Few of us fall neatly into one particular personality type. Vicki Notaro discovers that she, like many others, can be equally comfortable on both sides of the disposition divide.
I was a very rambunctious child. You know the sort – nobody gave me sugary, fizzy drinks, or a platform on which to perform, because they knew they would deeply regret it when I would still be singing “I Should Be So Lucky” nine hours later. I was a sweet kid, yet also painfully, annoyingly eager, full of questions and joie de vivre. But I was also sensitive and easily hurt. My mother, noticing that not everybody took kindly to my own particular brand of attention seeking, often told me that people liked calm, quiet little girls. She wasn’t trying to be cruel, just simply explaining to a confused seven-year-old why I was the subject of slagging, or why I wasn’t one of the popular kids. But there wasn’t much that could be done about it. I was who I was.
These days, though, I doubt if I’d describe myself as an extrovert – at least not in everyday life – and I think a lifetime of people finding my outgoing nature grating may have something to do with that. Sure, I’m still very sociable and will belt out “Let It Go” after a couple of proseccos, but I also often feel awkward around people and just want to be by myself. However, after a few hours of alone time, if I’m not totally entertained, I get really bored and anxious. I largely prefer dogs to people, and packs of humans unnerve me, especially on things like hen parties.
I love chatting to people, but can’t abide small talk, and sometimes crowds make me nervous. I might be a loud talker, but I’m not one for sharing all my problems with just anybody. I have a wide group of acquaintances, yet few proper friends. Working in the media, I find myself surrounded by extroverts on a daily basis, and often shrinking back – after all, it’s easier to not speak than to try and shout over people. I marvel at people who can be calm and reserved, yet still command attention, because I simply don’t know how to do that.
That’s why I was delighted to hear about a new, less extreme personality term that’s come to light recently – that of the ambivert. Apparently, it’s possible to be both introverted and extroverted at different times, and psychologists are looking at personality more on a sliding scale than one extreme or another. I now try to think of personality the same way I think about gay/straight, messy/tidy, morning person/night owl – it’s possible for it all to be fluid, without labels. Except the tidy thing – that will never be me.
I have always believed personality and any aspect of ‘self’ or the psyche to be on a sliding scale,” says psychologist and counsellor Sinead Lynch. “We’re rarely ‘all’ of one thing. I often encounter clients who have split off one aspect of themselves during development because experience has taught them to cope in another way. In terms of understanding personality development, Freud placed great emphasis on early childhood and believed that ultimately, we are all driven by biological needs that must be satisfied.”
While ambiversion hasn’t made its way into mainstream psychology just yet, it makes a lot of sense as a concept. And even though Sinead hadn’t previously heard the term ambivert, she agrees. “A client had just told me about the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts by Susan Cain, and in it the author talks about embracing the qualities associated with being an introvert. No doubt this can be useful in wanting to understand ourselves – we have been searching for meaning for centuries!”
So why does it matter to us what type of personality we have? Anyone who’s ever taken an online personality test to determine which Friends character or Disney princess they’re most like will understand the desire to know ourselves better, to understand our own behaviour, and seek out like minds. But a typical ambivert, I would never be happy choosing just one of the Girls crowd or SATC girls to relate to. I’m more of a Carrie/Miranda/Samantha hybrid, or a Hannah with shades of Shoshanna. Sinead says this is normal.
“Realistically, we all have elements of each of these characters – rarely are we neurotically just one! But TV execs know the appeal of generating stereotypes or traits that allow people to identify and feel they are not alone in their behaviour.” If you’re uncomfortable with some of your extrovert or introvert traits, though, don’t fret. Sinead explains that our personality types can change over time. “Experience means we can develop different aspects of our personality throughout life, not just within certain age brackets. Often, we rediscover ourselves and develop a different understanding of life based on our experiences.” This theory could explain why I lost some of my childhood extrovert tendencies – because people didn’t respond well to them. They could have proven useful, though, in adulthood. However, in time, I can get those more positive traits back, if I trust myself a bit.
In the quest to better understand ourselves, Sinead recommends we become more aware of what’s going on inside ourselves, rather than clinging to any one rigid description. “I would spend more time getting to know yourself individually – ask yourself, ‘What are my triggers?’, ‘What is my process?’, ‘What do I need to work on within myself that will help me live a freer, happier and healthier life?’. I think once we achieve some self-awareness, it is freeing. Once we understand how and why we ‘individually tick’ it gives us more freedom to explore the world in a confident way.”
This article originally appeared in the May issue of IMAGE. The June issue is on shelves right now. Subscribe here.