Beyond Introversion and Extroversion

I’ve been trying to place myself on the introversion/extroversion spectrum, and finding it difficult. In some ways, I see myself as pretty extroverted. I really enjoy a lot of social situations, and can find them pretty energising. But there are also a lot of social interactions that I find very draining. This is something I’ve been extra aware of recently, as I’ve spent the last month travelling and around people almost constantly.

I don't think I fit neatly into either the “extrovert” or “introvert” box, and I imagine I’m not the only person who feels like this. As a result, I don’t find the question “Am I an introvert or an extrovert?” particularly useful or interesting for me. A much more useful question seems to be “What makes some social situations energising for me, and others draining?”


Here’s my theory:


I think the main feature of situations which I find draining is that there’s a lot of additional stuff going on in my head beyond simply engaging in the conversation. I’m thinking a lot about the situation: wondering how I'm coming across, what the other person thinks of me, or how they're feeling. Or perhaps I'm just finding myself distracted by something, so keeping myself engaged in the conversation takes up a lot of effort. By contrast, those situations that I find energizing are ones in which I feel comfortable and attentive enough that I can engage fully in the conversation without any of these additional thoughts taking up mental energy.

How does this play out in practice? Well, the less well I know someone, the more likely I am to find interacting with them tiring. If I'm talking to someone new, it’s much harder for me to predict how they’ll react or how they are feeling. Similarly, the more intimidated I am by a person, or the more I care what they think about me, the more tiring interacting is. In these cases I’m monitoring the things I’m saying way more, and I’m also spending mental energy on worrying about what they think of me. Group interactions are often more exhausting than one-on-one, because there are more people to keep track of and think about. (There can be a trade-off here though, because the advantage of groups is that you don’t feel like you have to be talking all the time - you can step back for a minute and regain energy.)


This also seems compatible with the idea that there are natural differences in how introverted or extroverted people are. More introverted people may be those who have more of a natural tendency to want to predict others’ reactions, or who naturally worry more about what others think. There’s also some evidence that introverts simply process more information per second, so their brains are more easily overloaded by social situations.


Thinking about whether you are naturally introverted or extroverted can certainly be useful. But for most people, I expect there is also a decent amount of variance in how tiring they find different social situations, independent of where they fall on the spectrum. It seems pretty useful to go beyond the simple introversion/extroversion distinction and ask “what features of different social situations make them more or less tiring?”. If you can identify these features, then it’s much easier to seek out or engineer the situations that you’ll respond positively to.

I think "how much additional stuff is going on in my head beyond engaging immediately in this interaction?" is a pretty good predictor of how tiring I'll find a social situation. I've spoken to a few people who seem to feel similarly, but I'd be really interested to hear if this fits' others experiences, or whether there are things I might be missing.