There has been so much written about the characteristics of introverts and extroverts. Psychologists are of the opinion that introversion and extroversion are traits that are hard wired into the brain and therefore is something that we are born with. This is certainly true. Also true is that the brain is adaptable even until our latest years (neuroplasticity). There are of course limits to how much can be changed. You cannot attempt to completely rewire your personality. However, there is a middle path – which is the path of self-awareness. Bring conscious attention to our own personality traits – our unconscious behavior patterns – may help us create a distance between the conscious observing self and the unconscious thinking and reactive self.
At first this is very very painful indeed. Awareness of our attributes and behavioral patterns does two things 1) It brings up our flaws which and 2) We lose our sense of identity. On the path of self-enquiry, this initial pain and dejection is a very very common happening. The great Indian philosophical text Yoga Vasishta begins with Rama being utterly despondent. The same is true in the Bhagavad Gita which begins by Arjuna being drowned in utter sadness. This is also a common theme is movies and other heroic epics where the hero has to go through immense suffering before emerging out into peace, victory and wisdom. This path of painful metamorphosis is the path of spiritual awakening. This might be enough to deter people from embarking on the long and arduous journey towards freedom. But the alternative is far more unsettling.
What is the alternative? The alternative is a life lead of base human existence. A life of unconscious behaviors and patterns. This is a reactive life in contrast to a reflective life. We are so caught up in our surroundings, happenings, relationships, events, jobs, careers, joys and sorrows that we do not have the time to process all of this. All of us who live (or have lived) such lives will at some point or the other find it meaningless. As a general rule, the older we get, the greater the feeling of restless discontent. This is popularly known as a midlife crisis in the west. At this point in our lives, we feel we have earned some money, have a job, have a family, are fairly entertained and yet. And yet. And yet… there is something deeply missing. This feeling is unavoidable and part of being human. Human consciousness is awakening and pushing each one of us towards evolution. Therefore, the alternate path of hedonistic unawareness is not really an option.
Therefore, this pain of transmutation has to be accepted. Buddhist teachings tell us that we must accept this pain and suffering as our teachers. Christ also embodies the spirit of suffering. He willingly surrendered to the suffering. And through this, an instrument of torture – the cross – became the doorway to the infinite. Suffering is our teacher. It has the greatest potential to accelerate our transition to a much more conscious life.
Therefore, self-awareness is the beginning of any meaningful transformation in life. How then is this related to our behavioral patterns? Many of us are unconsciously impelled by our extroverted or introverted behavioural patterns. These patterns were adopted by us in our childhood – whether genetic or environmental – these are our behavioral patterns. But my point is that we need not be trapped in this for life. We can become free from compulsive behaviors and transition to a much more nuanced and conscious choice based behavior. Let’s look at some definite examples of how this can be done.
Let’s say you are an introvert and love spending time by yourself at home. How uncomfortable are you in public places? Do they crush you? Do you feel like running away back into your comfort zone?
On the other hand, let’s say you are a super social extrovert. Do you abhor silence and spending time alone in an empty house? Does that bring up anxiety and fears? Do you fill up calendar by saying yes to everything and anything that comes up?
Both the above unconscious behavioral patterns are born out of fear. And this is where self-awareness is the key. The first step is to recognize our strong reactions. Then, we must become aware of the feeling in our body (our emotions) behind this action. Often, when there is fear, one can sense a crushing sensation in the chest. What we do in these instances is run back to our comfort zones and this dilutes the sensation. However, we have not rooted out the dysfunctional pattern, which soon emerges at another similar situation. By bringing awareness to our behavioral patterns – without self censure – we begin to step back from our behaviors. This is the “observing self”. As this strengthens over time, we begin to become free from our compulsive behaviors. This is freedom. This is liberation. This is enlightenment.
As introverts, try to convert your fears into your strengths. Instead of running back home and picking up that book – as an escape mechanism, start going deeply into a subject of your choice. It could be a hobby. It could be a art form. Whatever it is, since being alone comes easily to you, use introverted activities as a means of self-expression. Then, these activities are not used as escape mechanisms, but are means of bringing our self-awareness. A sense of connection, of peace and joy emanates from within.
The same is true for extroverts. Instead of reaching out to your phone to call your friend to fix up a drink, or escaping on the next train to yet another holiday, use your strength of working with people, to bring about social change. Build a network or a community that can help solve local problems. Reach out to people to make their lives better. Ask people how you can be useful to their lives. This shift in attitude – from escaping – to conscious self expression brings about immense change within oneself.
Notice, that in both introverts and extroverts, the behaviors remain “internally focused” and “externally focused” respectively. But the common point is self expression through self-awareness. Both are connected deeply to who they are and their actions are motivated from love as opposed to fear. This is the bridge between these two seemingly opposite personality types. And this is also true in relationships between people of two opposing types. The common bridge is self-expression, self- discovery beyond the ego.
So begin by identifying your base characteristic. Are you an introvert or an extrovert? Then, examine your actions. Are they coming from a space of focus, of determination, of effortless flow – or are they coming from a space of escapism. Become aware – while accepting who you are right now. Slowly, through awareness, start bringing awareness in the activities you select. This forms your priority. And over time, as we practice self-awareness, our lives start to be filled with pregnant meaning.