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Treating the recovering introvert

July 10, 2013
by Brian Duffy, LMHC, LADC-I
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This is not a book report, but it’s going to begin like one. The book is QUIET (The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking), by Susan Cain.

The author sheds light on how difficult life can be for the approximately 30% of us who would be described as introverts—people who prefer a quieter, more reflective lifestyle. Extroverts, of course, are those who are more naturally outgoing and talkative.

Unfortunately, society applauds and rewards the extrovert based on an assumption that he/she is smarter and has better ideas. The business world values and promotes the charismatic, table-pounding presenter. Extroverts seem to move effortlessly in any social situation.

Introverts, however, often suffer for years, feeling, “I don’t fit in. Nobody seems to know I’m here. I speak, but no one listens.”

So what does an addiction professional do when faced with a client in early recovery who happens to be an introvert? Can we really expect that person to walk into a room full of strangers (an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, for example) and introduce himself to people with a smile and a handshake? That’s a lot to ask of any person, particularly one with some degree of social anxiety.

Many people trying to get sober will shy away from 12-Step recovery programs, stubbornly adhering to the idea of self-sufficiency. Often, we hear clients say:

  • I’m not a joiner.
  • It’s too much like religion.
  • Hearing those stories makes me want to drink.
  • I’ll use my willpower to stay sober.
  • I wasn’t as bad as those people.
  • I could never speak publicly about my personal stuff.
  • I’m too young (or old).
  • I’ll go when the cravings come back.
  • It doesn’t work. I see people relapsing all the time.
  • The meetings in this town are lousy.

One of the real reasons for resistance, however, could be social anxiety, fueled by the person’s basic (introverted) personality. Working with “loners,” I’ve had to be a patient therapist, moving ever so slowly as we: 1) examine the importance of socialization in achieving and maintaining sobriety; and 2) explore ways to overcome anxiety in social situations.


The therapeutic relationship

So, how do clients replace old, unhealthy relationships with new, sober friends? How do they learn to have sober fun? For many, this poses a major impediment to staying sober.

The therapeutic relationship offers a good place to start. Addiction counselors are in an ideal position to praise clients for their accomplishments (there’s always something praiseworthy), to show genuine interest in their opinions, to demonstrate how effortless “small talk” can be.

Your client may have very little confidence that he can mingle with strangers and actually find enjoyment in such a situation. Your time with him can demonstrate that it’s possible for two sober people to sit for an hour and find things to chat about, from sports to politics to music. Remember, though: Your value system, political views and musical tastes must be de-emphasized. This is, after all, about the client.

Another opportunity lies in exploring your client’s past, looking for times when she enjoyed some rewarding social activity. Pointing to those successful interactions can help to fortify her probably fragile self-esteem.


Changing the introvert’s thinking

Helping a person to change how he thinks is achievable, but it takes practice. Most people facing their addiction for the first time will challenge the concept of complete abstinence (“You mean I can never take a drink, for the rest of my life?”). This will lead to a discussion of approaching recovery one day at a time. It’s just a new way to view the problem.

Some people tend to “catastrophize” situations (“This is awful! I’ll never get my family back. My career is ruined”). But the “This too shall pass” message can be reinforced in therapy and at recovery meetings, encouraging clients to be more hopeful about the future.

Many introverts relied upon alcohol to “improve” their social skills. They now fear social performance will suffer further without booze. Therapists can undo this perception by revisiting past successes and encouraging a new, improved sense of self. The bottom line is that addiction professionals can play an important role in helping our introverted clients to replace negative self-talk with more optimistic points of view.

But these cognitive restructurings alone usually are not enough to keep people sober. That’s why we must move to discussing behaviors, and the importance of taking action.


Changing the introvert’s behavior

I found the following paragraph recently, but don’t know its author. It speaks volumes about the importance of associating (socializing or working) with the right people.


The Company You Keep

Tell me who your friends are, and I will tell you who you are. If you run with wolves, you will learn how to howl. But, if you associate with eagles, you will learn how to soar to great heights. A mirror reflects a man’s face, but what he is really like is shown by the kind of friends he chooses. The simple but true fact of life is that you become like those with whom you closely associate—for the good and the bad.


People in recovery must say goodbye to the old friends who still use mind-altering substances. This is no small task. Often, those friends include family members. The situation is exacerbated by “friends” who claim to support your client’s new sober lifestyle, but who secretly or unconsciously wish for your client to relapse.




I just wanted to mention that from the true meaning of "introvert" (referring to the work of Carl Jung), an introvert describes how a person gets his/her energy or recharges. Introverts prefer to do this by withdrawing from people for a period of time. All introverts do not necessarily have social anxiety, and conversely there are extroverts that have considerable social anxiety. Just had to put this out there. Thank you!