The Highly Sensitive Person

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Back to Comfort ZoneNovember 2006: Comfort Zone ONLINE
Coping Corner:
What to Do about Extravert Envy

During the conference call with those at the fall HSP gathering in British Columbia I was asked about "extravert envy." I understood the question immediately, personally and because of having met many introverts with such feelings. Given that the majority of HSPs are introverts (shortened henceforth to I-HSPs), it seems like an especially important topic for this newsletter.

As for those of you reading this who are extraverted HSPs (E-HSPs)--I do think you may find it very interesting. But this article is NOT about you. It is about what introverts think is true about extraverts, in general, not necessarily E-HSPs, and what it is in all of this that introverts envy. This is especially not about E-HSPs because you are quite a different "breed" from non-sensitive extraverts. Maybe someday I ought to write about E-HSPs directly, and their introvert envy. But that is not the topic here.

Besides reading about introverts' envy of extraverts, you will see some of the "why" of it--how psychology views extraversion, which naturally effects how all the rest of us see it. There is actually considerable looseness in that view, as you will see. For example, measures of I-E have a surprisingly low statistical correlation with each other. Yet we all think we know what the two types are. And we can all entertain thoughts of how one is better or more enviable.

What Do Introverts Envy?

The first attribute introverts notice and envy, obviously, is that extraverts are so sociable, so relaxed in groups and with strangers.

The second attribute is that they seem to have an abundance of positive emotions--gaiety, exuberance, enthusiasm. They are so eager to meet the world, to find something in common with others and to celebrate it.

The third comes from Jung's definition of I-E. Extraverts seem to have a direct connection to people and things, while introverts tend to withdraw and impose their subjectivity onto everything. Extraverts are always in the know, while introverts have their intuitions, but are these based as much on actual facts?

So, fourth, given that they seem to be more grounded in reality, naturally extraverts seem more effective, decisive, and spontaneous. They plunge right in and get things done without having to think it over.

The third and fourth qualities especially may not apply to E-HSPs--remember these four are simply some of what's attributed to extraverts and what most introverts notice and envy. And who would not want such traits? Well, the antidote to envy, of course, is considering what introverts would be willing to give up in order to be extraverted. Remember the fairy tales warning us to consider our wishes carefully in case they come true. Let's see.

Being Very Sociable

I will not try to speak for all introverts--just relate my own experience. I've often watched with envy a group of four or five obviously extraverted friends (not my friends) enjoying themselves just "hanging out," laughing and joking. This seems at its purest in France, where small groups talk in cafes for hours, having the sort of animated conversations that I long for but can only approximate with a very few, rare individuals. And it still would not look as fun as what I am seeing. Then there are the groups of friends walking arm and arm down the boulevards, taking over the sidewalk with glee. I step aside, wondering if they feel superior or only pity for my serious Anglo-Saxon solitude. Probably they never even notice me.

I also feel envy when I see a big family picnic at a park or beach. (My envy stops if they are in a large private dining room--I would hate the noise.) Especially if they are African-American, Hispanic, or Italian, I am sure they have this much fun every weekend.

Then there are those people who know how to "work a room." Or simply enter one and become part of a conversation immediately. They hear all the gossip and use well what they learn. They stay in touch.

And I envy my extraverted traveling companions who are forever making new friends. They get to know the inn keeper, the chef at the restaurant, the others guests at the bed and breakfast, the artist at the gallery. They are forever exchanging email addresses and vowing to stay in contact because of some common interest they have discovered after only five minutes. Occasionally I will open up to a stranger, especially if the other approaches me, and it often feels great. But I have never learned to seek such contact. I don't like bed and breakfasts if they force strangers to sit at the same table. I don't like chatty innkeepers--just get me to my room so I can close the door and rest. But how nice it seems it would be if I were even a little friendlier.

Then there are those extraverted-feeling type women who, when they get together, become so animated as soon as they get "How are you? out of their mouths. Around them I feel like a stiff, heartless machine. If they remake the Wizard of Oz, I can be the Tin Woman. Then there was high school and college, when the girls sprawled on the floor around the yearbook, discussing the boys. I was off studying, trying to ignore the peals of laughter.

I even envy, I guess, all those happy fans who stand in line and wade through crowds because they want to see something so much. Or do they just enjoy the camaraderie with all those fellow fans? I envy the people who think a mall is at its best when it is crowded with happy shoppers. And the people who enjoy going to a national convention in order to mingle with masses of their colleagues. And the people running for public office, who seem to thrive on spending every waking moment with other people.

I suppose I most envy those who never have to feel lonely because they have so many friends calling all the time rather than just a few very close friends who are often "unavailable" because they are introverts too. Extraverts can call someone and be instantly in an intimate exchange. I don't even like talking on the phone.

Do I sound pretty miserable? Actually, I'm rarely places where I even see these things, so I don't face the envy often. Maybe it comes up when I've been alone for too long writing and start thinking about all the people out there having a great time with each other. But I can't be too miserable, knowing I have plenty of company among my fellow introverts. Above all, I was told by a fellow therapist how to deal with envy, and it works very well for me, so I will pass that on...

Put envy to use. Either use that feeling to force yourself to go after the thing you envy in order to have it for your self, or face the fact you don't really want the thing you envy, or what goes along with it, and let the emotion go. So, I have tried the first approach, forcing myself to join in with groups or meet strangers (and I do mean force), and I can do it. But I am always exhausted afterward, and more certain than ever that I don't want to be an extravert. I don't even have to test how I feel about crowds, malls, street fairs, conventions, or even spending much time on the phone--they're not for me. So let's see what your envy can do for you.

Envy of Sociability

About the first option, can you become what you envy? Perhaps you do need to be more sociable, but shyness gets in the way. Many introverts are chronically shy, but the two are not the same. Shyness is the fear that others will judge us and find us lacking in wit, appropriateness, attractiveness, or whatever. If you are often shy (everyone is sometimes), you need to work on that, so that you have a real choice about whether to be in groups and meet strangers. You might even find you are an extravert after all.

There are plenty of books and courses for shy people. Or you can work on your existing relationships, risking sharing a little more and seeing you are not judged for it.

But what about the second approach to envy, asking whether you really, really want to be more sociable? Shyness aside, what do you actually choose to do? I am confident I don't want to be an extravert because I choose not to be almost every day. I need my private time to do what I most love, to reflect and create. I know many creative extraverts, and I envy how they collaborate to put on a show, for example. But for me creativity is very personal. I prefer expressing my own ideas, on my own, which requires time to read, think, have an idea, and express it. I do want my ideas to reach others, but that begins with uninterrupted time. What do you enjoy doing that requires being an introvert? What's your calling? Many of us want to help others, but there are introverted ways to do that.

A pleasure I would never give up is the very intimate, private work I do as a psychotherapist. Many people, mostly extraverts, ask me how I can stand to listen to people's problems all day. I do not think of it that way--for me it is more like getting to explore an entire universe, the inner universe waiting inside the other person, and that is the kind of exploring introverts love. Indeed, most introverts love to listen to problems and help (Thorne, 1987, J. of Personality and Social Psych, 718-726). This is how we connect in a deep way. The extraverts' breadth of connecting with the many (which has its own, equal pleasures, I know) is simply not as satisfying for introverts.

Envy of Having an Abundance of Happy Emotions

The current view, almost dogma, in psychology is that extraverts experience more positive emotions than introverts. It's like the impression I mentioned above that I receive watching extraverts chatting in Parisian cafes. Hundreds of studies claim to have found this association between positive emotions and extraversion. It is supposed to be one of the best established facts in that branch of psychology which studies personality.

Well, balderdash. This idea really gets me going. But to keep it short, there's nothing to envy. Extraverts may feel more excitement, exuberance, and all that--but introverts feel more of the calmer emotions--satisfaction, contentment, serenity, gratitude, poignancy, irony, and deep love. Research that no one pays attention to, given the current zeitgeist, finds that extraverts' positive emotions can seem almost negative to an introvert (e.g., Feldman, 1995, J. of Personality and Social Psych., 153-156). "All that excitement and fuss." (Although I don't know how much longer introverts will even know they don't like that form of happiness, given the prevailing scientific view.) And an introvert's positive emotions can be negative for extraverts (again, probably not E-HSPs)--too boring, at least if that serene stuff goes on too long.

Further, while extraverts may seem to feel good, some other largely ignored research (e.g., Hotard et al., 1989, J. of Personality and Social Psych., 321-333) finds plenty of neurotic extraverts who report they are feeling great as they rush from thing to thing, person to person, but in their case this outward focus is probably a defense that keeps them from feeling what is really happening inside. Of course there are also plenty of introverts who are not feeling much of their form of positive emotions, such as calm or deep love. But they are far more likely to look unhappy, since to extraverts, introverts always look not very happy. So all introverts appear to lack positive emotions while all extraverts appear to be feeling nothing but good.

That introverts are misjudged in this way, while extraverts are always judged to be happy, is the real cause for envy: Two studies (Paulus & Morgan, 1997, J. of Personality and Social Psych., 581-591; Gough & Thorne, 1986, chapter in Shyness: Perspectives on Research and Treatment, Jones, Cheeks and Briggs, eds., 205-226) of newly formed groups found that even mental health professionals who were observing and rating the members initially thought the talkative members were more mentally healthy and intelligent. (In fact, there was no difference in the average mental health or IQ of the talkative and quiet members.) This wrong impression changes with time--by the end, the ratings are accurate, and many quiet members are viewed as highly intelligent, valued members of the group. When they finally spoke, I guess it was worth waiting for. But it's easy to envy those who make a positive first impression by expressing these visible, healthy-looking emotions.

This view of extraverts having all the positive emotions is going to be around a long time because the first scale on the currently most popular measure of personality--the NEO Personality Inventory, based on the Big Five or Five Factor Model of Personality--has provided a new view of extraversion. This model was based on asking people how they decide about the personalities of others. Naturally, almost the first thing they notice, until they know someone better, is the degree to which someone appears energetic and outgoing. This characteristic was labeled extraversion. The trait of not displaying much visible positive emotion was labeled introversion. (The display of negative feelings, the second most important set of behaviors by which people judge others, is measured on the next scale, Neuroticism.) That is, the Big Five view of I-E is that it has to do with immediate, obviously observable positive emotion. It enquires less into how a person habitually behaves or thinks. No wonder there is a correlation between extraversion and positive emotion. It was built into the measure. Oh I get mad about this. Enough.

Back to extravert envy. Should you use your envy to strive to feel the emotions of extraverts? It might be nice, but I doubt that it can be forced, no matter how many books you read on being happier or courses you take in positive thinking. Rather, introverts will probably have to content themselves with the other, quieter pleasures that it seems we would have to cease to enjoy in order to have the extravert's hearty exuberance.

Envy of Being More in Touch

Jung's original definition of extraversion in his Collected Works (CW Vol. 6) was that it was a preference to have direct, objective experience of people and things, while introverts prefer to bring the experience inside and know the person or thing subjectively (subjective here does not mean biased, but more thoroughly considered in terms of past experiences). Given that HSPs process information more thoroughly, they always tend to be more subjective in this sense. If Jung's were the definition of introversion actually used, I don't think we would need the term HSP. It could simply be introvert. But since 30% of HSPs are extraverts on the usual measures of I-E, calling us all introverts would be a mistake. Perhaps E-HSPs do some of both, being objective and subjective, and perhaps they are the real ones to envy. I don't know.

Clearly this enthusiasm for outer, direct experience could be something to envy. Extraverts like to go and actually see the thing. They travel. They want to meet people. They go to an author event, a gallery opening, or a party where they will be introduced to someone who has always interested them. An introvert might want to observe the person from a distance, forming their opinion in private. In short, extraverts seem to be more in the know.

For myself, I often feel embarrassed to be the last one to know about something when I ought to have been one of the first. But who would have told me? I'm not in many loops. More important, how can I advise people about how to get along in the world if I'm not in it much? Especially, if I lack "people" experiences? And if all experience is filtered through my personal perspective, how accurate is my advice? These are serious issues for me. And they get me out into the world to gather "data."

I imagine all introverts struggle with this. In the work place, if you like to be alone on your lunch hour or don't go to all those showers and retirement parties and schmooze, you miss out on the casual talk that informs you of what's really going on. And for information, Mapquest and Medline will only get you so far. Books and websites cannot replace practical information gained face to face. Of course we introverts call our friends to check things out, but our sample is smaller and less diverse.

The comfort here is a peculiar one, and also comes from Jung. He points out that perception is never objective even for extraverts, but always colored by a person's experiences and perspective. (This is the essence of the contribution of postmodernism and pluralism, although they take it too far, I believe, if they say all perspectives are equally valid.) Jung is particularly concerned about those who think they really do know the truth, thanks to having "objectively gathered all the necessary data." Someone produces a study that shows there's a housing shortage, then concludes that it is "obvious" that we need to do more lumbering in national forests and more development of public lands. As Jung puts it, to think you know the truth because you have based it purely on facts (even if you are not deliberately distorting them) is an "intellectual arrogance accompanied by crudeness of feeling, a violation of life as stupid as it is presumptuous" (CW, paragraph 621). Thinking of bombs only in terms of the numbers they can efficiently kill is a good example. Jung points out that overvaluing our capacity for objectivity denies the subjective, and what is the subject but human life? A housing shortage is also a shortage of places where humans can feel subjectively at home.

Jung reminds us that this enthusiasm for the objective and bias against the subjective is all around us. "The epithet 'merely subjective' is brandished like a weapon over the head of anyone who is not boundlessly convinced of the superiority of the object" (para 622). Jung points out that the introvert often feels this most. "He himself sets the subjective factor as too low a value, and his feelings of inferiority are his chastisement for his sin" (para 643).

Jung is saying, do not envy extraverts. Everything we know is subjective, in that it comes to us through our mind. So the subjective is, in a sense, the source of all reality. Yes, the subjective can distort things. But so can the "facts" as perceived by someone, which they always are. Even an atomic particle's behavior is distorted by the fact gatherer. Each way of knowing leaves out some of the picture.

However, knowledge added by the subjective is less understood and appreciated, partly because its source seems to be only personal experience. But in fact, some of it comes from the collective unconscious, according to Jung, where it resides in the form of archetypes. These concepts "collective unconscious" and "archetype" can sound a bit imprecise and mysterious, so evolutionary psychologists for example now use other terms, but the basic idea remains: One essential feature of humans and other intelligent animals is that they can learn from interacting with the objective world, but certain important attitudes, emotional reactions, and behaviors have not been left to chance, to be relearned or not in each generation, so these are passed on genetically or culturally as highly abstract, very general mental models of different types of situations.

An example of some situations that we handle, in part, by utilizing this subjective or innate abstracted knowledge would be bonding, parenting, mating, and avoiding predators. These do not happen quite automatically. They are triggered by certain outer cues. And our culture adds many specifics to how we handle these. But how to do these things was important enough for survival to be passed on in some way. For example, when a baby is born, if it is placed on its mother's stomach, it will crawl towards the breasts. The breast is an archetype.

Such information can be passed on genetically, as "programmed" behavior or "instinct" (the fear of snakes, spiders, heights, and blood), or else it can be passed on culturally as tradition (how to make a good business deal). Either way, those who do not have to rediscover this knowledge in every generation will survive better.

Until we need it, this sort of knowledge resides in the unconscious, ready to be triggered by a situation, and then it arises as an instinctive emotional reaction or behavior, or as a dream about the situation, or simply an automatic behavior because "this is how it is always done." Why? How do we know it? That may be lost or rediscovered through intellectual examination, but the behavior remains. Sisters do not marry brothers. Everyone wears clothes. Meat should be cooked before it is eaten.

Although this knowledge is largely unconscious, it's not repressed in the Freudian sense. This was where Jung most differed from Freud. Jung thought some of the unconscious is just there, like the basement of a house. And he thought introverts have a better sense of what is down there, which influences more how they understand what is on the main floor. That is, the basement is the subjective influence on their perception of ordinary reality. Hence, their way of thinking and feeling based on the subjective has as strong a foundation as one based on "fact," and is as much needed in the world. No, it is not needed more, or more valid. Both subjective and objective perspectives, introverts and extraverts, can be wrong about a situation. But given how much "objective" science or observation of the facts and reasoning about them governs our behavior, this type of knowledge needs to be balanced by the subjective. Putting a baby in a mechanical swing for hours may in fact quiet it, and propping a bottle up for a feeding may be an efficient way to feed it, but most women have an innate feeling that a baby should be quieted some of the time and fed some of the time by being held.

Ideally, all of us would use both objective and subjective knowledge. This is the condition to envy, not the possession of one style or the other. But most educated people in our culture, having learned in college to focus on facts and data, probably need to value and rely more on the subjective--intuitions, dreams, feelings, "instincts."

At the same time, introverts also need to try to be out in the world, observing and interacting. Otherwise, Jung warns, we are apt to become eccentrics and "cranks" (CW 6, para 401). So returning to our two options for handling envy, it is wise to use both. Use your envy to get out there and observe the facts. But also appreciate what you do with the facts, and do not trade your archetypal understanding for something "objective," which is already supplied in abundance by others.

Envy of Effective, Efficient, Rapid Responses

Being so well connected with what is going on and with the outer "facts" of a situation, extraverts often act decisively, without the introvert's withdrawal to reflect. Further, having the facts so at hand, the actions of extraverts are often more effective, or seem to be. They are certainly better accepted and adapted to those around them. We introverts see all of this and of course we envy it.

So again, what should we do with our envy? Jung did warn that subjective knowledge, based as it is on the collective unconscious, "is so universal and so symbolic that it must first be assimilated to the recognized and recognizable knowledge of the time" (para 629). Only then can it have practical value for life. So we introverts have to take our time. We want to choose it willingly. Option Two. But we also want to use our envy through Option One, to assimilate our subjective perspective to recognized knowledge of the time. To translate it! And be sure that our perspective will seem practical to others. We must make this bridge between inner and outer, participating in a situation, but doing so in order to receive our subjective sense of it, suffused with the collective unconscious and archetypal symbolic meaning.

Translate that? We are seeing a forest as more than lumber or even a bunch of trees, a baby as more than a reproduction of genetic material. We are also participating so we know its current "facts," or at least how others see it, and as Jung says, assimilating the one to the other. This patch of forest is this large, owned by this person, valued at this price. But then we describe its subjective value to our self, its true value as the sort of wild place that we humans will always be restored by wandering in, and helping everyone value it in that sense also. It's archetypal meaning for humans, beyond the facts. The bridge is the personal part of our subjectivity, the part tied to our time and culture, that says I, and others I know, right now, will need that forest.

So in a sense introverts must be both introverts and extraverts, at least in how we express our insights to extraverts. Sometimes Jung talked about using the two terms as verbs--to introvert and to extravert. That seems to be the right goal.

Should you long to be more effective, efficient, and spontaneous? Again, I am not sure you could do it, but you could certainly try. Humans are very trainable. But if you were, you would lose your unique view of things. Yes, it is definitely an extra burden to be an introvert in addition to being an HSP. We are not as sociable, exuberant, engaged, quick to respond, or efficient, in the usual sense. But introversion exists because it has a function that benefits all. It balances the horizontal knowledge of the vast, visible, object world of today with a dive inward, a narrowing of consciousness until it circles over the "eye" of the collective unconscious and takes up from there a vertical knowledge as old as life itself.


November 2006 Articles:
A Letter from Elaine
Coping Corner: What to Do about Extravert Envy
Sensitivity and Work: HSPs and "Bullying" in the Work Place--Changes are Coming
Parenting Sensitive Children: Enjoying the Holidays with Your Highly Sensitive Child (Inner Child Included)

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