You’re outnumbered, again, but maybe not as much as you think. Estimates put introverts at between 25% to 33% of the population. If it feels like almost everyone but you is an extrovert, that’s probably because extroverts are just so obvious, and a lot of introverts are trying to be extroverts to fit in. Passing as an extrovert is a useful skill to have when you need it, but you don’t have to live your life pretending to be someone you’re not. You’ve had enough of that before coming out, haven’t you?
1. Appreciate your uniqueness. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being an introvert. It just means you gather energy from being alone or one-on-one or small groups, rather than in a crowd. You probably prefer to focus on a single task or topic until you’ve got it nailed, and to stand back to observe what’s going on in an environment before you jump in. Introverts are found among artists, deep thinkers, designers, financial analysts, I.T. professionals, and creative writers. In fact, your brain is wired differently than an extrovert’s, with – get this – more gray matter in the prefrontal cortex, giving you a boost when it comes to making decisions and thinking abstractly.
2. Give extroverts their due. Extroverts need more from the world – more excitement, more novel experiences, more physicalized stimulation, and more risk and reward – to feel fully alive. You, introvert, can find that level of stimulation overwhelming and seek out a shady nook to recover. That doesn’t make extroverts the enemy; they can be delightful, funny, exciting coworkers, friends and lovers. They are likely to leap and pull you along on the ride. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, just know (and let them know) that there will be times when you need to bow out and do things your own way.
3. Practice, practice, practice. Speaking of your comfort zone, if you are indulging your solitary nature to the exclusion of socializing, you’re doing your own charming nature a disservice. Come on; move your feet out the front door and visit that hot new bar, that class you’ve been thinking about taking, join a new gym or crossfit box, or the gay kickball, softball, or dodgeball leagues. Visiting the new bar or club will be the biggest challenge; you’ve got nothing to do but either stand there alone or suck it up and approach someone. Plan ahead. Get the other guy talking about himself and he’ll be fascinated by the topic. Practice in front of a mirror. Get a friend to role-play with you, or this can be done in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy in a safe environment, where the therapist can coach you on small improvements to make (I do this often with clients, and “behavioral rehearsal” in the office can make things easier outside of it). Take that extrovert friend with you on a night out to get the conversations going. Let yourself hang back listening for a few minutes, and then jump in. The more you do it, the easier it will be (for more on the practical tips on what to say to others, click for my article, Breaking the Ice: Gay Men’s Conversational Skills and How to Use Counseling to Overcome Shyness).
4. Use social networking, but not too much. Social media is made for introverts. You can observe the group at work, say your piece when you’re ready, and “speak” to one person or a crowd from the comfort of your solitary chair. If you connect with someone that way, great. Just remember that cyber connections are no substitute for face-to-face meetings where you can better judge if he’s being honest with you and you can connect on an emotional and physical level that just doesn’t exist online. If you meet someone on a website or app (especially the ubiquitous Grindr or Scruff), invite him very soon into the process to meet you in the brick-and-mortar world for a coffee date or dinner date, after you’ve established online mutual interest. Suggest specific times and places to meet in person, within only a couple of days (or sooner) time-frame).
5. Accommodate extroverts, but not too much. If you’re going to swim in the sea of extroverts, especially in a competitive industry, workplace, or social scene, you do need to be able to use extrovert skills. It’s how you’ll get a job or a promotion, how you’ll fit in when the gang goes out for drinks and dancing, and how you will find a special person. Find a balance between society’s demands and your needs. Try initiating your own creative social activities that are comfortable for you (hosting a game night instead of a wild night at a club, having a quiet lunch with one person, or a few, instead of drinks at a noisy bar at happy hour).
Finding that balance of validating your unique personality, even as an introvert, and having the healthy assertiveness to get what you need and want in this life, personally and professionally, is a tricky skill to learn. Therapy and coaching can help you identify your own special “stuck points” and work through them. The challenge is, those “stuck points” to work through can be different for everyone, so you need a customized plan.
Introverts can lose out on friends, jobs, promotions, getting the recognition and credit for work they have truly done, and even on getting phone numbers, dates, or hookups. Finding yourself a comfortable spot on the spectrum from introversion to extroversion, where your unique personality dwells, means validating living your life on your own terms, being yourself, and yet having the behavioral skills you need in assertive communication, limit-setting, and promoting your own agenda to get what you want and to positively influence those around you, even if it’s just asking a guy you like out on a date. Assertive Communication is a skill that can be learned through Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, as well as social skills of “making small talk”, which I hear in my practice that a lot of guys just aren’t very good at. But practice and troubleshooting (through coaching) can help get those skills to be more effective.
Sometimes, an approach from the more “psychodynamic” school of therapy is needed, which is very simply a counseling process where you identify how experiences, even traumas, of your past are holding you back today. Maybe you weren’t really “born” an introvert, but a lot of criticism (from bad/discouraging parents, teachers, coaches, or from hyper-critical peers who bullied, teased, or ignored you) has made you into one by killing your initiative and holding you back before you even try something. A gay child can internalize all those negative messages from others and make them into core negative beliefs (called “schemas”) about himself. Therapy to help you understand how these bad experiences in your past, especially all the anti-gay pressure, has made you less confident today can help you break free of these old experiences and embrace new ones, including a more positive view of yourself that helps you put a more confident to face the world. By having a confident, rewarding, and productive present, we show all the nay-sayers of our past, especially the hypercritical/abusive parents or the self-indulgent bullies, that “living well is the best revenge.”
When you validate, love, and appreciate yourself, as you are, you are being grateful for the life you’ve been given, and you’re letting the gift to the world that you are be shared with others. If all of your gifts are always hidden away by your introversion, you might be wasting some of those gifts. Learning to share who you are, even in your own introverted way, might be more of soft statement than a blaring announcement with a bullhorn. Some people are “all flash and no substance”; I always joke that I’m “all substance and no flash”. I used to think this was such a bad thing, that extroverts got the glory, regardless of the quality of whatever they were offering, as if “he who speaks the loudest is right”. As I approached middle age, I let go of this and said that while AA says to “live life on life’s terms”, that process is a negotiation, not a dictation. I realize that tall, pretty, young, built, richer people will always tend to dominate our society; there is a lot of research on this and it’s just a social reality. Yet we can’t all be these things, at least not all the time, and we certainly can’t sustain all of them forever. Our best accomplishments, always, come at times when we are the most compassionate with ourselves, our most self-accepting. For introverts, we can have all the same gifts as extroverts, or even some different ones, but how they are “announced” to the world is a different style for each person.
If you need to work on your self-esteem, self-confidence, and ability to “market” (share) your gifts with others in more effective ways, experiment with trying the 5 steps, above, and then consider counseling or coaching. What you have to offer the world is too important for it to go under-utilized.
Ken Howard, LCSW is a gay, poz (24 years), sex-positive, LGBT-affirmative, licensed psychotherapist who has specialized in working with gay male individuals or couples for over 22 years. He provides counseling, psychotherapy, or coaching sessions in his office in Los Angeles (near Beverly Center), or via phone or via Skype, nationally and world-wide. For specific help on how to improve your self-esteem, social skills, and personal/professional confidence, call 310-339-5778 for an appointment or email Ken@GayTherapyLA.com.