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Introvert vs. extrovert: What's the difference and why it matters

Matthew Stanton

Find out whether you're an introvert or extrovert


Although it may seem like you’re the only one who would prefer to stay home on Saturday night than mingle with strangers at a crowded bar, rest assured that up to half the population feels the same way … at least some of the time.

Typically, extroverts are outgoing and talkative while introverts are quiet and introspective, but a more accurate way of describing the two types is where they direct their energy. Extroverts tend to focus their energy externally on people, things and situations, while introverts focus more of their energy on an inner world of thoughts and ideas.

Although we’re quick to label ourselves – and each other – as one or the other, in reality each of us sits at a point somewhere between the two extremes.

“They are often distinguished as separate types but we can shift along a continuum of being more internally focused in the way we think and behave to being a bit more externally focused in how we think and behave – and people can switch between introverted and extroverted modes when they need to,” explains Life Matters clinical psychologist Matthew Stanton.

Having said that, Matthew says individuals do tend to lean more towards one personality type than the other.

Knowing where you sit on the extrovert-introvert spectrum – and accepting it – doesn’t just help you put in place the level and type of social connection you need to feel fulfilled in life, but also to figure out how best to replenish your energy and maintain your overall sense of wellbeing.

What is an introvert? 

If introversion is more dominant in your personality than extroversion, you are likely to be more reserved and introspective than the extroverts you know.

Introverts aren’t necessarily shy or socially anxious, but do find socialising in a large group or spending time in noisy environments overstimulating and exhausting. Introverts often reach a point in these situations where they need to withdraw and spend time alone to recharge.

“People who are a little more introverted will have more self-directed, energy-regenerating activities in their life – things like walking in the bush, gardening or reading,” Matthew says. “They don’t mind their own company and that gives them energy to go out and enjoy the company of others.”

On the work front, introverts like to think through an idea and make a detailed plan before executing an idea, and tend to take a cautious approach.

What is an extrovert?

Extroverts are not necessarily loud or aggressive, as is commonly assumed, but they do enjoy being the centre of attention and find lively social events energising rather than draining.  

“Extroverts have a greater stimulation window and don’t feel depleted being around a lot of social noise,” Matthew says. “In fact, their morale tends to deteriorate when they're not around that high social energy enough.”

Extroverts tend not to need much alone time and can be more comfortable being in a large group than being by themselves. Organising social gatherings comes naturally, and they tend to make new friends easily. Where an introvert prefers to connect deeply with one or two friends when they go out, an extrovert might see going out as a chance to meet and engage with new people.

At work, extroverts are more spontaneous and comfortable with risk than their more introverted colleagues, and don’t necessarily need a plan before actioning an idea.

How can I tell if I'm an introvert or an extrovert, and can I be both?

Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung popularised the terms ‘introvert’ and ‘extrovert’ in the 1960s, but said we all have both within us – it’s just that one side is more dominant than the other.

But how do you figure out whether you lean more towards being an extrovert or an introvert?

“The way you work out the leaning is how you regenerate your energy,” Matthew explains. “People with more introversion in their personality tend to look for more self-directed activities by themselves or with small groups of people, and they regenerate their energy by having space from social noise.” 

More extroverted people feel energised by talking, expressing themselves and socialising, whether on the phone, on social media, in online meetings or in person.

One way of looking at it is the size of your social cup and how you like to fill it.

One way of looking at it is the size of your social cup and how you like to fill it.

“An introvert has a smaller social cup to fill, and if they’re around that social energy too much they feel like that cup overflows,” Matthew says. “An extrovert has a very big cup and it takes a long time for that cup to overflow, so you tend to find they have a higher level of social scheduling than an introvert.”

Related: Social anxiety: what is it and how to live with it

Why knowing helps your health

All people need connection with others, but knowing how much we need and how we like to connect can benefit our mental health and wellbeing.

“Humans thrive when they have their cup full with the level of social connection they need,” Matthew says.

Knowing where you sit on the introversion-extroversion continuum can help you accept not just yourself and your need for personal space, but others and their needs too.

“In a group of people, where we all vary in our cup sizes, you can have a really good tea party if there’s self-awareness and awareness of others,” Matthew says.

Attributes of attention-getting extroverts tend to be seen as more desirable in western cultures, in both social and workplace settings. Introverts may be overlooked at promotion time, and can feel a little invisible in a social setting as their more extroverted friends and colleagues bask in the limelight.

It isn’t unusual for an introvert to wish they were more extroverted, but it’s rarely the case the other way around.

It isn’t unusual for an introvert to wish they were more extroverted, but it’s rarely the case the other way around.

A University of Melbourne study found that the more introverts wished they were extroverts, the less content they were and the more their happiness levels oscillated from one week to the next. Accepting their authentic, more inward-looking self can boost an introvert’s wellbeing, the study concluded.

The value of introverts

Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, says introverts are subject to a cultural bias that favours the attributes of extroverts in western society, despite research showing introverts can make better leaders.

As Susan points out, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks and Gandhi all described themselves as quiet and softly spoken; Charles Darwin emphatically turned down dinner-party invitations in favour of long walks alone in the woods, and authors Theodor Geisel (Dr Seuss) and Roald Dahl relied on solitude to fuel their creativity.

Related: How to improve and build your self confidence

Susan says she got the message growing up that her quiet, introverted style was somehow not the “right way to go”.

“I always sensed deep down that this was wrong and that introverts were pretty excellent just as they were, but for years I denied this intuition, and so I became a Wall Street lawyer, of all things, instead of the writer that I had always longed to be … and I was always going off to crowded bars when I really would have preferred to just have a nice dinner with friends. I made these self-negating choices so reflexively that I wasn't even aware I was making them.”

Although she counts extroverts as some of her favourite people, Susan says it’s important that we recognise the value of introverts for their creativity, productivity and leadership qualities if we are to counter the cultural bias introverts face.

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Matthew Stanton

Matthew Stanton is the Clinical Director and Owner of Life Matters Psychologists. He has over 20 years of clinical experience, psychologically assessing and providing therapy to children, adolescents and adults with mild, moderate and severe mental health disorders.