“Introverted” / “Extroverted”: labels hold you back from improving your life

February 7, 2012 by Joshua
in Blog, Nature

On a discussion online about introversion and extraversion, I responded to someone pointing out that the labels of introversion and extraversion hurt more than they helped.

Labels add no value and hold people back from improving their lives.

Dealing with groups requires one set of skills. Dealing with solitude requires another (with much overlap).

If you don’t have skills for one situation you will avoid it. Once you acquire the skills to handle it, you’ll be able to handle either. If you can only handle one now that doesn’t mean you can’t handle the other, it just means you haven’t yet.

When you have the skills and experience to handle one situation you will enjoy it and look forward to it, either one. When you don’t you will not look forward to it and feel anxiety or fear from it. You don’t have to be stuck that way. The same with any other set of skills.

I once didn’t have skills to handle groups. Now I do. Labeling me an extrovert would have held me back from learning skills and gaining experience to handle groups. I was anxious and afraid of going to the gym before I started going, but I wasn’t a “non-gym person.” I just had to build up skills and experience.

To the change in my gym-going behavior or my levels of introversion or extraversion, I could have added several other sets of behavior that some might call traits that I changed.

Why does calling something a trait matter?

Calling something a trait implies it doesn’t change or that you can’t change it. Not everyone sees that connotation, but many do.

Calling someone introverted or extroverted, no matter how accurate in the moment, implies they will always be that way. Some don’t see that implication, but in my experience, most do.

If you like being extroverted or introverted, great. But different situations call for different behavior. I recommend having experience and skills in each and using whichever serves you best.

In other words, enable yourself to act as and enjoy being either and use whichever the situation calls for. Believing you are only one or the other restricts you from improving your life.

Traits don’t have to endure

My view on “traits” like introversion and extraversion follow from three models.

First, a professor for a psychology class I took as an undergraduate — therefore an Ivy League psychology researcher — said there was no evidence that character traits were fixed over time. I don’t remember the details, only that his description led me to see traits like race: non-scientific.

Second, the observation that people respond to their environments, suggesting that people under the same situations will behave similarly, accounting for different backgrounds, abilities, and so on. The book Freakonomics put it succinctly:

People are people and they respond to incentives.

Third, my experience changing “traits” in myself. Many “extroverts” when we interacted would have called me “introverted” and many “introverts” would have called me “extroverted.”

Those three models reinforce that “traits” are more like habits, the difference being that people believe we can’t change traits, whereas most people seem to believe they can change habits, maybe with difficulty.

Believing “traits” are fixed may prevent you from changing yours — not because of the “trait” but because of the belief.

Or, put in a way to improve your life, believing you can change a “trait,” plus motivation, may be all you need to change it.

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2 responses on ““Introverted” / “Extroverted”: labels hold you back from improving your life

  1. Pingback: More labels not helping: a man’s autism vanishes | Joshua Spodek

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