Introversion And Chronic Illness – Changing The Narrative

headshot of pippa outdoors in front of brick wall, hair down and wearing dark blue spotted dress, looking down at open book and smiling. book is 'quiet' by susan cain, plain white cover

Oh guys. I’d highly recommend grabbing yourself a cuppa and getting comfy before reading any further; we’re going in for a deep dive with this one. Although the following piece relates to my own experiences, I really hope there are things you personally can take away from this piece too. As always, please do feel free to share any thoughts of your own in the comments below!

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My name is Pippa, and I’m a former introvert-in-denial. Today, I want to share how one book on this very topic challenged my beliefs about where I personally fall on the introversion-extroversion scale, and then went on to rebuild my perceptions of the way this interacts with my chronic illness.

Are you an introvert or an extrovert?

Before we jump right in, let’s first clarify what we mean by introversion and extroversion. In a nutshell, introverts are individuals who naturally tend to be more reserved, think before they speak, and take considered approaches to risk. They enjoy spending solitary time thinking and reflecting, thrive in more peaceful environments, and generally need time alone in order to ‘recharge’ and recover after being around others. Extroverts, on the other hand, feel energised and motivated by having an active social life, and they’re at their best when they’re around other people. They’re generally more assertive, skilled at thinking on their feet, and they can end up feeling bored or restless if their environment is too quiet or under-stimulating. You can find out more about these distinctions and take the test yourself on the Quiet Revolution website.

Introversion and extroversion were first popularised by psychologist Carl Jung back in 1921, but in more recent years, an additional group has been identified: ambiversion. Although no typical person is 100% introverted or extroverted, ambiverts differ in that they fall more directly in the middle of the introvert-extrovert scale. They identify with characteristic traits on both sides of the spectrum: thriving when making life choices that align with their individual temperaments, feeling depleted when the opposite is true.

My Background

I don’t think I’ve ever fallen at the extreme ends of either the introvert-extrovert scale, but my place has certainly fluctuated over time. As a young child, I was very much reserved and introverted. During my school years, however, I believe that being part of the dance world and my ambition for ballet forced me to adopt a more outgoing personality. My lived experiences reinforced the idea that being bubbly, over-confident and assertive was the way to stand out and ensure you were noticed during competitions and auditions, and naturally, this same approach spilled out into other areas of my life as well.

Looking back, this was my first taste of a concept I later found out is known as ‘The Extrovert Ideal’: our deeply ingrained belief that the ideal self (our most competent and successful versions of ourselves) is somebody comfortable with putting themselves out there as a leader, speaking their mind, and always being ready to jump into action. Personality psychology has shown that this ‘Extrovert Ideal’ has been commonplace in Western culture for decades; we’ve internalised the idea that personality (how we project ourselves to others) overrules character (who we truly are).

Even though at this point I’d never been deliberately taught that these more extroverted traits would be seen as desirable, I somehow innately knew what I needed to do to make an impression. I never really wanted to boldly put myself in the front row of class at auditions or be the first one to speak in high-stakes environments, but I’d internalised the notion that doing so was what set you apart… and yes, it did work.

Because of The Extrovert Ideal and these internalised beliefs, it follows that historically, introversion has attracted something of a stigma. Compared to these bright and sparky extroverts on a mission to dominate their field, introverts have seemingly had to pale in comparison. Potentially as a consequence of this, to this day we’re taught that leadership, speaking our minds, and being a people-person (all characteristic traits on extroversion) are the most important tools we need in order to thrive.

The Underlying Introvert vs The Performative Extrovert

During my teens, I would have identified as an ambivert. All through school and further education, I learned to fine-tune my more extroverted traits and find ways of utilising them. I’ll be the first one to admit that to this day, these skills have carried me further in life so far than relying on my introverted traits alone would have done. Completely honestly, I don’t think I would be where I am today if I hadn’t learned to use the more extroverted elements of my personality to my advantage… but this has always come at a cost.

Let me explain. There are two traits of introversion that has remained consistent throughout my entire life. The first is that projecting an extroverted personality has always required deliberate energy expenditure from me. In engaging with this ‘performative extroversion’, I’ve always had to account for and spend extra mental and physical ‘energy’. It’s always taken a conscious effort on my part, rather than being something that occurred naturally. If I knew I had to be particularly sociable and outgoing at a particular time, I’d need to schedule in quiet, restful time beforehand… almost as if I was charging up a metaphorical battery.

The second trait of introversion that’s always remained consistent is my need for solitude. No matter how much I enjoy being around other people on any given occasion, there always comes a point where I crave peace and quiet, and my own company; it isn’t so much a want as it is a need. Whenever I’ve been around other people or engaged in some activity for long periods, I can actually feel myself fading as time passes. It’s as though the metaphorical battery I’d charged before doing what I needed to do begins to run flat. I need to ‘recharge’ in peace before I can stomach facing anybody or anything again.

How Chronic Illness Changed The Scene

Bearing these things in mind, now let’s jump to my early twenties. I’m living my best life at university, still embracing my more extroverted traits and genuinely enjoying the company of others, whilst doing my best to balance the need for alone time to recuperate. Things are good, I’m making it work. So naturally, my health decides to drastically decline and lead to a diagnosis of a long-term, energy-limiting chronic illness. Don’t you just love it when that happens?

From that point onwards, embracing the more extroverted parts of my personality became much more of an uphill battle. My baseline amount of energy per day was extremely compromised, and had to be rationed primarily on looking after myself and continuing my studies. Often, I just didn’t have the energy to continue with my performative extraversion. I remember thinking that I just didn’t have the energy to ‘be me’; the me who I thought I was back then.

For the first time, my introverted side was dominating my extroverted side, and I wasn’t challenging it. This energy-limiting chronic illness had forced me to stop and look inwardly into who I really was, and what I discovered was genuinely quite surprising. Even after my fluctuating health somewhat stabilised, I still found that I was inherently much more introverted than I’d ever really consciously ‘allowed’ myself to be.

To be completely honest with you, accepting these new levels of introversion has been a challenge. For the longest time, I thought that my health was preventing me from who I believed I was ‘meant’ to be: this social butterfly gallivanting through life doing all the things and becoming one of those defining people The Extrovert Ideal has taught us are capable of great accomplishments. Because of the way society portrays introverts and extroverts, I genuinely felt like I was less remarkable, that I was failing in some way for spending less energy projecting the impression of being an extrovert. I worried that accepting and embracing my introversion would mean compromising on my ambitions which, of course, hadn’t gone anywhere.

The Turning Point

Back when becoming ill had given rise to this low-key identity crisis, I remember thinking that I just didn’t have the energy to just ‘be myself’. I demonised my body for holding me back from who I thought I was ‘meant’ to be. It’s only very recently that the penny has finally dropped… these days, I’m more ‘myself’ than I’ve ever been before.

Now, the irony is that last year, I wrote a whole blog post about chronic illness and introversion, reflecting on the intersection between the two. I never found the guts to share it with the world, but it’s safe to say that the topic never left my mind. The more self-aware I’ve become, the more my interest in the subject of introversion and extroversion has developed… and it was this, combined with hearty recommendations from friends, that led me to read Quiet, a narrative non-fiction book by Susan Cain*. And that book alone took my thoughts on the matter to a whole other level, prompting this very blog post you’re reading now.

As somebody who, as before, still didn’t fully identify with this stereotypical image of an introvert, this book made me feel seen. It was as though it took every individual flawed belief I had about why I was a failing extrovert rather than innately introvert, tore it apart, and transformed my view as a result. So, allow me to share just three elements that might even resonate with you too…

Three Under-Recognised Elements Of Introversion

Early on, I almost dropped my cup of tea in surprise when the book casually referenced how introverts are more likely to ‘express intimate facts about themselves online’, thriving as bloggers and writers. As a chronic illness blogger, I often look at my feed and imagine what others who don’t know me in person might infer from the things I share online… and often, I fret that the mental image they conjure up is far from the truth. Heck, even writing this blog post now is a prime example of the dissonance between physical and digital communication. I’m in my absolute element wittering on about this subject that interests me and how it relates to my personal experiences, but would I be comfortable standing up and discussing this topic in front of the equivalent size of my online audience, in physical form? Perhaps not. And definitely not whilst wearing this owl onesie.

Susan Cain then moved on to discuss how introverts, contrary to belief, are particularly competent at adapting their personality in line with the social situation they’re in. Previously, I assumed that my own natural ability and compulsion to do exactly this (becoming more extroverted when the situation required it) was something that in itself made me less of an introvert, rather than being a characteristic trait of this very thing. This concept forms the basis of Free Trait Theory: the idea that individuals can and do deliberately act out of character, if it should benefit something that’s important to them. We’re all born with fixed traits, but the things we value highly (such as work accomplishments or social relationships) alter our lives in such a way that we adjust our personalities accordingly. This theory intricately illustrates why I’ve always been able to ‘switch on’ particular elements of my being (typically the extroverted traits) in order to benefit my education, work and social life; all of which are incredibly important to my identity.

Finally, and most notably, the book told the story of Professor Little: a renowned Harvard lecturer known for his lavish, flamboyant and energised teaching sessions. Not one of his students would have described him as an introvert, laughing at the very notion, when in reality, his lectures were simply a performance: he was acting out of his quieter, more reserved character because his teaching was of utmost importance to him and he wanted to thrive. He’d give everything to these lectures, before needing to retreat back into the comfort of his true self to recharge… and then repeating the process all over again. As such, it won’t surprise you that Professor Little is the brain behind Free Trait Theory, described above. He also adds that the ‘Free Trait Agreement’ is what happens when you consciously decide to act out of character for some of the time, in exchange for being yourself the rest of the time. You make compromises to get the best of both worlds: something which, again, rung true within my own lived experiences.

What sparked my attention the most, however is what happened when the balance of the Free Trait Agreement wasn’t negotiated successfully by the very man behind it. Professor Little’s former commitment to being a performative extrovert during his lectures drained him, mentally and physically: so much so that he burned himself out to the point of developing a serious illness. The emotional labour of spending prolonged periods out of character almost cost him his life. And I’ll be honest, that story hit a little bit too close to home.

It was this last point in particular that set the cogs in my brain turning, and led me to think about the intersection between chronic illness and introversion from a whole new angle. Embracing the health psychology graduate within me that’s laid dormant these last few years, I indulged in a bit of wider reading… and drew some biological connections that may well resonate with you too. If it’s of any interest, and if anybody is still actually reading this marathon of a post, please do let me know if you’d be interested to see a piece tackling this subject from a physiological point of view.

To conclude…

So, who the heck am I now? I wouldn’t call myself an introvert-in-denial anymore. I’ve now allowed myself to embrace a more introverted lifestyle, and have been rather shocked to see how my mental and physical health has actually benefited from conserving the energy I was frittering away in trying to appear more extroverted. I no longer feel that my condition is preventing me from being who I was supposed to be. In fact, in a really twisted way, I think it took this energy-draining chronic illness to make me see I was burning myself out by attempting to be somebody I’m not.

I still believe I have an outgoing personality, and I can definitely relate to Professor Little’s experiences of being a performative extrovert. I like spending time with friends and meeting new people, I’m not opposed to putting myself out there and pursuing new opportunities, and my ability to use my voice is only improving over time.

However, if there’s one thing that I took away from Quiet by Susan Cain*, it’s that I, and we, should be celebrating the introverted traits of our character just as much as the extroverted ones. For the first time, I’m really recognising the power of these qualities, understanding the mechanisms beneath them, and consciously challenging the beliefs that so many of us grown up surrounded by.

This book empowered me to change my own mental narrative of what it means to be an introvert.

Though I can’t yet say I’m unapologetically me, I’m proud to call myself an introvert. And if you can in any way relate to my experiences and you’re wondering why you should be proud too, there are no words for how strongly I recommend that you read this book. It’s already radically changed my views on the matter, entirely for the better.

Thanks so much for sticking with me throughout this somewhat psychoanalytic personal ramble. If you made it this far, give yourself a hearty pat on the back. And do let me know if a second post, looking more closely at the physiological relationship between chronic illness and introversion would be of interest!

[AD – Affiliate Link] In the meantime, you can purchase a copy of Quiet by Susan Cain by using my Waterstones affiliate link here. If you do, please, please let me know how you get on with it!  

6 thoughts on “Introversion And Chronic Illness – Changing The Narrative”

  1. “Early on, I almost dropped my cup of tea in surprise when the book casually referenced how introverts are more likely to ‘express intimate facts about themselves online’, thriving as bloggers and writers.”
    Oh Pippa!
    this was such an amazing post!
    I often wondered why am I unable to speak certain things I want to say to certain people but can write so candidly about them.. often which results to me sending them long emails or word documents to read!
    thank you for telling me I’m an introvert.. though I often referred to myself as an introvert, I never knew what I was and honestly, I’m still figuring out at this age of 16.
    okay so this comment is testimony to what I said above.. sorry for such a long comment…

    loved this post!!!
    thank you so, so much for this!
    I might add this might be reason why I am so desperate yet scared to create my own blog…

    Reply
  2. This is me to a ‘T’. As a teacher, I could turn it on, until I couldn’t anymore two years ago. Fibromyalgia slowed my brain and took my words. I couldn’t feign interest and have the energy I had always expended all day long. I was no longer the dynamic teacher I prided myself to be. I turned inward, and at first, was depressed and struggled with myself. But I’ve come to more acceptance. Now that I’m feeling better (than when I hit the wall), I still fall into bad habits of totally depleting myself because of being extroverted with the people I’m with. This post has helped me think about that. Thank you.

    Reply
  3. A lot of this really resonated with me. An introvert, trying to push myself to fit into a world that values extraverts. But the “performance” takes its toll. Would be a very interesting research study to find out how many of us with CFS/ME/FM burned out due to the constant energy expenditure of trying to be more extravert, and not valuing our intrinsic need for solitude and space. More blogs on this subject would be welcome. (PS I’ve just realised that I’ve already got a copy of QUIET – in my very tall “books to read” pile! Thanks for the reminder to get on and read it).

    Reply
  4. This was really helpful to read. I was nearly 40 when first got ill with CFS about 6 years ago now. It forced me to start the journey of analysing who I really am and can relate to alot of what you have written.

    I have never studied psychology but find it incredibly interesting. I did study physiology at uni many years ago and would love to hear more about the physiological connection between chronic illness and introversion.

    You’re doing a great job, thank you!

    Reply
  5. Thank you for this blog post, Pippa!
    It was very interesting to read about your insights into your introversion, also to learn about free trait theory, as I was aware of it in an informal way but didn’t know it had an official term!
    Would love to read your blog post on the physiology! 🙂

    Reply

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