Extraverts and Introverts

The past 4 years of ministry and marriage have drawn a lot of attention to the idea of introversion and extraversion. These are concepts invented by psychologists to help identify different kinds of people, how they process and relate to the world. And they are good because they start a very helpful discussion about the fact that different people process things differently. It  helps to be aware of this dynamic and to relate to other people using this awareness But, since the world does not believe in sin, to them these are simply value-neutral labels that are designed to help us relate to one another. According to this idea, all personality types are fine, just different. What I have discovered along the way, is that this is not actually the case. There are a lot of different reasons why people present and think in extraverted or introverted terms, and some of these things are not healthy and need to change. Once they change, you might find yourself with a different personality.

In this season of my life the closest people all around me have been introverts. And I’m an extrovert. And we’ve had several people come through our church that were real extroverts. And generally the introverts complain to me about them. So it’s lots of dialogue about this whole dynamics.

The traditional definition of intro- versus extra- is about where you get your energy from: being with people or being alone. I think this is an effect really of something more fundamental — which is how you experience relationships. Do you experience relationships as something enjoyable or something negative? Are other people a source of positive things in your life or source of negative things?

Now, when put that way, it is easy to see that many types of introverted behavior are not good. In times of honesty, my introverts tell me that they do not like people. Fortunately, the ones in my life are pursuing God…. they know that not liking people is not Godly so they are pursuing him to change. Even though a change of this nature is very large and takes a long time. If you don’t like people, don’t make excuses for it by saying you are an introvert. Embrace the process of change. Relationships and other people are supposed to be good. Remember being alone was the only thing in God’s creation he said was not good!

But that doesn’t mean that introverts don’t have a valid reason for not liking people. Some introverts have had very significant negative experiences in their lives which cause them not to want other people around. Often they have been in a situation with an extrovert who was sucking up all of the space that they needed to express their own identity. They therefore learned to keep things inside, because it is safer.

And to be frank, a lot of extroverts are not safe. They come in and project themselves onto everyone else regardless of what other people want. They make every situation about themselves. They ignore all sense of boundaries. These are the “me” extroverts.

Another type of scary extravert is the co-dependent extravert. These people need someone else to live. They love bomb you so that you will love them back. But it usually doesn’t work, not the way that it was planned anyway. Because they are operating out of a place of such wounding and need, they suffocate the other people around them.

Introverts tend to experience all extraverts as overbearing and scary like these two types are because the rules in introvert land are “don’t get in my space, and I won’t get in yours.” Therefore all extraverts break the rules and all are kind of dangerous. In fact, introverts and extroverts find each other frustrating, but not quite as frustrating as when you leave them alone with themselves. Most groups only have room for one or two extraverts. But without the extraverts, introverts often are lost and lack the skills or desire to create relationships.

This is partly why introverts love privacy. For an introvert, privacy is a place where you cannot bother me. Because another fundamental issue with most introverts is inaction. They lack the skills or orientation to proactively take control of a relationship situation that is moving in the wrong direction. Extraverts usually respond to relational difficulty with action, introverts respond to it with passivity or withdrawal. This means that extraverts control the world of the introvert. In fact, intros- often believe that it is immoral to take this kind of control because that’s what they hate extraverts doing to them. However, when left alone two introverts will usually not do anything at all. They are much more comfortable when there is an extravert to give direction, even when the extravert is giving a direction they don’t like. It is often only after the extravert takes action that the introvert will even know what they want. The entire thing can drive all parties batty.

What does health look like?

I think it’s important to look at God Himself to get an idea of proper human behavior. However, I want to make clear that I’m not trying to label God as either an introvert or extravert. It’s foolish to apply human labels to God.

There are a couple of very key attitudes or behaviors that God has which we call extraverted. The Bible says “We love because he first loved us.” A healthy extravert takes this approach in relationships:  I am going to love you, even if you run away, and then you will open up and we will have a relationship. As I mentioned before, God actually created the world with relationship and community in mind and is driving history itself toward a people, a family.

Secondly, evangelism is a very extraverted activity. It involves going out and connecting with strangers, and telling them something they may not want to hear. It’s hard to imagine anything more extraverted than this. This means loving people, loving relationships, getting into people’s space, reaching out. These are normal behaviors for a Christian, and they are what bring people to know God.

At the same time, not all outreach is loving, as the two types of bad extravert show. Some outreaching people are either dominating, bullying or abusive. If this is you, it’s creating problems around you that you don’t see. Another thing about God is that he doesn’t force himself on people. He does “get in your space’ when you don’t want Him to, but when you tell Him to go away, He does. And his outreach toward you is always for your good. He’s not doing it because he has some deep need to be filled. This is why it would be a mistake to label God an extravert — even though he is pursuing you he isn’t trying to get something from you or force himself on you.

The picture of a healthy person, then I think is one who deeply wants relationships, and tries to foster them, because they are enjoyable but also because other people need them. They have the sensitivity, however, to push forward more deeply when there is opportunity, but also to pull back when the other person is not willing.

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4 Comments

  1. A few thoughts on a topic we’ve discussed at length over the years.

    Isn’t a lot of God’s behavior that you describe as being an extrovert just being active instead of passive? Someone could argue that all of the seeking God the Bible speaks of indicates introverted behavior on God’s part. Jesus seemed to like his alone time as well. I’m cautious to use any of this to draw too many conclusions but I think it shows that you can find both behavior patterns in the Bible.

    Your definition of health at the end is really good, in part probably because it doesn’t rely on either term.

    As a slowly recovering introvert I find the most helpful thing is to not identify with either bucket. I don’t like some of my introverted traits but I find extroversion no more appealing.

  2. Brad, thanks for your comments. I fixed the post to make it clear that I”m not trying to call God an extravert. I think my purpose here is to highlight the relational pursuit and enjoyment that God has, and that every healthy person should have.

  3. Will – I’ve been letting your series develop a bit before joining in, so I’ve a few replies waiting in the wings now – hope you don’t mind!

    I’ve a friend in Inverness, Scotland, who has done a lot of very fruitful work growing his own outreaching ministry, and that of others, over the last few years. (I use the phrase “outreaching ministry” tentatively so as not to pigeonhole what Mark does; in a nutshell, he’s learned to follow the Holy Spirit very closely which gives room for a lot of variety.) He told me once about someone who essentially said to him, “I couldn’t do what you do, because I’m not an extravert“. Mark’s response was, “I’m not an extravert either, I’m just a disciplined introvert“. I think that puts it quite well.

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