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Am I Really an Introvert? Balancing Nature with Nurture and Finding Contentment

goofy guy with white sweater

I’ve questioned my introvert status for the last year. I’ve done a lot of research on attachment styles and their influence on our behavior and emotions lately. It was starting to look like my need for space and solitude was more a result of my early relationships with my parents and my later relationships with partners. A month ago, a friend even told me he didn’t think I was an introvert, just a creative type who needed time for deep concentration and work.

Change is the only certain thing

They say nothing is set in stone. It is possible to change your mind or feel completely different about something with time. I used to hate tomatoes, mustard and onions when I was a kid. My dad had to pull up and wait at McDonald’s drive-thru every time to get my special “cheese and ketchup only” hamburger. Now I eat everything on a burger.

But I write about introversion and have advocated for introverts for years! This is not hamburger toppings we’re talking about here. This is my temperament and a trait I have in common with my tribe of readers. I can’t all of a sudden drop my main focus, can I? Glenn Beck did it, but I usually think he and I are different.

Let’s get science in here

I decided to do more research regarding the innate-ness of introversion and high sensitivity. I needed to remember what made me think my quiet introspective nature was something I was born with, not something I adopted.

I turned to the work of developmental psychologist Jerome Kagan. I found the information on Dr. Kagan in the introvert Bible, Susan Cain’s book, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking”. Kagan did a long-term study on children starting when they were four months old and ending in their adolescents. Kagan and his staff hypothesized that they could predict which babies would be introverts and which would be extroverts.

In 1989 when the babies were four months old, Kagan and his fellow scientists exposed them to many different stimuli, ranging from recorded voices to popping balloons to alcohol on Q-tips. The babies’ reactions were then recorded. Some babies (20%) reacted immediately and gregariously. They waved their arms and legs and cried loudly. Others (40%) remained calm and only moved their arms and legs occasionally. The remaining 40% fell in between the high-reactors (flailing limbs and crying) and the low-reactors (steady nature, minimal reaction). Kagan predicted the highly reactive babies would become the introverted adolescents and the lower reacting babies would be the extroverts. Flash forward eleven years. Many of the kids dubbed high-reactors were indeed more careful and serious eleven year olds. The low reactive babies were more laid back and confident.

Our nervous systems are different

When the babies participated in the initial experiment and subsequent check-ins at age two, four, seven and eleven, the scientists did more than just observe the children’ reactions to novel stimuli. They also monitored their heart-rate, blood pressure, finger temperature and other elements of their nervous systems. They measured those properties because they are indicators of responses from the amygdala in the brain. The amygdala takes in information from our senses and then tells the nervous system and rest of the brain how to react. If necessary, it sets the fight or flight response in motion. It is the first alert to danger. Children with highly reactive amygdala will do what they can to minimize its reaction in the emotional controlling limbic system (part of the brain where the amygdala resides). They vigilantly search for environmental threats so they can head them off before they occur. They carefully decide whether to join new groups or explore new places, and if they do, they enter each new situation slowly.

Other studies based on identical twins conclude that temperament is on average about 40-50% heritable, meaning our introverted or extroverted nature is partially due to our genetics. How much genetics are responsible varies because the 40-50% heritability is an average.

Kagan even went so far as to say he saw a correlation between blue eyes, allergies and hay fever and high reactivity (ultimately introverted behavior). This correlation is not 100% accepted by other scientists, but Kagan saw a correlation.

Temperament or personality?

Psychologists say there is a difference between temperament and personality. Temperament is a series of behavioral and emotional traits we have at birth. Personality evolves after cultural influence and experiences are added to temperament.

I’ll just dip my toe in the pool

My mother always said I was a colicky baby. I cried a lot. I was fussy. I bet I startled easily (I still do). I never liked summer camp and to this day, I enter a pool or lake very slowly. Cannonballing was never my style. I also have blue eyes and hay fever — just to add to evidence of my predisposition toward sensitivity. So my genetic makeup is probably partially responsible for my introverted nature.woman reading on the beach

The rest of my behaviors and traits can most likely be attributed to the nurturing I received (or didn’t receive) and the environments I encountered over my 47 years. Those traits could be called my personality. Those traits exhibit both introverted and extroverted qualities. For instance, I love to spend my days reading, researching and writing but I also love being part of a loving and engaging social circle. I spend a lot of time thinking about problem resolution, but most of those have to do with making relationships run smoothly. I love reflecting but I also love loving outwardly.

As a child, I learned to figure out my own worries. I didn’t always have opportunities to have my parents help with them. Also as a child, I learned from my father how to be curious about the world and meet new people and explore new places. When it came to emotional issues, I discerned it was safer and/or better to work on things myself, but physical engagement with the outer world was encouraged, although somewhat inconsistently as my mom was fearful of change and novelty.

No wonder I am confused about my temperament/personality status. I guess I could sidestep the questioning and just call myself an ambivert, but that seems like a copout.

Balance

When I’m surrounded by secure relationships and get time to go deeply introspective, I am full. I am balanced. I am both introvert and extrovert, but mostly I am content.

Ever wonder if you are a true introvert? Did genetics or culture play more of a role in your personality development? 

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8 Comments

  1. Lauren April 4, 2017 at 8:04 pm - Reply

    Hi Brenda,
    Your post has me intrigued. I have often wondered if I was an extrovert. I only learned about introversion/extroversion 2 years ago or so, and my first instinct was actually extrovert, because I rarely spent time by myself. But the more I delved in the less it made sense. At that time, I was dealing with major insecurity and I think depression… so now I attribute the need for constant social time to trying to make myself feel better. Now I feel much more stable and sure of myself and I actually feel comfortable when I am alone in my head. My head is a much nicer place now… so much less negative self-talk than before.
    At this point in my life I know I am an HSP, but introversion still might be questionable. I generally feel very drained after extended socializing (looking back, maybe I always have). While initially I may feel energized from a social interaction, I think it might be adrenaline, because I quickly crash or “turn into a pumpkin” in social settings. I am outgoing and I feel as if I could never spend enough time with my partner (though some of that time needs to be spent quietly, of course), but I maintain that I am selectively social. Is that an introvert quality or extrovert quality? Could it be either? I really don’t know.
    So when I come back to “where do you get your energy from?” the jury is still out. From people in general? Definitely not. From a select few people? Maybe. From time by myself? Maybe. It depends on so many factors for me.. like the activity at hand while I am in the company of others or just myself.
    Point is: You’re not the only one who wonders. Thanks for sharing your own doubts (makes me feel less weird…) And thanks for being an advocate for introverts even if you turn out not to be one!
    -Lauren

    • Brenda Knowles April 5, 2017 at 3:09 pm - Reply

      Just as an extra bit of info Lauren, introverts generally like interacting with one or two or three people. Small groups are good. 🙂 Do you talk to figure things out or do you think to figure things out? Introverts lean toward thinking. Thanks for sharing your experience. I personally think as we get older we get more adept at playing extroverted or introverted parts at appropriate times, so it is hard to tell what is our natural inclination. Take care! Enjoy being you!

  2. Michael April 3, 2017 at 3:20 pm - Reply

    Something that reveals quite accurately our personality and its many traits, is handwriting. Yet it is not something that most people ever consider as a tool for self understanding and insight.

    Small handwriting tends to indicate introversion. Very small handwriting — mine falls into this category — indicates definite introversion. That doesn’t mean an inability to function in the outer world. It does mean it’s not so easy.

    I have a sister in law who swears she is an introvert. Her handwriting definitely indicates otherwise.

    I was married to a woman who described herself as an introvert. Her handwriting, quite large, is the sign of someone who needs to be ‘out there,’ and who needs a lot of attention.

    My sister in law is interesting. She has been in a very long marriage with my brother. My brother is not one for deep conversations. She longs for them, and always has. I think her ‘going within,’ and concluding that she is an introvert, is a survival mechanism. She definitely has need for quiet and her own space; most of us do. And her handwriting, which has been consistent for all the years I have known her, says ‘not really introverted.’

    My accountant has handwriting that is quite small; she is an introvert. Very animated when we are together. Introverts thrive on substantive one to one conversations. A wonderful woman. And I am very comfortable working with her because she is similarly introverted.

    I told myself for years I was an extrovert. Reading Susan Cain’s book started a 3 year process of allowing myself to look at who I really am. The process continues.

    That’s a long-winded way to ask, ‘Have you had your handwriting analyzed?’ … 🙂

    It’s not the be all, end all. A good handwriting analyst can tell quite a lot from how we write.

    I changed my handwriting over the years. When I was young, and into college, my handwriting was quite small.

    When I ‘grew up’ and started a business and family, my handwriting became larger. I needed to ‘be out there’ more, though my favorite times were always times alone.

    Now, I have allowed myself to write as I naturally write, and it’s very small.

    We keep learning, and that is the most beautiful thing of all. We are ever ‘becoming’ …

    Thanks, Brenda.

    Michael

    • Brenda Knowles April 4, 2017 at 11:34 am - Reply

      Nice to hear from you Michael! My handwriting is not small. I’ve noticed just recently that my signature is rather flamboyant. I make the first letter of each of my names rather large. I’m starting to think I am a sensitive extrovert. Conflict and negativity are my main enemies, not interaction in general. Thanks for giving me something to think about Michael. I think my handwriting has become more sloppy over the years. I think I am more in a hurry. Hope you are well!

      • Michael April 4, 2017 at 2:52 pm - Reply

        omg to conflict and negativity. oh my god no … negativity just … well, I am finally filing divorce papers to end my marriage to a woman who, in many ways, is wonderful. and who is also the most negative person i have ever been with. omg … that’s all I can say. omg!

        sounds like you may indeed be that sensitive extrovert. I wonder if in some wsays, it is even more difficult to be a sensitive extrovert, than a sensitive introvert. As an extrovert, you’re out there more, interacting, all that. Odds that negative stuff will come from some direction, is high.

        I sit here at home, at my desk. with two dogs. I go to starbucks. I walk my dogs. I minimize my interaction with people face to face. i can control the negative input more, perhaps, than you. just a thought.

        extrovert or introvert … the negativity is just a killer. conflict? why have it? just talk about stuff! I don’t get angry unless i feel attacked. otherwise, i can talk all day about stuff!

        whatever way you ‘swing,’ Brenda … lol … we all know that you are beautiful, and you have done all kinds of awesome stuff that has helped the lives of countless people.

        just an hour ago, i suggested your site to a friend who’s having problems with her boyfriend (he needs his space!) … and i said, hmm … maybe you’re an extrovert and he’s an introvert … hmmm . you might check out this site by this really cool woman …

        isn’t it fun to keep discovering cool and pretty important stuff about who we are? wow. it really is.

  3. Jacquelyn Strickland April 1, 2017 at 12:53 pm - Reply

    Dear Brenda … I have read your blog off and on for a while now … and have always thought you were an Extravert Highly Sensitive Person. ♥ The recent research I’ve done on this topic has validated my own decades long intuitive knowings about this, which will be published in a chapter in the book I am writing on highly sensitive people. Elaine Aron’s book : Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person coined the four things ALL HSPs have in common: D.O.E.S. 1) Depth of Processing 2) Overstimulation ; 3) Emotional Intensity, Reactivity; Responsiveness; 4) Sensitive to Subtleties

    The Extravert HSP can, does and need to go “inward.” It is in these quieter environments where we can, do and need to retreat for the deep processing that comes naturally to being a highly sensitive person. This “inward state” is also where our spiritual lives resides and where we can, do and need to rest and recharge from an often harried external world.

    Remember Elaine Aron’s question on her HSP Self-Assessment ? ~~ ” Do you need to withdraw during busy days, into bed or a darkened room or some other place where you can have privacy and relief from the situation?” ~~~ Well, this applies to the HSP-Extravert too.

    However ~~ if experiencing too much time in this “inner world,” the HSP Extrovert can become tired, lethargic, restless, unmotivated and even slightly depressed. It is then we know we need to get out of our heads, seek “novel stimulation” which is the only kind of “external” stimulation that will inspire or energize us. Otherwise, the activity can become just as overstimulating for us as for the Introvert HSP.

    The lines between Extraversion, Introversion, and Highly Sensitive People (HSP) have become quite blurred. There are many articles on social media describing the “extraverted introvert,” the “outgoing introvert,” the “introspective or contemplative extravert,” and so forth.

    It is easy to understand the “blurred lines.” According to Elaine Aron, 15-20% of the population are HSPs (30% of that # are HSP extraverts.) Susan Cain’s research shows that between 1/3 – 1/2 of the population are Introverts. So, it goes without saying that many, if not most, of the Introverts the book Quiet refers to are ALSO Highly Sensitive People – whether introvert OR extrovert.

    Here is what Elaine Aron has shared:
    The Extravert HSP can, does and need to go “inward.” It is in these quieter environments where we can, do and need to retreat for the deep processing that comes naturally to being a highly sensitive person. This “inward state” is also where our spiritual lives resides and where we can, do and need to rest and recharge from an often harried external world.

    I love the work Susan Cain is doing in the world – because mostly I think it is benefitting the highly sensitive person ! Here is what Elaine Aron has shared:
    https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/attending-the-undervalued-self/201202/time-magazine-the-power-shyness-and-high-sensitivity

    I offer a Myers Briggs/ HSP Overlay class on this four times per year… It has helped that “minority within a minority” — the HSP Extravert — come to a greater understand about themselves. I’d be happy to speak with you more about this …
    All the best HSP wishes ♥
    Jacquelyn

    • Brenda Knowles April 1, 2017 at 1:35 pm - Reply

      Thank you for sharing your insight Jacquelyn. I am taking your feedback seriously. I wrote a post once about being a sensation seeking HSP. In Cain’s book she links highly reactive babies with introversion. I think I may just be more reactive (HSP), not introverted. Thinking about all of this. Thank you again. 🙂 I’ll consider taking your class.

      • Jacquelyn Strickland April 1, 2017 at 4:37 pm - Reply

        Yes. I’ve found most HSP Extraverts to be high sensation seeking as well ~ thus adding to that “one foot on the brake, the other on the accelerator” concept. I tend to agree that the highly reactive baby might be the highly sensitive baby, introvert or extravert. My 2.5 yr old granddaughter is an HSP Extravert — I suspected she was starting at 8 months.

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