Life

How to live most happily if you are both an introvert and an extrovert

If 2020 has had you yearning for both contact and space – don't worry. We are allowed to feel both, writes Abi Jackson

Introversion is, basically, gaining energy from time alone and losing energy from too much time with others

DID lockdown make you want to carve out more solitude and space in your life – or was it socialising and contact you craved? Perhaps, for most of us, it was a bit of both.

Doing lockdown solo, there were points where my inner extrovert was clawing the walls. There were also days where my inner introvert basked in all that blissful time to myself. Meanwhile, friends tackling lockdown with a full house were pushed to the brink of despair being cooped up 24/7 with partners, family and kids – and at other times felt deep gratitude for their cosy clan.

Experiencing both sides of the coin is completely normal, and one doesn’t cancel out the other. Flitting from one end of the introvert-extrovert scale to the other doesn’t reduce our appreciation for family and friends, or the importance of needing space for ourselves.

These things can co-exist – but it’s down to us to let them, and could doing more of that help us live more authentically and find our flow?

:: Introvert vs extrovert: A sliding scale

The concept of extroversion (gaining energy from time with others and losing energy from too much time alone – to summarise it simply) and introversion (gaining energy from time alone and losing energy from too much time with others) was never intended to be an either/or scenario. But in a world obsessed with boxes and labels, we’ve all grown up with the idea that people are either extrovert or introvert, and these things can only look a certain way.

Like most things though, it’s a spectrum – and our position on that spectrum doesn’t have to be fixed, or necessarily look the same from person to person. It might not even look the same for us individually all of the time – sometimes you might be the life and soul of the party, other times you might be happiest with a chilled coffee catch-up or an afternoon with your books.

“The whole idea of people being one or the other – introvert or extrovert – is a bit of a throwback to what we might call the classical days of psychology back in the 60s, when personality theory was developing,” says psychology professor Craig Jackson, from Birmingham City University.

“It kind of reminds us of the psychology that was being peddled then, and is still influential now, this false opposition that you must be one or the other – and that’s not the true experience of the vast majority of people. Like most people you know, there’ll be bits of extroversion – get someone in the right setting, for example. Then put them in a library and they wouldn’t say boo to a goose.

“We are all a mix,” Jackson adds. “There may be a few people at the extremes, but most people will be somewhere in the middle with a healthy mix.”

Personality tests have since evolved, Jackson acknowledges, and now “don’t try and place us as one entity” but allow for a more multi-faceted picture. But as fun and fascinating as those tests can be, it’s how we feel that matters, and whether we’re making choices that are a good fit for us.

:: Why am I saying yes to this?

This might sound very simple but it’s all too easy to be swept along with ‘norms’ and expectations. Honouring our true needs can actually be quite tricky – especially when you throw external pressures and guilt into the mix.

Senior therapist Sally Baker (workingonthebody.com) agrees many of us fall into the “people-pleasing” trap. Saying yes to things, or doing things a certain way, can become a habit – and “sometimes they’re habits we’ve had for a lifetime, especially as women who, when you’re growing up you’re rewarded for being compliant every time you agree to do something you don’t want to do”, she notes.

Breaking these cycles takes effort – and often we’ll need to work through some deeply rooted urges to make choices that gain the most approval from others, or alleviate feeling ‘selfish’ when we put ourselves first.

But living in people-pleasing mode can lead to “all sorts of problems – because it manifests, all that resentment, especially when you don’t have a strong no,” says Baker, who believes this can take its toll psychologically and physically, as we store that tension and negativity in our bodies. “We need to be much clearer with our no and only say yes to things we authentically want to do,” she says.

:: But what is it I really want?

What if you’re not sure what ‘authentic’ means for you though, or whether you really want to scrap certain things and make changes in how you’re using your time? You might not know even what those changes could be.

“For some people, lockdown might have been a good opportunity to distance themselves from people they’re not actually that fond of making the effort to see, whether that’s tenuous friendships or even distant relatives you can’t stand,” says Jackson. “I think many people have used lockdown to pick and choose a bit and get clearer on what they actually need.”

He suggests looking at how you chose to exercise when lockdown restrictions were at their strictest too – did you take up running just so you could get out of the house for fresh air and space? Did you find yourself yearning for the buzz of a busy gym class? What might these things be telling you about what you need to feel recharged and energised?

Baker has a specific exercise she uses with clients for this very purpose, called ‘Perfect Day’. “I get people to create their perfect day, what that would absolutely look like in as much detail as they can conjure, to make it as compelling and as wonderful as it is,” she explains. “It starts with where they wake up in the morning, what that looks like, where that is. Some people’s perfect day starts with maybe a camper – and the doors open on to the beach. Others wake up in a boutique hotel with Egyptian cotton sheets.

“It really gets people to look at what their perfect day would look like, and the emotions and feelings around all of that, and who they are with. Some people might choose to have all their mates with them in a park or at a barbecue or something, or they might just be seeing their one best friend – and this can make them realise they might not want to be in situations any more that don’t bring them value.

“It’s not really about what you do,” she adds, “but how you feel when you’re doing it.”

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