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Understanding the introverted client

March 1, 2009
by Catherine Wulfensmith, MA, MFT
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Programs can do harm by interpreting introversion as resistance

Introverted behavior and isolation can look deceptively similar in many circumstances. For the 12-Step sponsor or recovery specialist it is critical to sort out exactly what is going on with someone who tends to be alone a lot. Without an understanding of whether the client is introverted and what the behavior is about, the “isolation” label can be wrongly applied and the client can be misunderstood or even lost because of a lack of understanding of his/her needs.

About three-quarters of the population at large fall under the category of extroverts.1,2 This leaves about one-quarter of the population as introverts. If these statistics are true for the general population, we can expect that in any recovery situation we will have approximately the same numbers.

The concepts of introversion and extroversion were first developed by Carl Jung in the 1920s and were refined by Isabel Myers and Katharine C. Briggs. Myers and Briggs took Jung's central ideas and worked them into a continuum that does not pathologize either end of the spectrum. They adopted the perspective that these are normal ranges of orientation and behavior, with most people falling somewhere in between.

Yet with the majority of people falling more toward the extroversion end of the scale, it is easy to see why the extrovert is held up as the norm in our society. And given the sociable characteristics that extroverts exhibit, the introvert is often lost in the crowd, while the extrovert is noticed and given reinforcing attention. This complicates the psychological issues that many introverts manifest.

Most introverts have grown up comparing themselves to extroverts and see themselves at the very least as “different” and at most as “deficient” or even “defective.” Also, more often than not, many have experienced being criticized or shamed because they are not like the norm. This is a crucial point for treatment programs. If we continue to blame introverts for who they are and how they act to preserve their energy, and for doing what they need to do to survive emotionally, how can we expect them to recover from a shame-based identity and stay clean and sober?

Instead, their personal shame will fuel the distorted thinking about themselves and could lead to such overwhelming feelings of doubt or self-hatred that they are catapulted into using their drug or behavior to obliterate their feelings, thus completing the cycle of abuse. It is absolutely essential that we understand introverts and their unique needs as perfectly acceptable, and that we help them work toward healthy, nurturing behaviors and thoughts.

Correcting misconceptions

Unfortunately, there are many myths or misunderstandings about introverts that are perpetuated in our society. It is important to sort through these and to understand what is true and what isn't.

Myth #1: Introverts do not like people.

Introverts like people as much as extroverts do. However, while extroverts are energized by people and external stimulation, introverts are energized by internal stimulation. This translates into different ways of approaching and structuring the world. The extrovert needs people and social interactions to get a sense of energy and well-being. The introvert needs time to experience his/her inner world of ideas, fantasies and emotions. This is what gives the introvert energy. Given this time, the introvert then has the energy and desire to interact with others in meaningful ways.

Myth #2: Introverts are lonely.

Introverts are no lonelier than extroverts are. But the source of loneliness comes from different places. For extroverts, too much time away from people or social interactions creates a sense of loneliness or boredom. For introverts, being in a crowd-especially a crowd of strangers-can create a sense of loneliness. Extroverts seem to do well interacting with many people on a superficial level, while introverts seem to do well interacting with fewer people on a deeper level. These are different ways of fueling a feeling of connectedness.

Myth #3: Introverts don't talk about what is going on for them.

Introverts and extroverts generally have different ways of processing their thoughts. While not strictly divided along the introversion-extroversion spectrum, extroverts tend to be more external processors while introverts tend to be more internal processors. Introverts need to think through what they are feeling and thinking before they talk about it, while extroverts need to start talking about their feelings and thoughts before they figure out what is true for them. Their externalization helps them understand where they stand on something, while introverts need to work it through in their head before they feel comfortable talking about it. Both are on par in terms of the end result, but how they get to that point can be drastically different.

Responses in treatment

Given that there are major differences between the introvert and the extrovert, it is critical that recovery specialists understand these differences and allow for them in healthy ways.

One major way of doing this has to do with energy reserves. All of us need to learn to be aware of our energy reserves and how to fill up when we get depleted. But introverts need to be doubly aware and diligent about this, especially when in a recovery situation. So much of the typical recovery program forces the addict to spend a great majority of the day with other people, with very little room to accommodate the introvert's need for alone time. It seems to be essential in recovery to identify areas and times when being alone, doing some writing or art or other activity, could be built into the program to give introverts time to energize and extroverts time to slow down.