Many clients come to me wanting to understand their introverted partner or child. They want to be considerate of their partner or child’s temperament but they have no idea why they spend so much time in their room, don’t want to see them this weekend or don’t return their texts.
Most discussions about introversion offer our biological wiring as the reason for our quietness, solitude seeking and focus on the internal world. They say it’s simply the way we are.
Now it is true that some of us were born, to use Dr. Jerome Kagan’s terms, more highly reactive. Our nervous systems have reacted strongly to novel stimuli from infancy. Dr. Kagan’s famous experiment with four-month old babies in the 80s and into the 90s, showed that about 20% of them had more easily stimulated amygdalae. The amygdala is the primitive alarm system in the brain. It determines the level of threat in an environment and relays the information to the rest of the body. The highly reactive babies cried loudly and pumped their fists and legs in the air when introduced to such novel stimuli as balloons popping and the scent of rubbing alcohol.
Those of us with more sensitive nervous systems, tend to go into fight or flight response easier. In order to avoid feelings of anxiousness or discomfort, we learn over our lifetime to pursue activities that do not produce such big reactions. Reading, walking, daydreaming, one-on-one conversations, anyone? These kinds of endeavors allow us to stay within the comfortable and safe arousal zones.
That explains the influence our biological makeup has on our introverted nature, but according to studies, we inherit only about half of our introverted traits.
What else makes us retreat to the safety of our own company? What else causes us to create distance between ourselves and the ones we love?
Parents not there
Some of us had parents who were not physically present for us, such as having a parent in the military or being a child of divorce where one parent is far away or spends little time with us. The preoccupied (many things to take care of and little to no help) or workaholic parent could also fall under this category. Others of us had parents that were physically present but emotionally unavailable.
The effect is the same — we feel unseen or unknown. We learn to care for ourselves physically or emotionally or both. We become self-reliant and masters at self-soothing. We stop allowing ourselves to need others or get close because we (often subconsciously) remember what it feels like to not have our needs met.
We may distance ourselves from others by keeping everything casual with no emotional involvement. We may avoid eye contact. We may focus on our own health and hobbies. We don’t have a problem entertaining ourselves. We withdraw from conflict to self-regulate.
We like to be independent and dread someone depending on us, because dependency was not allowed in our childhood and neediness is something we find shameful in ourselves.
The distancing could be labeled introverted, but these behaviors are also characteristic of someone with an Avoidant Attachment style due to their early caregiver experiences.
Parents too dependent
Some of us grew up caring for our parents. With roles reversed, we had to support our caregivers emotionally and/or physically. This can happen if a parent suffered from an addiction or mental illness. Perhaps there was a death or divorce in the family and the single parent relied on the child to serve as a work partner and emotional confidante.
One client expressed her anger at her mother for making her be the decision-maker in the family as a child, because her mother was emotionally distraught. As an adult, this client found it difficult to tolerate others’ emotions and therefore pushed away those who sought intimacy. Intimacy inevitably involves emotion, conflict, vulnerability. She remained distant because she was tired of being strong for others and frustrated for never getting to be the one who receives help.
Fear of not being enough
When we’ve received the message from parents or past relationships that it’s best to be high- energy and high-achieving, and we will receive more love for exemplifying those traits, we may fear we will fall short. It becomes easier to avoid the people with high expectations.
It may even be the case that others do not have the high expectations for us we imagine, but they appear to juggle tasks and relationships effortlessly. So much so, that we feel like failures just being around them. It becomes exhausting trying to maintain a level of excellence.
Another way inadequacy surfaces is because our parents or partner has a penchant for negativity. If we do not feel safe to be ourselves or make mistakes, we will find it easier to avoid judgment by withdrawing into our own private space.
I spent many years as a child upstairs in my room avoiding contact with my sister. It was safer there. I did not have to feel the shame or inadequacy brought on by her insults or teasing.
Parents or partner too dominate
We’ve all been in a room with someone who demands attention. Their presence dominates the scene. Such a personality makes it hard for others to compete for acknowledgment without rising to the same level of volume and confidence. If we spend a good amount of time with someone like this and we find it difficult to match her gregariousness, at some point we grow tired of being second fiddle or tired of having to compete.
It becomes appealing to have our own identity and presence. We feel relieved when out of their reach. We don’t have to fear being engulfed or ignored.
We retreat to quieter more comfortable environments.
We may also simply give up trying to match the other person’s personality. We withdraw and stop contributing to the relationship. We simply exist as a shadow of the more outwardly expressive person.
The last reason for introverted behavior I want to mention, is a desire to do creative work. When we think of creativity we often envision artists, writers, musicians, etc., but scientists, inventors, teachers and engineers are creative as well. Almost every vocation involves some form of creativity or innovation.
Some of us need solitude to concentrate and do our best work. Interruptions almost feel painful when we reach a state of flow — when time, talent and effort bend and blend. Expressing our inner world to the outer world is often a difficult and fragile process. Too much outside stimulation, sets us back again and again.
Working in silence without anticipation of interruption, feels like freedom and relief. It lets our ideas fully bloom. It gives us a chance to be productive in our own way.
Will we retreat or embrace relationships?
Our innate nature affects our reactions. Our social influences affect our behavior and our emotions as well. Our relationships throughout life either build or break down our resilience.
My work focuses on building resilience or optimal arousal levels through relationships, particularly for those with more sensitive inborn natures.
I’m not saying introverts have to become extroverts. I would love to see more introverts experience the comfort and companionship of secure relationships.
What are the biggest contributors to your introverted behavior? Why do you need quiet time?
Would you like to engage more in fulfilling relationships? Would you like to gain understanding about why your introverted partner withdraws from you? I can help. Contact me here.
For more information about positive engagement in relationships for introverts please read my book, The Quiet Rise of Introverts: 8 Practices for Living and Loving in a Noisy World.
Very true and interesting article! Thanks Brenda always a pleasure to read you!
Thank you Sonia!