Thursday, Sep 16, 2021

People People

Are you an introvert or an extrovert? That depends on how you define the terms.

The dictionary tells us that an introvert is someone who prefers calm environments and limited social engagement, or who embraces a greater than average preference for solitude. Introverts have a great interest in their own thoughts and feelings.

An extrovert, the dictionary goes on to explain, is an outgoing, gregarious person who thrives in dynamic environments and seeks to maximize social engagement. His psychological profile includes a strong interest in his physical or social surroundings.

Does this make things clearer for you? A little clearer, maybe. But reading these definitions, we can easily make the mistake of thinking that these two types of individuals, the inward-tending introvert and the outward-motivated extrovert, are completely different species. The first, we might assume, is content to basically ignore the whole human race, while the second simply cannot live without constant social interaction.

But we’d be wrong. The only place where these descriptions hold true is at either end of a long and varied spectrum. In other words, I believe that there is an almost endless line of possibilities, and that each person is a dot somewhere on that line. Where on that spectrum you find yourself depends on your innate characteristics, as per our helpful dictionary definitions. You may trend more toward the “introvert” extreme, or incline toward the one marked “extrovert.” Most likely, you are somewhere in the middle.

I once heard an intriguing way of explaining how introverts and extroverts operate. An introvert, the theory goes, draws most of her energy from within herself, which the extrovert draws her energy from those around her. But even these definitions are subject to a spectrum. To show how, let me use an example I know fairly well: myself.

There is no question that I draw a great deal of energy and satisfaction from my own thoughts and imaginings. That would put me squarely in the “introvert” camp. At the same time, however, I love parties, simchos and hosting big, rollicking yom tov meals. As opposed to the classic image of the introvert as a loner who turns her back on society, I find people fascinating and enjoy nothing more than a good conversation. True, I prefer those conversations one-and-one rather than in a group, since I’m more interested in the inner lives of individuals than in the group dynamic. Still, I seem to be a mishmash of introverted qualities combined with the classically extroverted tendencies described above. I think of myself as a “sociable introvert.”

In not adhering to the “classic” profile, I am not unique. Many unquestioned extroverts have a strong need for solitude at regular intervals, if only to decompress between social interactions. And many introverts, as we have seen, can bear an uncanny resemblance to a social animal at times. There are also people like my husband: self-defined introverts who draw tremendous energy from meaningful interactions such as the ones they encounter in the classroom.

You can spot these tendencies even in young children. One of mine was so naturally extroverted that, within minutes of getting home after spending a whole day at school with her friends, she was pestering me to drive her over to her best friend’s house to play. Her best friend, however, was not so eager for these visits, since she was my daughter’s psychological opposite: at the end of a super-sociable school day she wanted nothing more than to enter her quiet space and chill on her own for a while.

You can tell a “people person” a mile off. They are the classic extroverts who enjoy engaging with others for most of their waking hours. Even when involved in solitary activities such as walking or reading, they will usually enjoy the presence of a companion.

Where the surprise comes is with those who generally define themselves as introverts. Except for the extreme end of the spectrum, where the die-hard loners live, I’d venture to say that most of us, to a greater or lesser degree, are “people people.” We just spice our relationships a little differently.

*****

We’ve established that we all, to some degree or another, need and want people in our lives. Now, here comes the interesting part: why?

What do you need people for? What role do they play in your life and how do they help fulfill your innermost needs?

Some of us view people as—for lack of a better word—a resource. I may need you for companionship, for entertainment, or to provide me with some sort of practical help. While I enjoy your company, you are more important to me because I need something from you than because I have a deep appreciation for who you are as a human being. Though this may sound a bit callous, it seems to be a common factor in many human relationships. We seek each other out for the things we can give each other.

Taking this to an unhealthy extreme, we see individuals who regard others in a truly objective fashion: as a means to gratify their own needs and desires. This can be a subtle thing, hardly conscious, or it can be used in blatant and shameless self-gratification. An example of the first kind of person would be someone I once knew, who, when asked what she enjoyed doing in her spare time, would say, “I like chesed.”

Of course, we were all commanded to perform acts of chesed. Different people, however, go about it in different ways. This young woman enjoyed chesed as an abstract virtue, rather than as a way of bringing her into deep and personal contact with other people. Someone like Rebbetzin Batsheva Kanievsky, would probably have put it differently. She might have said, “I like people, so I like to do chesed and help them.” I imagine that it wasn’t the abstract idea of chesed she “liked” as much as she loved helping people. She tended to get personal with just about everyone. Their pain was her pain. Every human being was a cherished “other” whom she strained to shower with goodness and healing. See the difference?

At the extreme end of the “people-as-resource” spectrum would be those with an overweening drive for power. Like despots who are willing to sacrifice thousands upon thousands of soldiers to gratify their desire for power and control, such people don’t really see people as individuals with hearts and goals and dreams. For them, people are simply fodder for their ego mill.

Most of us, boruch Hashem, are very far from that extreme. Still, it behooves us to catch any tendencies we may have to occasionally “use” the people around us. To work toward achieving a deeper understanding of, and a sincere appreciation for, the precious souls that populate our little worlds. For their own sakes, and not only for what they can give us.

The more we distance ourselves from viewing people as objective resources, the more empathy we will have toward them. Empathy is a trait that can definitely be cultivated. Don’t worry if you fall closer to the “introverted” end of the personality spectrum, where you don’t feel an overwhelming need for much social contact. And don’t worry, either, if you fall so close to the “extrovert” end that you prefer to surround yourself with fun-loving groups rather than stopping to get to know each individual on the inside.

For both types, there is a rare and precious middle zone that we can all achieve.

The place where we can learn to enjoy another person’s unique essence and become enriched by it. And enrich them in our turn.

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