I’ve known since I was very young that I just experienced life differently than did my extroverted family members and friends. During parties, they seemed to truly enjoy the loudness and chaos of get togethers and the seemingly endless small talk, while I would secretly yearn to return home so that I could read my latest novel in peace. An older family member once told me that I would eventually learn to appreciate the wonderful aspects of social gatherings, and I remember having absolutely no idea what he was talking about. It seemed as though everybody else had gotten a memo instructing them on the skills of extroversion and social connectedness.
While I slowly learned to make peace with my introverted tendencies in my personal life, my professional life was a different story altogether. The reality is that I didn’t know if being a doctor and being an introvert were mutually exclusive. Most of the physicians I had known growing up had loud and commanding social presences, booming voices, extraordinary humor and the ability to seamlessly glide into and out of any social setting with ease. In fact, when I was preparing for medical school interviews, I mentally prepped myself to project the image of someone who was bold and could be an outspoken leader in a crowd of applicants. The truth was, however, that this was nothing like me.
What is an introvert anyways? Extroverts typically draw energy and gratification from the external world, while introverts tend to be more solitary and opt to draw energy and gratification from the internal world. What’s confusing is that introverts can look like extroverts, and vice versa. For example, introverts are not always shy and do not necessarily lack confidence; many of them can be social and have several friends. On the other hand, many introverts are exhausted by social settings and will need quiet time to recharge after a social gathering. Often introverts will be very pensive, introspective and prefer time to reflect. Many will engage largely in solitary activities, drawing enjoyment from such activities over socializing or activities requiring social interactions. Some sources say that as much as 50 percent of the population is introverted. Surprising? Perhaps, but that’s only because many introverts move through life looking more like their extroverted counterparts. The same, likely, is true of physicians.
In a society that equates social ease and extroverted tendencies with strength, vivaciousness, confidence, independence and success, it is far too often that introverts are given negative messages such as “you need to come out of your shell” or “you need to speak up.” After receiving such messages repeatedly, many view their introverted tendencies as a negative quality or some sort of indication of a personality deficiency. In fact, many of my patients will opt to take the Myers-Briggs personality assessment and then will sheepishly admit to being introverts, waiting expectantly for me to link their introverted tendencies to their deep psychic wounds or any of their perceived failures. The same messages are passed on to physicians; many times on rounds, the most outspoken resident is often pegged as being the most confident, knowledgeable one. Even as attendings, those of us who appear to be more verbal and engaging are in a different, higher category.
So say a doctor’s brain is wired to introversion. She may draw her energy and ideas from quietly processing the day’s events, being cerebral, thinking about things or reading about them on her own — all of which are great qualities for a professional who is expected to be able to analyze data and make a sound medical decision based off that analysis. She may enjoy spending time in small groups or one on one, instead of working on teams. This is tough in medicine — where clinical work necessitates being comfortable enough around people that one can interact with patients, staff, and colleagues all day long and still have enough energy to give the last patient of the day as much attention and focus as you did your first. However, it can be done, quite beautifully and successfully if done correctly.
If a physician is aware of his introversion, he would benefit from factoring this into his decisions about his career. For example, introverted physicians might opt to pursue careers in specialties that do not require direct patient contact. Also, some practice settings allow a physician to work independently instead of as part of a team. And those physicians who need to network in order to build their practices might even be able to do so online instead of face-to-face.
Many of my patients present with complaints of certain personality traits that they don’t like about themselves. However, as I often tell these patients, understanding of oneself and complete acceptance for self is the key to moving forward. Once this is understood and one is able to recognize that introversion is not a bad thing (and that it may, in fact, be a great thing), we can instead focus on the unique strengths and capabilities introverts do tend to have. An introverted physician may be cerebral, pensive, reflective. He may be more thoughtful about certain decisions, particularly risky ones, and his patients can be the benefactors of these carefully-made treatment choices. His manner may speak to patients who struggle otherwise to be heard, thus enabling some of the most vulnerable patients to open up and advocate for themselves. He may be more creative and thus may find unique ways of solving difficult or complicated medical problems.
Introverts should be aware and accepting of who they are, but should also know that others (especially those who are wired far differently or in a more extroverted way) might misunderstand them because of the unique ways they move through the world. They must recognize that, since they might be largely internally focused, they may come as aloof, disengaged or shy. Understand that making an attempt to engage more, smile more or make more eye contact during rounds, with patients or with colleagues could make an impact. If you need a break from rounds or from the social aspect of working with patients/colleagues, take a moment to take a breath — even a few minutes of doing this can help you to reset and move on with your day in a productive way.
Introverts are often encouraged to be more bold and to speak up. Many of us have been told this many times over the years, in a society that values people who have a strong social capability and views being outspoken as the equivalent of being strong, bold or full of personality. Do you have an introverted physician? Good for you! You just might discover that your doctor has some unique strengths that can help guide you into wellness.
Aparna Iyer is a psychiatrist.
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