Posts Tagged ‘Carl Jung’

Ask most people in North America, and they can tell you whether they are an introvert or an extrovert. The terms are by far the best-known pieces of psychological jargon today, far more familiar than even the Oedipal Complex, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. However, I often suspect that accepting either is about as meaningful as knowing whether you are a Taurus or a Capricorn.

Few others share my misgivings. If you enjoy people and being the center of attention, you consider yourself an extrovert and a leader. By contrast, if you prefer your own company and pursuits, you are an introvert, an intellectual and perhaps a power behind the scene. Either way, you pity the other type. You dismiss introverts as weak and potential high school serial killers if you identify as an extrovert, and extroverts as shallow and oblivious if you identify as an introvert.

The justification for such a firm distinction is always that these terms were devised by Carl Jung, one of the great pioneers of psychology. However, citing Jung on matters of psychology is like citing Marx about communism; few people have actually read much of his work aside from a few quotes received fourth or fifth hand.

I have some sympathy for those who avoid reading Jung. I read about three-quarters of his collected works while researching my thesis, and even in English translation, his syntax remains Germanic. More importantly, Jung had a wide ranging mind, and anything he says on a given subject represents only his thoughts as he wrote. Since Jung rarely seems to have fully made up his mind about anything, that means that whatever he wrote in one place usually needs to be compared with corrections, revisions, and even contradictions elsewhere.

The mistake that most people make about extroversion and introversion is to conclude that, because Jung sometimes as those terms refer to people – or at least personality types – in other places he seems to use them to describe behavior or tendencies.

This is a subtle but important difference in emphasis. If you apply these terms to people, then you imply an either-or distinction. Just as a person either is or is not 180 centimeters high, so a person either is or is not an introvert or an extrovert. If questioned, some might grudgingly admit that someone who is a little of both might exist, but, in practice, such exceptions tend to be overlooked by most people using the terms.

Admittedly, every now and then, you encounter someone who calls themselves an introvert pretending to be an extrovert, such these people are a minority. The majority firmly choose sides and never deviate.
By contrast, if you talk in terms of extrovert or introvert behavior, then you open the possibility that people are a mixture of both. A minority of people at opposite ends of the bell curve might be fairly defined as almost entirely introvert or extrovert, but the majority will fall somewhere between the two extremes.

This perspective seems far more descriptive of people than insisting on one label or the other in all cases. I know that in my own case, I can sometimes be unashamedly extrovert, being the first to volunteer an opinion or address a group of people. At other times, if I am distracted by an article forming in my mind, or I am moody or with people I dislike, I would be judged an introvert. I need solitude for writing, but, once I am finished for the day, I want people around me just as much.

Nor, despite their varying scores on Meyers Briggs tests or other psychological horoscopes, do I think that most people are that much different. The most that tests can do is show a person’s tendency at the time they took the test. To get an accurate picture of a person’s range of behavior, I suspect that they would have to be tested repeated over a long period of time – probably at least a month.

Of course, that sort of intensive testing is rarely done. It is easier to label a person introvert or extrovert, based on a single moment or even subjective impressions. But the price we pay for such easy assignments of categories is a view of ourselves and others that is falsified by over-simplification.

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In the last couple of generations, modern industrial culture has seriously reduced the range of acceptable emotions. Certain emotions are not only unpleasant, the conventional wisdom goes, but should be avoided at all costs. However, the older I grow, the more I become convinced that this attitude is not only wrong, but actively harmful.

One of the most obvious examples of this attitude is the insistence on extroversion. Today, the model of the well-adjusted person has become an outgoing optimist who lives and works in groups, and feels uncomfortable alone. Not only are projects in schools and businesses increasingly done in teams, but even yoga and meditation, originally intended for private reflection, is done primarily in groups. By contrast, anyone with a preference for occasional privacy is seen as maladjusted at best, and at worst a potential perpetrator of another campus shooting.

This either-or distinction is a distortion of Carl Jung’s original concept, which described two poles of behavior, and was never intended to label people. Nor did Jung intend to condemn either extreme. Equating introversion with maladjustment is as accurate as it would be to condemn extroverts for being irresponsible and unable to focus; both extremes might include such behaviors, but actually cover a far broader ranger of behavior.

More importantly, as Anthony Storr points out in Solitude, many forms of creativity and original thought seem to require extended periods of introverted behavior. For that matter, the most successful forms of collaboration tend to be like the one used in free software, in which people work alone in the initial stages of their works, then collaborate for peer review and tweaking. By devaluing introversion, we are probably also undermining creativity – which may explain why movies with three or more names on the script rarely produce anything memorable.

Similarly, certain states of mind, such as depression and anger, are seen not only to be unpleasant, but to be avoided and medicated as quickly as possible. More – any decisions or conclusions reached in these undesirable states are questioned, or excused as being the indication of an unsound mind.

In some cases, that might be so. But always? Probably not. Depression and anger are natural reactions to events like the death of someone close, or being treated unfairly.. While dwelling endlessly on such things is unhealthy, accepting them for a certain amount of time is probably necessary for coming to terms with them. Denying this need, or trying to shorten the time in which such emotions are indulged may be as mentally unhealthy as removing a cast before a bone has had time to knit back together is unhealthy physically.

As for these emotions offering a skewed version of reality, why do we assume that the optimism that we believe is typical of a well-adjusted person is any more accurate of a perception? Personally, I have seen more projects – and companies – spiral downward because of decisions made by an optimist who was unable to admit when something was going wrong. A depressed person might at least anticipate problems so they could be countered, or admit problems when actually faced with them. In the same way, an angry person might drive themselves harder for success. Instead of accepting only one attitude as realistic, I suspect that we need to accept a much wider range of emotions as sometimes offering useful perceptions.

Yet another example is the nervousness and anxiety typical of someone who moves into a new job or set of responsibilities. When you stop to think (and even when you don’t), there are valid reasons for feeling uneasy. There are many things you can’t know about your new position, and you want to prove yourself to colleagues and ultimately become a success.

Many athletes and performers recognize such feelings – actors call them “flop sweat.” But rather than pretending that these feelings don’t exist, they worry when that not having such feelings will lead to a flat and uninspired performance. The trick, they will tell you, is to control these feelings, to channel them into the performance. If you can do that, you will have the extra edge that leads to outstanding performance.

However, we don’t admit that flop sweat is natural, let alone teach people how to cope with it. Instead, we give it a name like Impostor Syndrome, elevating it to a psychiatric condition – which except in a small minority of cases, it usually is not – giving the sufferers one more thing to worry about and elevating the feelings into some vast, impersonal force. Instead of teaching them how to reduce the anxiety by practice or planning, we encourage the sufferers to give themselves affirmations, or seek the approval of others. We encourage them to look for placebos rather than solutions that are known to work, and, as we do so, we are probably both preventing the development of competence and encouraging mediocrity.

I am not the sort of Puritan who believes that suffering is necessary for success, or needs to be sought out. But I do believe that it must be confronted directly, not avoided. Too often, in our panic to avoid the least unpleasantness, we limit ourselves and short-circuit the processes that are necessary for accomplishment and competence. We mean well, but in enforcing extroversion and pleasantness, we may also be suppressing necessary and useful emotions.

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