How to Come Out of Your Shell

September 9, 2021

You don’t have to be outgoing. But if being introverted is holding you back from the life you want, dive in for a way out.

A few years ago, Jessica Pan – a young journalist living in London and with the world at her feet – found herself at a low point. Life had become predictable and samey.

‘I realised that I was using the label “introvert” as an excuse to say no to anything new or anything that causes me anxiety,’ she told me. ‘I felt like I was totally cutting myself off from new experiences and new people. And I thought that can’t be healthy.’

Pan, who’d always identified strongly as an introvert, made a bold decision to do something about her malaise, conducting a self-experiment to live as an out-and-out extravert for a year. ‘I wanted to make new friends, I wanted to have more job opportunities, I wanted to feel more alive and not just have the same things happen to me,’ she says. One result of her extraverted year is Jessica’s funny and touching book Sorry I’m Late, I Didn’t Want to Come (2020).

Like Pan, a few years ago, I became frustrated by my introverted tendencies. I was writing a new book on personality change, Be Who You Want (2021), and made a conscious decision to act on the advice I’d discovered in the process. I didn’t go quite as far as Pan (among other things, she performed stand-up comedy and joined an improv club), but I did make a concerted effort to come out of my shell.

I said yes to most personal and professional social invitations, and I made lifestyle changes, such as switching from solo sessions at the gym (cocooned by headphones) to group exercise classes that involved plenty of banter and laughter. My aim was to come out of my shell a little, to dial up my levels of extraversion so that I would feel less isolated, and to allow more room for the unexpected in life (I also made efforts to address other aspects of my personality, but that’s for another Guide!).

In personality science, our levels of introversion vs extraversion are considered one of the Big Five personality traits (alongside others, such as conscientiousness and neuroticism). These traits reflect our ‘tendencies to think, feel and behave in certain ways that are relatively consistent across time and situations,’ explains Rodica Damian, director of the Personality Development and Success Lab at the University of Houston.

Each Big Five trait, including introversion-extraversion, is a dimension, rather than a ‘type’ – that is, we all score somewhere along the spectrum, with few people at the very extremes. However, for convenience, I’ll use the terms ‘introvert’ and ‘extravert’ as a shorthand for people with tendencies toward one end or other of the spectrum.

The extraversion-introversion dimension in modern personality science is similar to how we talk about these labels in everyday life, with some additional important characteristics. If you’re a strong extravert, not only are you chatty and sociable, but you are also optimistic, assertive, energetic and receptive to positive emotion – you seek out reward and you’re willing to take risks for pleasure.

As a consequence, extraverts tend to be happier in life, bolder and more confident, which has benefits for their careers and health. By contrast, if you’re a strong introvert, you’re quiet and reserved, you experience less high-energy, positive emotion in life, you avoid too much stimulation, and you’re more averse to risk; you’re a chill-seeker, in other words, rather than a thrill-seeker.

For sure, there are also advantages to being more introverted, as celebrated so effectively by Susan Cain’s landmark book Quiet (2012) – among them, the lack of a need for constant reward and stimulation lends itself to more solitary career pursuits, including remote working, and it can provide protection against the dangers of overindulgence (it is extraverts who are more inclined towards problem drinking, drug-taking and sexual infidelity).

The patience and sensitivity of strong introverts also nourish creativity and the ability to sustain dedicated practice. Introverts are also more effective leaders in certain contexts, such as when managing a team of highly proactive workers. Aside from these advantages, let’s be frank – wouldn’t life be incredibly dull and annoying if everyone were excessively talkative and attention-seeking?

Even so, it’s possible to desire to come out of your shell – that is, to dial up your extraversion – without completely denying your introverted nature and without aiming to go to the other extreme, to become a rock-and-roll party animal. This Guide is about helping you achieve a greater level of extraversion – if that is what you want, and to the extent that works for you.

Like Pan and me, you might feel frustrated by your own strong introverted leanings. Perhaps you’ve always felt this way, or maybe it’s a new sensation and you’ve noticed you have become more introverted than you would like lately, due to the force of circumstances.

For example, many people have experienced loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic, and this is known to foster increased introversion. Other studies suggest that major life experiences, such as divorce, can increase introversion for some people. Mental illness too, such as depression, can lead us to withdraw into ourselves.

If you feel that you are, or have become, more withdrawn than you would like, or that your introverted nature is holding you back from making friends or getting ahead at work, then the good news is that it’s possible to exploit the relative malleability of personality to choose to become more extraverted. It probably won’t be quick or easy, but it’s certainly achievable, and the rewards could be great.

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