The Power of Introverts

June 01, 2013

The Power of Introverts

Craig Josling

I remember sitting around a table at a ministry team leaders’ meeting some years ago. The room was full of big personality types—confident, humorous, quick thinkers. We were trying to find a solution to a problem in order to grow our ministry. Suddenly the senior pastor turned to me with anger in his voice and said ‘Come on Craig, say something! Don’t just sit there. You are always so quiet—what do you think?’ Time stood still as my mind went blank and I mumbled something or other.

Was this public drubbing a blessing in disguise to get me out of my quiet self or was it an insensitive act of bullying in a world that assumes everyone should be an extrovert?

Even if I did want to be more outgoing, is it possible to change myself or am I stuck with who I am?

And what does the Bible have to say about personality types? Most people think that Jesus was an extrovert, yet he often withdrew to the quiet places to pray.[1]

Shouldn’t Christians stop navel gazing and just get on with following Jesus and ‘carrying our crosses’ and stop being so self-indulgent?

These were some of the issues that went through my mind when I recently read two books aimed at introverted personality types.

Two great books

The first book was entitled Introverts in the Church: Finding our Place in an Extroverted Culture written by Adam S. McHugh. McHugh is a self-confessed introvert who is also an ordained Presbyterian minister in the US. The aim of his book is that ‘God will begin...a process of healing[2] introverts—helping them find freedom in their identities and confidence to live their faith in ways that feel natural and life-giving, the way that God intended’ (p13).

The second book I read was Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking by Susan Cain. Cain is a former Wall Street lawyer and not from a Christian background (her grandfather was a Rabbi). She spent six years researching and writing her book, the aim of which is ‘to improve relationships with others’ and ‘develop a newfound sense of entitlement to be yourself’ (p21f).

Both books present the latest research on personality types and are well written and easy to read. They contain a wealth of information, and here I do little more than skim the surface as I share some of the things I learned from reading and reflecting on them.

  1. Introverts need to accept the way that God has made them and learn to celebrate who they are

‘But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.’ (1 Cor 12:18)


Introverts[3] are people with quieter personalities who prefer to listen rather than speak, who prefer discussing deeper things rather than small talk and who prefer less social interaction. Introverts spend a lot of time processing ideas in their heads but don’t think ‘on their feet’ too well (McHugh, p42). Susan Cain describes it like this:

[I]ntroverts and extroverts differ in the level of outside stimulation that they need to function well. Introverts feel ‘just right’ with less stimulation, as when they sip wine with a close friend. Extroverts enjoy the extra bang that comes from activities like meeting new people, skiing slippery slopes and cranking up the stereo. (p15)

It’s hard wired into our brains

Both authors have dug up a lot of research to prove that we are born with our personality type—that it’s ‘hard wired into our brains’ (McHugh, p43).

Cain cites an interesting study by Professor Jerome Kagan from Harvard University (pp5-8). In 1989 Kagan launched a study of five hundred infants who were four months old. He was able to predict on the basis of a forty five minute evaluation which babies were more likely to turn out introverts or extroverts.

Kagan classed some babies as ‘high reactive’ as a result of their responses to various stimuli—they cried loudly and pumped their arms lustily. These babies were more likely to turn out to be introverts. But didn’t these babies behave more like extroverts, you ask? The point is that they were more sensitive to stimuli and therefore required less of it and tired more easily from it. In contrast, extroverts were less sensitive to stimuli and sought more of it from the outside world in order to feel ‘alive’. Kagan believed this difference of reactivity to stimuli was tied to an organ inside the brain called the amygdala.

Research like this suggests that if you have a quieter personality type, it’s because God has made you more sensitive. It is not a personality defect but just who you are and, as we shall see, there are certain advantages to being this way.

How this knowledge can help

For those who tend to introversion, knowing that you have a quiet (sensitive) personality type can help you to better manage yourself and be more content with who you are. Here are some practical suggestions for you, gleaned from the two books and my reflections on them:

  • Be aware that you might need to take time out alone on a busy church weekend away or conference. Withdrawing for a time will help you to recharge for social interactions later on. Pace yourself and don’t feel guilty about it.
  • Stop comparing yourself to people who seem to have an unlimited supply of energy for people and activity. Realise that God has given you different strengths (gifts).
  • You will need to spend more time preparing for meetings or interactive seminars because you aren’t as good at thinking on your feet compared to extroverts. You might even choose to avoid debates. You are not less intelligent. God has wired your brain to think more deeply and reflectively, but also more slowly (McHugh, p45). You also think better with peace and quiet away from social pressure.
  • You will need to work harder in communication because your tendency is to process information internally. Learn to over-express yourself in terms of body language and your thought processes. Don’t assume that people know what you’re thinking (McHugh, p105).

In summary: don’t say to yourself ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body’; after all, if ‘the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be?’(1 Cor 12:16f). Rejoice in who God has made you because you’ve got a lot to give—as we shall now see.

  1. Extroverts need to value quieter personality types

You might have noticed I sometimes use the term ‘quieter personality types’ instead of ‘introverts’. This is because the word ‘introvert’ carries with it all sorts of negative connotations. Have you noticed that people don’t like being called introverts—even though between 30 and 50% of people actually are (Cain p4; McHugh p17)?

Where has the extrovert ideal come from?

Both Cain and McHugh argue that extroversion has not always been the cultural ideal in church or society in the West.

Cain argues that extroversion became the cultural ideal in America (and other Western societies) from the early 20th century. Her thesis is that as people moved from rural to urban areas, cities swelled and people had to ‘sell’ themselves in the market economy. This is illustrated with the popularity of Dale Carnegie’s book Public Speaking and Influencing Men in Business published in 1913. By the 1920s popular self-help guides had changed their focus from inner virtue to outer charm. America was shifting from a culture of character to a culture of personality (Cain, pp4,7).

McHugh traces the extrovert ideal in the Western church back to The Great Awakening—a time in the 17th and 18th centuries when Christian revival swept through the UK, Europe and North America. At the centre of the revival was a great preacher named George Whitfield who energetically proclaimed the gospel word to crowds of thousands of people, many times a day—and without electronic amplification. Through this revival, McHugh argues, Christianity became a religion of outward emotion and expression.

The Second Great Awakening followed the first but was less intellectual and reflective, and more pragmatic and action oriented. McHugh claims that this second awakening in particular has influenced the modern church to rely on ‘overt, demonstrative, experiential displays of devotion...[and] public expressions of faith...which affirms extroverted Christianity at the expense of quiet, reflective, thoughtful Christianity’ (McHugh, pp23-28).

So Cain and McHugh both argue that it is only recently that the extroverted personality type has become the cultural ideal of Western societies (not so in the East) and that quieter personality types are undervalued.

Both authors spend considerable time in their books spelling out how we can all benefit by giving more space to introverts, and offering advice about how to bring out the best in them.

The benefits that introverts bring

Introverts are good at:

  • Thinking carefully about problems from all angles. Introverts are people who, slowly but carefully, mull over and think deeply about issues.
  • Introverts are sensitive, good listeners and give space to others to express themselves. They make good friends.
  • Introverts make good leaders (especially in groups of highly motivated people) because they give people space to do their job and don’t try to dominate the agenda or stifle initiative (Cain, p35f). Cain cites a famous study which found that leaders of the most successful companies were ‘quiet, humble, modest, reserved, shy, gracious, mild-mannered, self-effacing, understated…coupled with intense professional will’.[4]
  • Making a plan and staying with the plan. Introverts are better at regulating their feelings of desire or excitement and recognising warning signals of danger (Cain, p6). This helps them to formulate sensible and realistic goals and not be distracted by ‘exciting’ alternatives which are ‘off track’. So it is wise to include introverts in important corporate decisions and give them jobs that require a steady faithfulness and perseverance.

How to bring out the best in introverts

  • Distribute notes and topics for meetings in advance so people have time to think carefully about the issues.
  • Give time in meetings or even overnight to allow introverts to process what they are hearing before any decisions are made, or collaborate ideas online. Cain’s book contains an interesting chapter on the advantages of working alone (ch 3). For example, research suggests that ‘brain storming’ is not the best way for a group to think up the best ideas. A better way is to give participants time alone to come up with the best solution (p26).
  • In meetings, give quieter personality types the time and space to express their ideas.
  • Don’t judge when they take time out to ‘recharge’ themselves.
  • Recognise that they are better at working with fewer people but in greater depth.
  • Give introverts a quieter working space so they are less distracted. Open plan offices have been shown to reduce productivity and impair memory. (Cain, p21)

 It’s easy for quieter personality types to be ignored and under-utilised. Understanding their strengths will benefit us all.

 The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you’.. On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem weaker are indispensable. (1Cor 12:21)

  1. The danger of defining yourself by your personality type

 While the two books contain a lot of factual information and useful hints about introverts, I couldn’t help thinking at times that Cain and McHugh were a little obsessed about defining themselves (and others) by their (introverted) personality type. The subtitles of both books hint at this: Finding our place in an extroverted church (McHugh) or The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking (Cain). Maybe Cain and McHugh do need to make personality type as ‘black and white’ as this in order to get their point across, or maybe I’m not as far down the introverted spectrum as them and so don’t feel their pain, but I felt that their books contained an almost religious zeal about the power of introverts.

 To be fair, McHugh does have a section called ‘The Limitations of Personality Type’ (ch 3) where he strongly makes the point that personality typing ‘is not what centrally defines us’ and that ‘[w]e who follow a crucified Messiah know that love will sometimes compel us to willingly choose things that make us uncomfortable, to surrender our rights [i.e. the comfort of staying within our personality type] for the blessing of others’ (p63).

 However, at times McHugh borders on making up a separate religion for introverts. He suggests that introverts tend towards and are suited for a version of Christianity he terms ‘contemplative spirituality’ or mysticism (p70). It involves ‘sensing God on a different level that transcends words and rational thought’ (p71). He goes on: ‘It may be that introverts hear and see what God is doing inside of them, while extroverts are more sensitive to his revelation in the outer world’ (p75).

 In my opinion McHugh diverts here from mainstream evangelicalism which bases life and faith (for all personality types) wholly and solely on the revealed word of God, the Bible.

 Yes introverts and extroverts have different challenges in obeying God’s word. Some biblical commands will be easier for introverts (e.g. being humble, gentle, living a quiet life, being slow to speak and quick to listen, being considerate); and some will be easier for extroverts (go and make disciples of all nations, rebuke, encourage, teach, be bold). But ultimately we are all the same: servants of Christ trying to obey the word of Christ in its fullness.

 Even Susan Cain, whose focus is self-fulfilment and who does not profess to be a Christian, recognises that personality type is like a rubber band. People can stretch themselves, she writes ‘for the sake of work they consider important, people they love, or anything they value highly’ (p7).The challenge for introverts is to stretch themselves to do the outgoing things that following Christ involves: seeking the good of others and the glory of God even when it is uncomfortable and means speaking or interacting when you’d rather not. The challenge for extroverts is to hold themselves back, to listen and be considerate. All should ‘eagerly desire the greater gifts’ and aim to build others up in the faith with the gifts and opportunities God gives them (1 Cor 12:31).

 I benefited greatly from the careful research of McHugh and Cain into personality types. It is helpful to learn that introverts have strengths which are greatly undervalued in our churches and society in general—and that extroverts would be wise to give introverts more space to contribute. It is encouraging to know that tendencies towards introversion or extroversion are ‘hard wired’ by God into our brains and that introverts can rejoice in who they are and be comfortable ‘in their own skin’. But it is also important to be aware of the dangers (especially for Christians) of defining yourself too strongly by your personality type.

 At the beginning of this article I recalled being rebuked for not making more of a contribution at a ministry leaders’ meeting. With better understanding of how personalities work, the picture could have been different. Maybe I could have made more of an effort to step out of my comfort zone. And with more sensitive handling, who knows?—maybe I could have given them the solution to the problem which was holding us back. By sharing their insights into introversion, these books by McHugh and Cain will benefit people on both sides of the introversion/extroversion spectrum.

[1] Adam S. McHugh, p16.

[3]The terms introvert and extrovert were popularised by the influential psychologist Carl Jung in his book Psychological Types published in 1921 (see Cain, p14).

[4] The study was originally reported in Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great (HarperCollins, 2001), cited in Cain, pp31,36. McHugh, too, discusses this study and claims the successful CEOs for the introverts’ camp (pp120f).

Leave a comment

Comments will be approved before showing up.