and why they think the way they do, and to help extroverts get a better sense of why the "innies" in their lives occasionally just want to be left the hell alone.

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