I am one of those moms to whom their children have to give instructions before they walk into a social setting. “Mom, don’t dance in front of my friends.” “Don’t sing in the car, Mom.” “Don’t talk to strangers in the waiting room.” “Don’t ask to take selfies with the cast members.” “Don’t tell the cashews in the underwear story.” I am, apparently, a bit of a wild card. All the things above I, as an extroverted parent, have done in the past. But sometimes my natural extroversion makes my kids misjudge me. When Sophia, my high school senior and I, met with an admissions representative from a potential college, she gave me a list. “Let me shine. Let me ask the questions. And DON’T flirt with the rep.” Okay, the last one? That’s not fair. I would never flirt with the college rep for my daughter’s university. But this, among other things, is one of the misunderstandings about extroverts. We are often accused of flirting, when in truth the light in our eyes is more often true enjoyment in someone's presence and engagement with what they are saying. Even so, because I love my introverted daughter, I toned the engagement way down; it was indeed her time to shine and ask questions, not mine. Likely because our Introverted Loved Ones are often discounted in extroverted American culture, my recent series on ILOs was among the most clicked-on of all my topics in the past. But extroverts aren’t always well understood by their families or friends either– or even by themselves at times. So, as someone who has long identified as extroverted, I’ve decided to write a series on our ELOs as well. The term extrovert was first coined by psychologist Carl Jung, and it is now part of the Big Five Personality Test, and also the Meyers-Briggs personality assessment. The defining characteristic across all definitions of extrovert is someone who is energized by spending time with people, and seeks stimulation outside of themselves. They are often warm, chatty, oral processors, more impulsive than introverts, and likely to have a broad circle of both friends and interests. This is a big brush to paint a large group of individuals, and broad brushes often promote misunderstanding. So, I’d to start this series by reporting on extroverts’ inner lives – yes, we do have them! – and correct common misunderstandings about extroverts. It’s taken me a while to uncover these things in myself, and I hope whether you’re an ILO or an ELO, you will find these enlightening. Extroverts aren’t happier than you. They are just happy to see you. When I was a young mom, I attended and then volunteered in a moms’ group that had about 100 members. After four days of working and tending to my baby daughters at home, often in isolation, I greeted the childcare workers, church leaders and other moms warmly. Many years in, when I shared in my testimony on stage that I had struggled with anxiety and depression for years, most women were shocked. “You’re always smiling when I see you!” they said. “This is my happy place,” I replied. Though extroverts are often struggling internally, their suffering and mental health struggles can often be overlooked by others, who see them at their best – that is, when they can be seen. I wasn’t faking happiness at my church – I genuinely felt happier there. At home, I had as hard a time as any of the other mothers. It was only when my post-partum depression became acute that I didn’t feel better around people, and even came to fear them. Extroverts can become lonely, not just because they tolerate being alone less, but because their dark sides aren’t known, and being known is what drives and energizes them. You see the pickle. In contrast, my introverted husband is one of the most even-tempered people I know. He is quieter in a crowd, but in life, he might actually be happier and healthier than the extroverted leader in your Bible study. And he is often happier than I am, though I will likely be more entertaining at dinner.
Extroverts aren’t necessarily more confident. We just need to draw energy from others. Your ELOs aren’t walking upright into a room with their hand outstretched because they have so much confidence. They are driven to connect with others by the way their brains are wired. Extroverts can get sluggish when they don’t have enough time with people. So, they become adept at connection in order to survive. You don’t see a puppy as very confident, but rather as needy. We are a little like puppies that way. We have figured out ways, from early age, to get the connection we need, often by being charming, funny, people pleasing or – unfortunately, pushy. What we usually aren't is cranky or withdrawn; that won't get us where we need to be. Not all extroverts prefer large, loud gatherings. Though we draw energy superficially from large gatherings, parties, and concerts in the park, we can also get overstimulated. And though we will get a shot in the arm from groups of people, we need deep connection, too. For many of us, our first attempts at friendliness are often sincere desires to make true friends. When I’m at a party or family gathering, I find the quietest corner and settle down with someone I already know to have a deep conversation. Or, in a pinch, to settle down with someone who looks likely to be up for a deep conversation by the time the appetizers have made it around the room. Extroverts have our own kind of social anxiety. Unlike introvert's pre-party social apprehension, many of us extroverts experience social regret post-event. Most extroverts are naturally impulsive when they speak, but we often wish we hadn’t said what we said on the way home. I have driven away from many a Bible study feeling ashamed of something I spoke, worrying if I hurt someone and wondering what they thought of me. When I first starting speaking, I would wake at two in the morning and sit up, sweating, over something I said spontaneously on stage. The need to connect drives us to talk; but what we say often makes us fear we didn’t connect well. One of the growth goals for extroverts, therefore, is to develop more self-control so that our loose tongues don’t sabotage the connection we crave. Extroverts don’t set out to dominate conversations. We just cover silence if we haven’t acknowledged our fear of it. Don’t get me wrong, some of us really love to entertain. I like to tell funny stories, and one of my goals is to be an old lady who people call “a hoot.” But sometimes we come off as controlling or attention-seeking, when really we just don’t like silence. If you’re not talking, we think you don’t like us, because if we like you, we would definitely show it by telling you stories and asking you questions. Being married to an introvert and parenting one introvert and one ambivert (definition to come), I’ve become much more comfortable with silence, learned to ask non-threatening questions so my introverts want to talk, and not project my own issues on their behaviors. Companionship doesn’t have to be talking; it can just be presence. Extroverts are interested in people, not just people’s attention. When we are healthy, we aren’t just puppies who need to be petted. We are truly delighted to see you, get to know you, learn about you, and make friends with you – maybe even just because you are sitting on the bleachers next to us. I really, sincerely love people and I draw energy listening to them, not just talking to them. I also believe in the power of connection, so if there is authentic connection to be had, I’ll facilitate it. Just last week at my daughter’s first track meet of the season, I introduced myself to one of the other track mamas and asked all about her daughter’s history with the sport, as well as what sports her other kids played. If we are going to be on these bleachers together over the next few months and years, we might end up friends! But thankfully, because of all the work I’ve done, I won’t talk this new friend’s ear off, and happily enjoy sitting in silent companionship. Next in the series: How to love your extroverted loved ones well.
How the pandemic challenged extroverts, and how we (hopefully) learned from it.
If you have questions or comments about extroverts, introverts, and how they relate, send me an email! I’d love to do the research and help us all grow.