A Giant Step Backward for Introverts

Nancy Ancowitz, business communication coach and author of Self-Promotion for Introverts®, co-wrote this story with Laurie Helgoe, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and author of Introvert Power

 We recently celebrated the forty-first anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, when a soft spoken astronaut named Neil Armstrong made a giant leap for mankind. Isn’t it about time for other reflective, idea-oriented people to get their due? We think so. Instead, simmering under the surface of our cultural consciousness is a belief that introverts are impaired.

Is there really something wrong with you if you’re an introvert—or among that 50 percent of Americans who are more energized by their quiet time than their social time? Possibly yes, according to the World Health Organization and the American Psychiatric Association. Each organization produces an authoritative manual used for diagnosing mental disorders.

For decades “introverted personality” and “introverted disorder of childhood” have been in the WHO‘s manual—the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD-9 CM), and the APA is now considering a proposal to include introversion in the next edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5). The proposal would make introversion a contributing factor in diagnosing certain personality disorders.

This takes us back thirty years, when the APA proposed adding the more blatantly pathologizing diagnosis, “introverted personality disorder,” to its manual. A letter writing campaign among mental health and personality type professionals helped persuade the APA to withdraw the proposed diagnosis. With introversion back on the diagnostic table, those in the healthy introversion camp again recently wielded their pens in protest.

Is the APA listening? After numerous requests for updates from the APA, we’ve only received murmurs from insiders that introversion is being replaced with another word. According to Naomi Quenk, Ph.D. a clinical psychologist who for years has studied healthy introversion as an aspect of personality types, the proposed DSM descriptions of introversion refer to an “absence or deficit of extraversion.” She says that rather than avoiding extraverted activity, introverts move toward what they prefer—for example, reflecting on the day’s events or sharing ideas with a close friend.

Imagine if the tables were turned and extraverts were criticized as lacking introversion. Perhaps mental health professionals would then be more concerned with “solitude avoidance” than with “social avoidance.”

So what makes you an introvert? You’re probably an introvert if you choose activities like reading, writing, and solving complex conundrums (think Neil Armstrong) over gunning for “life of the party” status. And introverts are better at thinking in their heads than on their feet. However, even if you contribute to advances in the sciences, technology, the arts, and the humanities, just being an introvert comes with a stigma. You may be passed up for a promotion because you don’t speak up more, or seen as a snob because you don’t attend a social event, or assumed to be depressed because you want to reflect rather than talk.

Introversion and extraversion have long been seen as normal variations of personality, and there’s physiological evidence for these differences. Research shows that the brains of introverts are more active than those of extraverts. This explains why introverts limit how much comes in, while extraverts go where the action is.

We know what happens when a naturally occurring orientation is determined to be unhealthy while another is upheld as the standard of health. As recently as the 1970’s, the WHO and the APA considered homosexuality a psychiatric diagnosis. Inclusion in the ICD and DSM justifies existing stigmas—whether targeting homosexuality or introversion. Such diagnoses mistake difference for illness.

In the United States giddy and garrulous are good, and quiet and contemplative are suspect. The WHO‘s definition and APA’s proposed definition of introversion align with that rigid Western bias. Martin Kommor, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Behavioral Medicine and Psychiatry at the West Virginia University School of Medicine, Charleston, says, “We psychiatrists know too well that many of our diagnostic labels have been more a reflection of the political/moral climate than any real disease.”

It is the ultimate irony that professions committed to promoting mental health make it harder for millions of introverts to accept their natural gifts. So should the APA keep the word introversion out of the DSM-5? Absolutely yes, according to Quenk. Words carry power—for good or for ill. Still, we know from history that changing a word does not go far enough.

With respect for the profession of psychiatry—the very field that brought us giants like Carl Jung who advanced our understanding of personality—we recommend that the WHO and the APA take a giant leap and stop casting suspicion on behaviors that are natural and normal. Wouldn’t it be fitting at this historic time for these organizations to join the healthy introversion camp by recognizing the more than 150 million Americans who, like Neil Armstrong, simply prefer to exercise their minds rather than their jaws?

Copyright © 2010 Nancy Ancowitz and Laurie Helgoe, Ph.D.

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3 Responses to “A Giant Step Backward for Introverts”

  1. Liesl S. Says:

    The writers of the DSM-5 would be better served I think, investigating the plethora of psychological ailments to which we are currently being exposed as a result of 'reality' tv. Perhaps all that reality tv is giving us is a clearer view of narcissism run amok, but whatever it is, it would seem that that is worth studying.

    Worrying about whether my level of introversion is a treatable ailment, or an ailment at all, seems rather a waste of good time. That I would prefer not to be the center of attention doesn't make me unwell it simply makes me different. It is troubling that scientists would choose to deem 'differentness' disease. What's next I wonder? Bearing in mind how wrong-headed law/policy has been in the past (remember, people like me were once considered three-fifths of a person under the law and women were assumed to be too weakminded to vote (that's two strikes for me)), why would clear-thinking scientists create yet another category of supposed illness which employers will likely use as a reason to desselect candidates?

    I say spend time figuring out why so many people have a yearning to be seen – even to be seen as train wrecks on reality tv – that really would be a much better use of time.

  2. Nancy Ancowitz Says:

    Thank you for sharing your insights, Liesl.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    In my current role as a market analyst I am often expected to offer immediate opinions on current market conditions and their impact upon our company. In the beginning of my career my inability to do so was often perceived as a lack of knowledge. However, I have learned to be very clear on the fact that I will not offer any opinion until I have reviewed all of the information available and come to a complete and clear conclusion. I have also refused to apologize or make excuses for my need to think about, or analyze a situation before rendering an opinion on it. Because I take the time to come to a clear conclusion I rarely need to backtrack, or alter the conclusions that I come to.

    In contrast, some of my senior colleagues are quick to offer immediate opinions. They can also be quick to discount the conclusions I have put forth. In the short term this makes them seem very knowledgeable and well spoken. It also has the effect of making me look like I don’t know what I’m talking about. My motto for dealing with this problem has become “Don’t react, and don’t retract.” I simply smile and allow my senior colleagues to make their on the spot proclamations. Then, as they start to really go through the information available to us, I watch as they backtrack and reassess…again, and again, and again. In the end I have found that they do indeed come to the same conclusion that I did, but not before putting forth 10 or 12 other opinions first.

    This has not been lost on the people that I advise, and many within our company are coming to know and respect my process. They are also starting to comment on the ever changing opinions of my more verbal counterparts. I feel that the respect that I am starting to earn from senior leadership starts with me respecting my own introverted nature. I have read many wonderful books on how to be a happy and successful introvert, and they have been immensely helpful. The world needs introverts! The world needs people who think first, because there are far too many who speak, act, and react with no forethought. One would think that psychiatrists, whose profession is built around contemplative thinking and analysis, would respect and appreciate those with an introverted nature. Perhaps they’re too busy issuing opinions to give much thought to the harm these new classifications might do to people. Perhaps they need a few introverts to help them remember to think first, and issue opinions second.

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