Over time, it has become increasingly clear to me that I am an introvert. More specifically, I identify most with the INTJ type, according to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Knowing this has given me some helpful insights in who I am, how I think and how I best function.
One of the best books I have read about being an introvert is Quiet – The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain. She has also done a great TED talk on the topic.
As I am continuously searching for happiness and joy, one quote in Susan Cain’s book stood out to me. At the beginning of Chapter 5, she quotes Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi saying:
“Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the person’s capacity to act.” Quoted from Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, p.52
At the basis of the difference between an introvert and an extrovert lays the difference between a high-reactive and a low-reactive temperament. The difference between high- or low reactiveness to new experiences can be recognized from a very young age and is a good prediction of whether people become introverts or extroverts*. Children with a high-reactive temperament are more likely to become introverts, while children with a low-reactive temperament often turn out to be extroverts. This makes more sense than it seems. A high-reactive temperament points to a high-reactive brain. This means that the brain responds strongly to new stimuli, like new faces, smells and sounds. And because of this strong response, these stimuli can quickly become overwhelming. Thus a person with a high-reactive temperament would more likely try to avoid environments and situations with a lot of stimuli, in order to prevent overstimulation. Hence the typical need of an introvert to spend a lot of time alone, away from crowds, noise and busy environments.
But there is also such a thing as understimulation. Especially when you are an extrovert, you need a high enough level of stimulation, or you will get bored and depressed. It turns out that introverts and extroverts need very different levels of stimulation to function at their best. This brings me back to Mihaly’s quote: Enjoyment can be found on the boundary between boredom (understimulation) and anxiety (overstimulation). This is a fine balance. If you get it right, you are in what Cain calls your ‘sweet spot’. This is the place where you are optimally stimulated. Cain compares it to laying in a hammock, reading a book. If this makes you happy, you are in your sweet spot at that moment. But this moment does not last forever. Even an introvert will get tired (bored!) of reading at some point and start to look for something more stimulating, like meeting with a friend. But if this meeting turns into a big party with many people, this may quickly become too much stimulation for the introvert. Then going back to a quiet place would be the way to find that sweet spot again.
It helps to know your own personal boundary between boredom and anxiety, between understimulation and overstimulation. It is not possible to be in your sweet spot at all times, but if you are aware of its existence, you can take action when you are too far from it.
Now, I am not only an introvert, but also an expat. Living in an African country brings along a lot of challenges that may easily lead to anxiety. Being surrounded by a culture you’ll never fully understand, the dusty dirt roads, cars breaking down regularly, the effort it take to get things done – it is a constantly present pressure that is at times beyond my capacity to act. Thus an overstimulation causing anxiety. Yet I believe it is possible to be anxious and bored at the same time. The challenges of everyday life may cause anxiety, but on another level I may experience boredom or understimulation – even while living life overseas. When my days are filled with daily routines – grocery shopping, driving back and forth between home and school, cooking dinner, helping kids with homework – my mind is not sufficiently stimulated and I get bored in the midst of busyness!
The challenge therefore is twofold: coping with those things that may cause anxiety on the one hand and finding ways to be sufficiently stimulated in order not to get bored on the other. I do accept that life can’t always be perfect, but it may just be possible to find that sweet spot every now and then.
*As has been shown by Jerry Kagan’s research, see Chapter 4 of Susan Cain’s book.