The Deeper Truth About Introverts
About the Guest
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Holley GerthHolley Gerth is a Wall Street Journal bestselling author, life coach, and counselor. She has sold over 500,000 books, cofounded the groundbreaking blogging community (in)courage, and now cohosts the popular podcast More Than Small Talk.
Are you, or someone you love, an introvert? Holley Gerth talks about the misconceptions and surprising truth of what it really means to be an introvert.
The Deeper Truth About Introverts
Bob: You may have found yourself thinking, at some point in your life, the way Holley Gerth used to think, that even though she was by nature an introvert, she had to force herself to become an extrovert if she really loved Jesus.
Holley: I thought that the more people in my life equaled the more I loved Jesus and the more I loved people, so I literally forced myself to the brink of burnout.
I was at a conference. I had done—it had been a year full of traveling—I think it was my 20th trip. I did a keynote; and in Sunday morning worship, I could not stop crying. I felt like God said, “It’s time to go home.” I knew that meant, “Get on the plane, go home and take a nap.” But I also knew it meant: “Go home to who I created you to be. I made you an introvert on purpose. You do not have to be someone you are not to fulfill My purpose for your life.”
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, January 13th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. You can find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. Are you an introvert? What exactly does that mean, and why would God make some people introverts? We’re going to explore that topic today with our guest, Holley Gerth. Stay with us.
Bob: And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. You think this is going to work? I mean, it’s a national radio program with an introvert? [Laughter] I mean, do you think—[Laughter]
Anne: I think it’s going to be amazing.
Bob: Do you?
Anne: Yes, and I think people are going to be excited.
Bob: We are going to be talking about introversion, and what it is, and how it affects marriages and parenting and relationships. We’ve got Holley Gerth joining us today. Holley, welcome.
Holley: Thank you for having me.
Bob: Thank you for being here, because this is you; right?
Bob: You are an introvert.
Holley: I am an introvert—
Bob: You know this is going out—
Holley: —out in the wild.
Bob: —you know this is going out to hundreds of thousands of people.
Holley: I’m trying not to think about it. [Laughter]
Ann: But thanks for bringing it up; right?
Holley: Yes, thanks for that. [Laughter]
Dave: But it’s going to feel somewhat comfortable; it’s only a couple of us in the studio.
Holley: Yes, that’s great. I love that, so I’m just going to focus on all of you.
Bob: Holley is an author. She is a wife and a mom. She’s a counselor; she has a Master of Science degree in Mental Health. She lives in northwest Arkansas with her husband, Mark. They have a 27-year-old daughter. She’s written a book about introversion, The Powerful Purpose of Introverts: Why the World Needs You to be You.
You are an introvert. When did you realize you were an introvert?
Holley: I actually first heard the word, “introvert,” in college at a Cru® meeting. I remember exactly where I was.
Bob: —Cru: Campus Crusade for Christ®; yes.
Holley: Yes, Campus Crusade. I was sitting cross-legged on this old grey carpet. They had a guest speaker talking about personality types. They said the word, “introvert.” It was this huge “Aha” moment for me because I realized: “Not only is there a name for the way I engage with the world, a whole lot of other people engage with the world this way, too”; because actually half the population is made up of introverts.
Ann: Why was that such a pivotal moment that you remember so clearly?
Holley: We do live in a more extrovert-centric society. That’s not been true throughout history. It’s not even true everywhere in the world; but today, that’s a little more dominant. Even though it’s about 50-50, introverts can feel like, “Maybe I need to be a little bit different than who I am.”
It’s really been a journey to say, “No; God made me an introvert on purpose for a purpose.” I believe that introverts and extroverts are actually a complimentary pairing that God intentionally put in the world.
Bob: Okay; I need to define the term here, because/is introversion the same as shyness?
Holley: No; it’s not.It actually has nothing to do with shyness, because shyness is fear-based. An extrovert can be shy, but introversion is actually a particular brain and nervous system wiring. It’s all about how we process our external environment/how that impacts us. That’s actually where it comes from. There’s a lot of [mis-information] about what it actually means.
Bob: You’re saying this is biological as opposed to—
Bob: —it’s not how we’re raised or what our social environment is that shapes this?
Holley: No, it actually has very little to do with how much we like people. [Laughter]
Ann: —or how good we are with people.
Holley: Yes, exactly.
Bob: So what is an introvert? What defines them?
Holley: Yes; an introvert is someone who has preference for more minimally-stimulating environments; or it’s someone who is at their best when they can fully focus—so on one person, one project—something they are passionate about. So I’ll give you a quick rundown of the brain science
Bob: What is an introvert? What defines them?
Holley: An introvert is someone who has a preference for more minimally-stimulating environments; or it’s someone who’s at their best when they can fully focus on one person, one project/something they’re passionate about. I’ll give a quick rundown of the brain science behind that. Introverts and extroverts differ in three primary ways.
First, the neurotransmitter, which is a brain chemical that makes us feel best. Extroverts feel best through one called dopamine that works kind of like caffeine: it revs us up/prepares us for action. It’s released in our systems when we have a lot coming at us from the outside—so loud room full of people—lots of dopamine going on there.
Introverts kind of have a level of dopamine that already feels good to us. It’s like we’ve had our morning cup of coffee. If we have a lot more coming at us, it feels like having an entire pot of coffee—maybe exciting at first—but eventually exhausting. We feel better through a different neurotransmitter called acetylcholine, which I say works more like herbal tea. It’s released when we do things like turn inward, focus fully on one person/a project we’re passionate about—those kind of activities instead. That’s one difference.
Then we have two divisions of our nervous system that work in similar ways. One revs us up; one is more about relaxing us. You can guess which goes with which.
Then we even use different primary brain pathways for processing. An extrovert’s primary pathway is shorter, faster, more focused on the present. That’s why y’all are usually good at small talk, because you can focus on the present—do that quick back and forth—that introverts can envy sometimes.
Introverts use a longer more complex brain pathway that takes into account the past, present and future; so we are often able to add context, and depth, and insight. It also means that we probably need a little bit longer to process; so if you see an introvert pause, that is what’s going on. They’re using that God-given longer pathway to process what’s just been said. Then they’re going to be ready to add something to the conversation.
One other difference that comes from the brain and nervous system stuff is extroverts and introverts experience happiness differently. Because of that dopamine, to extroverts, happiness feels like enthusiasm and excitement, because of the—
Dave: Yes; yes.
Holley: Yes; right? [Laughter] Do I get some cheers?
Holley: To introverts, happiness feels like calm and contentment. You can imagine, in a marriage, where a well-meaning extrovert is trying to get their introvert to be happy—the introvert’s actually already happy; but they don’t look like it, externally, in the same way—or vice versa—where we sort of even assume.
I say one exercise couples can do is say: “What are your happiness synonyms? When I say, ‘ happy,’ tell me some other words that feel like that to you.” It’s interesting; because a lot of times, extroverts will say those words, “excitement,” and introverts will say something like, “calm.”
Ann: Let’s do it with these guys; okay?
Bob: I’m thinking, as you’re describing this, I’m—
Dave: Bob’s avoiding the question. [Laughter] Did you notice that?
Bob: Here’s how I processed what you just said. I’m thinking, a year-plus ago, I had an invitation to go to Hawaii to speak. I’m thinking—
Dave: Yes, yes.
Bob: —“This is crazy.” I didn’t have to pray about it; right?
Bob: “We’re coming.”
They said, “We’d like to invite you and your wife to come, and we’ll put you up for a couple of extra days.” I went home and I said, “Guess what I got an invitation for. We can go to Hawaii.” MaryAnn was like, “The plane ride is so long.” [Laughter]
Ann: You thought she’d be so excited about this.
Bob: I knew enough about her to know happiness for her is home. Happiness is quiet, a book, calm, order; so travel is disruptive. It’s unusual; it’s like, “Yes, I’m out of my comfort zone.”
I’m hearing you—words that relate to happiness: “home” for MaryAnn; “calm” for MaryAnn. For me, it’s “adventure” and “new things” and “excitement” and “exploration.” We’re in trouble—wouldn’t you say?—based on what we’ve got going on here?
Holley: No; I think at our best, then we bring out the best in each other. Your wife probably needs some time to go have an adventure. Sometimes you have lots of adventures, and you need some time to catch your breath.
Holley: I think, when there’s clear communication, then that intentional pairing works well that God has put in place. But if you don’t have those conversations, it can be years of misunderstanding without even meaning to.
Dave: Yes, I think I represent/I hope I represent some couples that are listening, in saying that we’re laughing about it—it is sort of fun to learn—but there can be real tension in a marriage. I know I’ve been angry at Ann. She’s an extrovert, but she’s not as extroverted as me. We’ll come home—and we’ve been very busy and been around a lot of people—
Ann: Let’s say we’ve been gone, and this—
Dave: Look at her just interrupt me right there. [Laughter]
Ann: —in this one circumstance, we were gone two weeks. We haven’t been home—constantly with people, very extroverted—I was exhausted. We got home. The first night we’re home, I’m thinking, “Okay, I need to get the laundry done. I need to get the house back in order. I need to go get some groceries.”
And here’s what Dave says, “What do you want to do tonight?” [Laughter] I’m like, “Do? It’s the first night we’re home; let’s just be here!” But he’s like/he was bummed.
Dave: I’m honestly thinking, “I want to be with people that I haven’t seen in two weeks—our friends. When she’s like, “Can we just not see anybody for a couple of days?”—again, she’s really extroverted—but I was upset. I was like, “Aw, bummer. I’m going to watch TV; I’m going to sit here by myself.” [Laughter]
Ann: I felt like the biggest loser ever because I’ve disappointed him.
Dave: What would you say to a couple messed up like us?
Ann: Thanks for counselling us today. [Laughter]
Holley: Yes; I’ll charge you later. [Laughter]
I think, first, it’s helpful to recognize none of us are 100 percent introvert or extrovert; we’re all on a continuum. Obviously, you [Ann] would probably be a little closer to the introvert side; so even having that conversation. But I think, also, understanding the difference between isolation and solitude is important. Isolation is living disconnected from God, others, and our truest selves. When God said, “It’s not good for man to be alone,” that’s the kind of language He was using. But it actually has nothing to do with physical space. Some of my most isolated moments have been in a crowd of people, where I didn’t feel truly known.
We can think, “I’m not allowed to withdraw.” That’s especially hard for introverts, who literally, our nervous systems work like nets with small holes. When they get full, we have to have time to process; in that case, we need to choose solitude, which is time apart, chosen for a specific purpose: like restoration, like creative activity, like renewal after a busy season—and that is actually modeled to us by Jesus. He often did that—withdrew from the crowds. I think solitude is spiritual discipline that has been present throughout the history of church that we’ve lost a little bit.
Holley: I actually think for all of us/there’s now all these leadership studies saying that solitude is essential. Maybe we don’t need the same amount, but we all need it.
As a believer, for a long time, I felt shame for needing that; because I thought that the more people in my life equaled the more I loved Jesus and the more I loved people, so I literally forced myself to the brink of burnout. I was at a conference I had done—it had been a year full of traveling—I think it was my 20th trip. I did a keynote; and in Sunday morning worship, I could not stop crying. I felt like God said, “It’s time to go home.” I knew that meant: “Get on the plane, go home and take a nap.” But I also knew it meant, “Go home to who I created you to be. I made you an introvert on purpose. You do not have to be someone you’re not to fulfill My purpose for your life.”
That was a big “Aha” for me. I looked through all of Scripture. There’s no mandate that has to do with quantity of relationship.
Ann: Hear that Dave? [Laughter]
Holley: It’s all about quality. We’re literally told “one another”; it uses the word, “one.” I think some of us are called to ministries that involve many; that is a gift, and we are geared for that if that’s what we’re called to. But some of us are called to ministries where we pour deeply into a few people, and that’s just as valid and just as valuable.
From a brain science perspective—one more thing real quick—we actually have two other neurotransmitters, oxytocin and vasopressin, that regulate how much time with people we need and how much time alone we need. They operate like hunger and thirst. When we’re paying attention to them, God has built into us, “Okay, you need time with people now,” or “You need time on your own now.”
I’m a writer, who needs to spend hours alone most days of the week to get done what God has asked me to do; I’m okay with that. I think that’s really beautiful that God has built into us how much time we need with people/how much time we need on our own. Just learning to understand that about each other can be powerful.
Dave: I’m thinking, even in my marriage, I often haven’t valued that in Ann. If she would come home from the conference, like you just talked about, and said, “I need alone time,” I’d be like, “Why?! You and I need to go out,” rather than going, “Wow!”
Bob: How do we get to oneness—
Bob: —when our priorities, and our desires, and our oxytocin levels, and all of that are so different? When she’d come home and say, “I need alone time,” and you’re going, “No; I need you to be engaged with me doing this,”—now, we’re at cross purposes; and the goal is oneness in marriage.
Dave: We do it with our kids too!
Bob: Great point.
Dave: “I want you to be more like this, son” or :…daughter,” when we’re not stepping back and going, “No; I want to know you.”
Holley: Yes; I think there’s a powerful question that we can ask in any relationship that can be a game changer—it’s: “How can I love you well right now?”—because we assume that other people need to be loved the way that we do. You have the best of intentions when you’re trying to get your wife to go out with you because you’re assuming that she needs the same thing as you.
Holley: The intention is good; it’s just that we don’t understand. I think pausing and saying, “How can I love you well right now?”; then listening to the answer and deciding together, “What’s our way?” I heard someone say once that: “In conflict you start with an ‘I’ and an ‘I’ and at the end, if it’s successful, you end up with a ‘we.’”
Holley: I think that’s two becoming one. There’s the tendency to say: “The introvert way is right,” or “The extrovert way is right.” I think it’s about each couple, or each parent/child, or coworkers, or whoever it is, saying, “What’s our way? There’s two different ways here; how can we make one way that’s our way?”
I think that question can be a simple place to start and to say, “No shame about the answer/no judgment about the answer. I’m just going to listen to what this person has to say.”
Dave: I remember when our oldest son—CJ, who’s an introvert; he’s son number one, and we didn’t know what we were doing—we probably didn’t know what we were doing with son number three either—[Laughter]—but I remember what one of our counsellors told us about him when he comes home from school.
Ann: As I’m listening to this, I’m thinking about him; because, when he was born, you could tell he’s very different from us. He was more quiet; everybody said, “Oh, he’s so shy.” It would take him longer to process what he was thinking by his speech, which seemed delayed to me.
Here, I’m thinking, “Oh, he’s messed up,”—that’s what I thought—so I would get bigger and louder, and I would try to make him laugh even more. I would take his crib, when he was two, and I would roll it around his room, trying to get him to laugh; and he did! But I’m thinking, “Why does it take so much to get him to respond and to be laughing hilariously?” Here, the whole time I had no idea; and I was trying to get him to be like me, extroverted; because I thought that’s right.
Ann: By the time he’s a teenager, now he comes home from school; and instead of talking about his whole day—and I’m trying to ask him a million questions: “How did the day go?” “What was happening?” “What are you feeling?”—he would go up into his room and be alone. I’m thinking, “He’s plotting something devious.” [Laughter] I was worried and I’d say to Dave, “What is he doing up there?”
We ended up seeing a counsellor friend; and he said, “Oh, he’s an introvert,” which we had never even heard of the phrase before in this type of dialog; because he was explaining and defining an introvert, just as you did, Holley, which I never heard of that. When he said, “Oh, he’s just recharging his battery,” we were like, “What?!” It gave us new eyes to see him, appreciate him, and call out the greatness in him.
Holley: Yes, yes.
Ann: It was life changing—probably way more for him than for us—because I’m sure we were exhausting to him.
Holley: Yes; and I think another thing, too, for this and marriage is the five love languages. Most of us have learned those; right? It matters, not just what language that person speaks, but what volume they need it spoken in.
Ann: That’s good; I haven’t heard that.
Holley: For a words-of-affirmation introvert, a personal note is probably great—like pausing and saying, “Okay, this person is different than I am.” Even with something like the love languages, this makes a difference.
I love that you made that effort to go to counselling and to say, “Tell us about our son”; and when you heard that he was different, you received that and were open to it.
Ann: You’re a good counselor. [Laughter]
Dave: When we sort of came upon that “Aha” moment, it brought life out of him, too; because we were celebrating, “Hey, CJ, see you in a half hour”; because he would go upstairs—and he’s not building a bomb or anything that we thought—he’d come down, and there was life.
He was in a small group that we were leading a couple of years ago with pre-marrieds; he [was] already married. He wouldn’t say a lot; but I knew anytime I wanted to say, “CJ, what are you thinking right now?” it would be deep; because he’s thinking. I would have not honored that until I understood he’s wired—like you said—his brain is different. Every time—usually toward the end of the meeting, I’d say, “Hey, CJ, what are you thinking right now?”—he would have this angle—
Dave: —that nobody in the room would even—you’re like, “Oh, my goodness, what a gem in there.” It would be so easy to miss that in your child or in your spouse if you don’t step back and go, “I want to appreciate what God made them to be.”
Ann: It made a big difference for him, too; because we started talking about that a lot more as a teenager. When you grow up in the church world, and you’re going on these retreats with hundreds of kids, I asked him, “How does that feel for you? He said, “It feels good at first and then I feel so overwhelmed. I don’t even know what to do.”
We started coaching him and helping him being able to have a way of escape. He said, “I would go back to the cabin, put my headphones on, recharge; be alone.” He felt guilty about it, because sometimes we can make people feel guilty about pulling away. He said, “It just helped me love these retreats in a way I never had before.”
Holley: Yes; I’ve heard something similar from so many introverts that, especially evangelical Christian culture today, is very extroverted. I walked into a cathedral in Europe. I noticed everyone immediately lowered their voices, slowed their pace, became more reflective. I was like, “Everyone just started acting like introverts.”
For so many years, the church was a refuge from the noise and the busyness of the culture around us. I love church today; this is not a criticism. It’s just that introverts can feel like, “I must be doing faith wrong,”—I’ve had so many emails like that—I’ve had that experience personally. Even since the book has come out, that has been the chapter I got the most feedback on—is people saying, “Thank you for giving me permission to feel uncomfortable at church sometimes.”
Holley: I think it matters that we gather as believers; of course, it does; but it’s okay if God has designed us to feel His presence more when we have less external distraction. I feel closest to God when I can turn inward; if there’s a lot of music, and noise, and lights, and people around me, it’s just harder to do that. But that has nothing to do with the level of my faith.
Again, it just goes back to how God designed me. He’s not saying, “Holley, you’re in trouble.” He’s saying, “That’s my girl.” Just like He’s looking at the extrovert in the middle of that mission trip, with all these people killing it, and saying, “That’s my guy.”
I think it’s just everyone having permission to be who God made them.
Ann: I like your question, “How can I love you well, and what does that look like?”
Ann: I like that.
Bob: Yes, I really like what you’ve done in the book with the exercises you’ve got/the questions that you pose that help us figure out who we are, whether we are introverts or extroverts. In fact, on your website, you’ve got a ten-question quiz that people can take to help them figure out where they are on the introvert/extrovert scale. Go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com; there’s a link to Holley’s website there. There’s also information about her book, The Powerful Purpose of Introverts. Again, the website is FamilyLifeToday.com.
Let me just say—if one of your kids is an introvert, or if you’re married to an introvert—get this book and read it to better understand your spouse or your child. Again, the book is called The Powerful Purpose of Introverts. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com to order, or call 1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY,” to order your copy of Holley’s book.
Speaking of books, earlier this week, we talked with Chap Bettis about our responsibility as disciple-making parents. Chap’s book, which is called The Disciple-Making Parent, is available as a free audio book when you go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com. The information is available there on how you can get a free copy of the audiobook. This book maps out for us a strategy for how we disciple our own children. The most important responsibility we have, as parents, is guiding children on their spiritual journey. To get a free copy of the book, The Disciple-Making Parent/the audiobook, go to FamilyLifeToday.com. The information’s available there on how you can download your copy. We hope you enjoy that.
We hope you can join us, again, tomorrow when we’re going to talk about introverts being married to extroverts, and how that works or doesn’t work, and “What do you do, if you’re dating, and you’re attracted to somebody who’s different than you?” Holley Gerth will join us, again, tomorrow to talk about that. We hope you can join us as well.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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