Within the past year, I’ve seen two cartoons explaining what introverts are and instructing extroverts how to interact with them. The implication is that introverts aren’t being treated fairly, extroverts mindlessly devouring the limited energy resources that introverts have for social contact. As one of the cartoons explains, introverts “tend to see extroverts as obnoxious predators out to steal their sweet, sweet energy juices,” so introverts project a “human-sized hamster ball” around themselves for protection. Respect the hamster ball, the cartoon tells us, “energy is limited … it’s that simple.”
But, extending what is clearly an intentionally broad metaphor, why not respect the needs of the extrovert, who apparently must feed off others to survive? “Introverts” as introverts feel entitled not to have to interact with extroverts if they don’t feel like it, but what if the extrovert is dying of energy starvation? Then what?
Of course it’s all a bunch of hogwash, that’s the problem. There are no introverts. There are no extroverts. They’re labels, and there is no need to identify with them. You are an “introvert” when you act like an introvert and an “extrovert” when you act like an extrovert. Granted, you might be in the habit of behaving one way or another for any and all sorts of reasons, but why identify with an abstract idea used to describe your behavior? All you’ll end up doing is performing that label, doing and not doing things because you just know you’re an extrovert or introvert. Why not, instead, meet each moment as it arises and just do your best? That is, respond to life as it arises, engaging it fully and responsibly. If you end up responding as an introvert, then you do. So what? It’s that simple.
True, you might not do what you would ideally like to, but guess what? A new situation has already arisen, a new response is required. If you keep doing your best, taking care of what shows up by taking care of it, not by hoping to get rid of it or trying to change or avoid it, but genuinely taking care of it, you won’t need a label to help you navigate your way.
I don’t mean to single out “introverts” or “extroverts,” either. This goes for all labels we use to identify ourselves and others, especially in the political arena. Just last week, I saw a bumper sticker on a van announcing, “I am a conservative Catholic voter.” What the hell does that even mean? And what is the intended effect of putting that on your bumper? What do you want people to do? Flip you off? Applaud you? And I would like to think that since a living, breathing, thinking human being is making that claim, there will be moments when that identity will be challenged, moments when one is forced either to vote against one’s identity or one’s conscience. Why put yourself through that anguish?
True, sometimes acting from labels might be provisionally necessary. If others label you and treat you according to that label, you might need to organize in its name to fight it, but it seems wholly unnecessary and counter-productive to identify with it and mistake it for who you are. To quote sociologist Erving Goffman in his ground-breaking book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, the “self is a product of a scene … and is not a cause of it.” I would even take that a step farther: the self is the scene. Whatever arises and however you meet it, that’s who you are, and you don’t even really need to go there since by that definition you’ll never be the same twice. To act as who you think you are, rather than simply to act, is an unnecessary, and sometimes harmful, complication.