Monday, January 25, 2010

Introversion and Isolation

The following is a chopped-down version of an article I published on mcmanweb in 2003, plus some additional observations to reflect my current thinking on the topic ...

In May 2003, I asked my Newsletter readers to take an online Myers-Briggs personality test and email the results, along with their diagnosis.

The Myers-Briggs type indicator (MBTI) begins with eight personality functions in contrasting pairs - Introvert (I) or Extrovert (E), Intuitive (N) or Sensing (S), Thinking (T) or Feeling (F), and Judging (J) or Perceiving (P).

The Introvert/Extrovert dichotomy relates to people drawing their energy from being alone or with people rather than simply being either shy or outgoing. Thinking and Feeling are self-explanatory. Sensors tend to focus on the here and now while Intuitives look for meaning and possibilities. Judgers prefer structure in their lives over the messy flexibility of Perceivers.

Falling within these four temperaments are 16 distinct personality types, defined according to the eight paired personality functions, thus INFP, ESTJ, etc.

I analyzed the first 100 responses. Most readers also sent in their diagnosis, nearly all with depression or bipolar disorder. Since most people with bipolar disorder are depressed more than manic, it is safe to conclude that this poll was dealing with a mostly-depressed population. Approximately three-quarters of the respondents were women.

The first eye-popping result was 83 percent of those who replied were introverts, which sharply contrasts with the 25 percent to be found in the general population. According to one reader, who had a strong extrovert score four years ago and a much weaker one when responding to this poll: "Over the last four years I've sunk into a very isolated existence. The mania has worsened despite changes in medication/dosages and I spend most of my time sleeping and avoiding large social functions. I do slightly better in small social gatherings, but up until just a couple of months ago I didn't go anywhere or see anyone other than my immediate family within our house."

The best is yet to come: There were 17 INFJs and 14 INFPs, the largest populations in this study, the "mystics" and "dreamers," respectively, who only account for one percent each of the general population. These groups turned up in higher than expected numbers in at least two online MBTI tests, which may explain the large turnout here.

As for the extroverts: Possibly because it was just one letter off INFP, there were seven ENFPs, “visionaries” who would fit right in with the mystics and dreamers, the only category of extrovert over-represented in this poll. Since other versions of extroverts have descriptions such as “enforcers,” “adventurers,” “helpers,” and “jokers,” you can see what we are missing.

One of the few psychiatric studies using the MBTI, by David Janowsky MD of the University of North Carolina, also found a preponderance of introverts (as well as feelers) among a depressed population.

Several readers commented that their results varied on circumstances and phase of illness. Stephanie wrote that "when manic I'm as sociable as Bette Midler on cocaine and when I'm depressed, seriously come not near me."

Carol, who came up ENTJ back in college and again a couple of years ago when working for a mutual fund company, observed that "if I may draw a conclusion, those of us who can break through isolation and make contact with others, could be better able to keep the depression at bay."

In the meantime, we are left with the disquieting knowledge that our illness can isolate ourselves to the point of virtual no-return. Another study by Dr Janowsky found that 84 percent of 64 suicidal patients he examined were introverts, leading the him to observe:

"The issue of social isolation has been mentioned as a potential risk factor for suicidality. The introverted individual almost certainly has trouble reaching out to others, especially in times of stress and need. Thus the social isolation of introversion may set the scene for suicidality."

In a 2001 article appearing in Current Psychiatry Reports, Dr Janowsky cites various studies to support the proposition that "increased introversion predicts the persistence of depressive symptoms and a lack of remission" (and conversely that extroversion can improve outcomes).

The obvious antidote is to do whatever it takes to get out of the house and into the company of others. This is generally easier said than done, given the nature of our illness, but the stakes are enormous in what could very well be the most important aspect of our treatment.

Based on what I have learned and experienced since writing this article nearly seven years ago, I would make some major changes to include the positive features of introversion. On a personal note, I am an INFP and a hermit by nature. What makes my day is connecting two seemingly unrelated thoughts alone in my room or while out on a walk in the middle of nowhere. I do perk up around people, and in these situations I get mistaken for an extravert, but the effort drains me and I find myself relieved to be back in my comforting isolation.

I pity those who have no comprehension of my rich inner world, but when I originally wrote this piece I realized my isolation was killing me, as it had nearly killed me at other times in my life. Accordingly, I made deliberate efforts to get out amongst people, which no doubt reduced my risk of depression, and had the unexpected result of helping me find the kind of ease within myself that had eluded me my whole life.

Getting out amongst people back then was like plunging into ice water. It’s much easier now, but the water is still cold. Your views, please ...


MotherFury said...

MBTI result = ISTJ. Diagnosed bipolar a year ago, but in the process of revisiting that (hurried) diagnosis.

My personal thoughts on my own years of isolation is that while it can be comforting and familiar, it can also be like a lead weight around my neck in a sea of loneliness.

After years of "alone", I'm struggling to get out of that sea and spend some time on on the beach and socialize. I see that as my direct connection to recovery from deep depression and work towards it a little bit each day. Some days all I can manage is to make eye contact with the Walmart check out person. Other days, I can engage complete strangers in conversation. Little steps to a big reward.

Julie McNeill said...

The positive side of introversion is that writing(Poetryin particular)is my therapeutic aide and cultural contribution.
Writing a poem doesn't need long, sustained effort as does a well written essay or short story.
A Poem defines what it is getting at you, sorts it, reviews it, and you have a sense of accomplishment at self-expression.
Now with blogs you don't have to get rejected by a publisher time and again to get feedback!
I agree with you totally about having to socialise now and again as avoiding it increases and the computer becomes my daily contact with people.
However with a weekly yoga session, and political party affiliation this allows me to connect with good people, and not be reclusive.
I do have a limit on this social interraction whether it creates anxiety or over stimulation and as you describe, 'the effort drains me.'
Wow, I am not a freak! Thanks for this...

Belle said...

Different tact here...I seek isolation from humans as it's my form of Aboriginal Therapy...My Walk-About. I was fortunate enough to have a small cabin near a lake before it was burned down.
There was a path with my footprints from the 6 million walks I took around that lake.

My spirit will ache to be with the animals, insects, birds, trees, etc..
They renew me and teach me valuable lessons.
One valuable lesson was taught by a flock of birds and one tiny chickadee. I had a cheap feeder strung between two trees. The birds would take turns pushing or shoving. It came to mind that people need to do it. Share without bitching, jostling, pushing others away/down to get their almighty seed.
The chickadee rested on one of the lines, flipped over and hung upside down. When the wind blew, it became a trapeze artist and swayed in the breeze...when ready it flew off.
I am like that tiny bird; I'm going to be me and flip over or flip out depending on where my head is...lost or up my butt.
No more letters after my name, or before it. It's another form of labeling and I don't accept them any more.
Labels get lost in my wrinkles, anyway.

When I choose to return to the general population, it doesn't take long for folks to bring me up to speed on who screwed up, got screwed, or who needed screwing.
...and in their eyes, I see begging or belligerence...busy, busy lives but no time for their own needs.

No idea where I was going with that, but I wonder if another category should be added for people who are Rushers Around...Stand Stills?

Unknown said...

I am a self reported introvert and I have struggled with depression at times in my life however I do not connect the two. I connect my depression with Eckhart Tolle's description of a "pain body"; a parasite that overtook me and over which I had little control; I also used his techniques to rid myself of depression and I am still an introvert; happily so. I have no idea why as a seven year old I cried about all the sadness in the world or why I could not manage my emotions. My introversion on the other hand is my ability to find energizing stimulation inside my own head rather than seeking it outside myself. My introversion is not sad or painful. Yes, I have experienced myself as socially awkward, not being able to find words and judging myself harshly because of that. But I also believe our extroverted valuing American society has played a major role in that. I am horrified when I hear my relatives react to their own discomfort with introverted four and five year olds in my family - "you need to learn how to talk" always said with attitude or "I think she's ok but I'm thinking of getting her tested, she doesn't like to talk" And its not the parents who do this, they accept their kids as they are. I intervene and speak with the adults to be accepting. Like yesterday I remember adults saying negative things to me and about me as a child; no wonder i judged myself and took forever to get my footing in relating warmly others in public venues. Perhaps as we as a culture are able to value and be ok with not being hugged and chatted up by introverts, not judging, but handling our need to be the center of other's attention, introverts will be able to move towards a greater balance between these two orientations to life. I believe this is one of the greatest values of more Type awareness in our culture.

Sarah said...

It's interesting to see that my type, ENFP, is the only overrepresented extrovert type. I have read that ENFPs need more alone time than any of the other extroverts, which supports your hypothesis that introversion is related to depression and bipolar. In fact, I assumed I was an introvert for a long time and was skeptical of my results even after taking the lengthy, "real" MBTI, until I read that ENFPs in particular display a lot of introspective, introverted traits. While I'm extroverted in other ways (enjoy crowds and meeting people, the last to leave a party, being alone too long makes me feel lethargic) I frequently experience the sensation that I'm sure is familiar to introverts, that I am feeling drained and overstimulated and MUST be alone NOW.

I feel like extroversion can have its dangers in a bipolar person as well -- the combination of feeling energized by a crowd and alcohol can make me feel euphoric and manic, to the point where I do things beyond what a normal intoxicated but intelligent person would do and have emotional reactions that are extremely out of proportion to what I would normally experience in a less energizing setting (even while drunk). Even if I manage to keep my wits about me, so to speak, I often feel panicky at the end of a party as people are leaving, and don't want to slow down or go to sleep until I pass out with exhaustion. Obviously, in an effort to get well and keep myself under control, I can't party like a typical early-twentysomething.

It's clear that NF is a particular risk factor for depression but I wonder if the combination of N and P can have some effect, mainly on ADHD or possibly mania. I'm extremely high in both dimensions and the result is a difficulty paying attention to the real world or having any concrete sense of time or plans, a sense that I'm just sort of floating through the world having experiences and things happen as they will. I know INTPs and INFPs can be similar.

John McManamy said...

Hi, everyone. Really great comments. Please keep them coming. We stumbled into an extremely important issue here, and with your help I'm looking forward to doing more pieces on the topic.