Psychological Society of South Africa
Psychological Society of South Africa

Negotiating my identity as an introvert in an extroverted society

By Magnolia Bahle Ngcobo-Sithole

When someone asks me “Who are you?” I often respond by giving my name and surname. If we keep the conversation going long enough I start talking about the work that I do. I may also mention some of my hobbies. The conversation stays superficial and safe. I never talk about the true me, the person beneath all the roles that I play or the places that I like to visit or the things that I like to do. Yet I know that I have certain qualities tied to who I consider myself to be, my true identity. These are the qualities that make me unique and different from my sisters and from friends. Perhaps I do not reveal my authentic self for fear of being rejected, because society seeks out specific qualities.

Society makes room for only a specific group of people: usually the extroverts. Being an extrovert is associated with good leadership skills, power, charisma, confidence, and success. Extroverts are people who enjoy team work and public speaking. They are perceived as go-getters. They think out loud. In meetings and social gatherings they are more likely to contribute to the discussion. As a result the only personality style that remains of consequence for employment opportunities or leadership and managerial positions in most of our institutions is that of an extrovert. I have sat in many selection committees to know this for sure, both as a member of the selection committee as well as a candidate being considered for specific positions.

When I reflect on my identity, I am confronted with two opposing identities. On the one hand I see myself as an individual who has her own identity, the true me, an introvert. On the other hand I see someone who has an identity that has been imposed on me by society.

As an introvert in a society that seeks extroverted qualities I often find myself stretched beyond my comfort zone to present myself otherwise. I have been labelled as “antisocial”, “just a warm body”, even “an imbecile”. In many ways I am pushed to be the False Me so I can end the name calling. Many times I have been told that I must participate in meetings; that I need to present myself “out there” so that I can be seen as a potential leader; that I should network and position myself in the right places and meet the right people. I have tried to be what society expects from me.

As I was growing up I wished that I was different. I rejected the quiet and clumsy me. The amazing thing is that the route to personal change and development is not in rejecting or in trying to change who you are, it is in accepting all of you that you can fully develop and move on. Society does not know how to deal with the power of introverts and chooses to reject us.

I value who I am and I believe that there is a good reason why I am the way I am. As an introvert I am much more mindful than extroverts, even though I may come across as a slow thinker. I avoid drawing attention to myself and tend to be more quiet and reserved in meetings and social gatherings. I enjoy solitary activities and my own company which has often been perceived as being disinterested in other people. I am not a socialite but I do establish and maintain a few meaningful relationships. I prefer to work alone and focus on one project at a time than do many things at once and I know that makes me seem less productive or even less motivated about my job.

I am not pushy and I’m perceived as lacking in assertiveness. I may not use 20 words where only five would do the same job sufficiently but I do communicate what needs to be communicated when I feel the need to do so. I may also not communicate my thoughts as eloquently as an extrovert and seem less intelligent but I know that my way of communication is part of my identity. I may not be an extrovert or function according to society’s standards but I do not function any less effectively than anyone else who is identified as an extrovert. I used to spend an enormous amount of time trying to imitate extroverts but I discovered that I lose a huge part of myself. Now for the most part I opt for a life of honesty and authenticity to who I truly am and risk being rejected for potential job promotions. I choose to be assertively me, the introvert.

Through a series of challenges associated with being an introvert I have learned to acknowledge my uniqueness that no other person possesses. I do not allow myself to be misled by what society expects anymore. I have since given myself a break from the “should dos” or the “must dos”, or the “need to” and “have to dos” of the dominant culture of extroverts.

In the process of aggressively chasing after extroverted qualities just to fit into society I realised that I was actively distancing myself from my own values of quietness, solitude and mindfulness. So, I am an introverted black woman and that is OK!

Dr Maggie Bahle Ngcobo-Sithole works as a senior clinical psychologist and lecturer employed by the Department of Health and Stellenbosch University (SU). She is based at Stikland Psychiatric Hospital and attached to SU’s psychiatry department on the Tygerberg Campus. She completed her PhD in post-traumatic stress and sexual abuse, and has now developed an interest in issues of diversity and auto/ethnographic methodologies. She recently presented a paper “Negotiating an identity as a black woman in multiracial spaces” during the African Psychology Symposium at PsySSA’s 21st annual South African Psychology Congress in Johannesburg.

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