Tales from the Therapist's Couch

'She began to force herself to join in, but every attempt to be "normal" left her feeling more of a troubled and lost soul'
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Indy Lifestyle Online

"I didn't even want to go. I'd have preferred to have the place to myself for the evening. But when they teased me about staying in all the time, I felt I had to prove there wasn't something wrong with me. So I went along, to join in, but hated every minute. It felt phoney. And I felt boring and stupid and wooden, and couldn't think of anything to say to anyone. Everyone else around me was having a great time. Why couldn't I? Is there something wrong with me? I just felt like crying, and wanted to get back home."

"I didn't even want to go. I'd have preferred to have the place to myself for the evening. But when they teased me about staying in all the time, I felt I had to prove there wasn't something wrong with me. So I went along, to join in, but hated every minute. It felt phoney. And I felt boring and stupid and wooden, and couldn't think of anything to say to anyone. Everyone else around me was having a great time. Why couldn't I? Is there something wrong with me? I just felt like crying, and wanted to get back home."

The young woman opposite me looks frayed and anxious. In her late twenties, this is her second experience of therapy. The first was when she was at university, several years before. At that time, she had suffered a breakdown, taken time out, and bravely returned to complete her studies. From what I understood of this earlier history, she had weathered her worlds, both inner and outer, far better upon her return, largely due to having begun a relationship with a male student. He was similarly shy and reclusive, and they had, like babes in the wood, protected each other from the relentlessly sociable demands of student life.

Recently, however, this relationship had come to an end, and although the decision to go their separate ways had been her own, she felt unexpectedly lonely. Memories of her earlier breakdown began to trouble her. Reluctantly, she followed her mother's advice and moved to a shared flat in order to try and ward off increasing waves of panic. The move was, however, very much from the frying pan into the fire, as her flatmates, two women of about her age, were ferociously sociable. Judging herself against their outward confidence, her loneliness increased. Anxious that she was socially inadequate, and "missing out" on life, she began to force herself to join in with her flatmates' clubbing habits. But every attempt to be "normal" left her feeling more of a troubled and lost soul.

Repeated in many guises in the consulting room, her story brings one word in particular to mind: introversion. About 80 years ago, Jung coined the terms introversion and extroversion to describe what he felt were fundamentally different personality types. Although far more complex than the simple difference between preferring a quiet night in to being out partying, his definitions underline that introverts essentially feel most at home when alone with their own thoughts, whereas extroverts are always thirsty for stimulation and external relationships.

Today, as a psychotherapist, I find Jung's 80-year-old distinctions can be a helpful way of illuminating the nature of certain inner conflicts. Unfortunately for introverts, our Western culture is hugely biased towards extroversion. Many people therefore feel insecure about their natural way of being, simply because the pressure to be otherwise is so forceful and widespread. The young woman above had always felt that her preference for quietness and solitude made her something of an ugly duckling. Both her mother and sister were "life and soul of the party" extroverts, and although her father was very similar in nature to herself, his natural introversion was frequently criticised by his wife as being "dull and boring". During her teenage years, this young woman had gone through phases of trying to "join in", but this false self had inevitably not worked out, and invariably left her feeling even more unhappy.

What she needed to do now was realise that trying to be a square peg in a round hole could only be damaging for her health and wellbeing, and was more than likely to lead at some point to a further breakdown. Too often, she followed the suggestions of others whose inner needs were so fundamentally different from hers that to act upon their advice could only lead her away from herself. Her mother's suggestion to move in with a group of extroverts, and the flatmates' attempts to get her to enjoy life the way they did, were well-meaning but damaging. She needed to begin to look within and discover what was nourishing for her, not others. She also needed to accept that there is nothing remiss about a healthy desire for quietness and solitude, and nothing pathological about being more of a listener than talker in social situations.

There are, I suspect, many introverts in this Western culture of ours feeling inadequate and ill at ease because of trying too hard to fit into an extroverted ethos. The challenge is to accept the habitat that feels most comfortably our own, and then learn to be tolerant of other ways of seeing. Like Monet's various paintings of Rouen Cathedral, introversion and extroversion are simply different ways of seeing our same world, and each way, when functioning healthily, is as vital and valid as the other.

elizabeth.meakins@blueyonder.co.uk

Elizabeth Meakins is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in private practice. None of the clinical material above refers to specific cases

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