Mystics: The Spiritual Life of Introverts

To all my beloved extroverts out there, this one ain’t for you my dears. I am an introvert with a whole lot of extroverted friends and family; but today I want to talk about the spiritual life of introverts. This one is just for the mystical introverts.

What Is Introversion

So let’s start by clearing something up: introversion is not social anxiety, it is not shyness, it is not being a hermit. There’s a lot of meme traffic out there that equates these things to being an introvert and it’s just not true. You can be an introvert and also have those sort of characteristics; but a lot of us don’t have social anxiety, we’re not shy, and we really enjoy people.

The simplest definition of the difference between introvert and extrovert is this:

An introvert spends energy on social interaction. An extrovert gains energy from social interaction.

I’m an introvert and a pretty strong one, and my job requires high levels of pretty deep social interaction. Everything from talking with someone in deep grief to making small talk, all happens (often within minutes of each other) in the same day. And, I’m a regular public speaker (and adore it).

My introversion reveals itself not in any difficulty with these social parts of my life but in what happens after. After I’ve spent Sunday morning leading worship, preaching (public speaking), and talking with people I go home and crash. I nap for two hours. An extrovert conversely would be ready for a 10 mile hike!

The Spiritual Personality

Introverts, because of their need for rest and solitude after social interaction, have often ended up in contemplative roles. The number of poets, authors, or clergy who are introverts is vastly out of proportion to the general population. Some estimates peg extroverts at up to 74% of the general population but in “mystical” professions the percentages are nearly reversed.

Extroverts, who need social interaction at much higher levels than introverts, are just not as inclined to lives that involve a lot of time spent by one’s self gazing at one’s navel (said with love, as one who does that a lot). But in a world where extroversion is normal introversion has often been characterized as odd, aberrant, or strange.

No generalization is true for all of course, introverts vary wildly and as in all things introvert/extrovert isn’t a binary but a scale. You might be be massively extroverted, strongly introverted, or balance almost equally between the two tendencies. Wherever you fall on the introversion scale your gifts and best spiritual activities will be different.

Introvert’s Gift

We need introverts. In a world dominated by extroversion and it’s values we need introverts. We need people who value quiet, solitary time. We need people who can sit and wrestle with deep issues and the depths of their own hearts for hours on end. I will discuss the gifts of the extrovert another time, for now though I would like to examine just why the gifts of introversion are so needed at this moment.

Extroversion values external processing and boisterous interaction. But as conflict and division increase we could do with the introvert’s gifts.

The Internal Processor

Most introverts process ideas and thoughts internally. An extrovert’s idea of a great way to solve a problem generally involves external processing. So debate, or a stream of consciousness brainstorming with a group of other people. Ideas are expressed as soon as they arrive, sometimes before they’ve even fully come to consciousness. This can be a highly effective way to brainstorm in a group so long as everyone feels free to toss their ideas in the ring.

But as tensions rise and the stakes go up, and especially as the community involved becomes more diverse (more ways of thinking, acting, and being) these sorts of group actions become dominated by a very few people. The people who dominate such groups tend to be the most outspoken, the least inhibited, and the most confident. But not necessarily those most qualified to offer solutions to complicated problems.

Enter the internal processor. These introverted sorts sit quietly for a long time absorbing data, opinions, and information. They may seem passive but actually their brains are working furiously, just silently. They are running down logical threads to their ends (good or bad), considering alternatives, and testing theories.

When they eventually speak (if those external processors ever take a break) what they suggest will almost always be a fully formed, carefully crafted solution to the problem, often with data to back it up. They can offer an entirely new take on the issue, the group “ahah” moment so to speak.

The Bullshit Meter

Most introverts are really bad at small talk, or if they’ve developed the knack of it, they did so at the expense of great energy. Most introverts find deep social interaction easier than the cocktail party/water cooler scene. Get me into a really intense discussion about the ethical implications of the teachings of St. Augustine and two hours can go by without me even noticing.

But hand me a cup of coffee and send me out to schmooze with a bunch of folks who are”networking,” or talking about the weather, and I’ll be over that shit in about 30 seconds. I hate it. And most introverts feel the same. We get it, society kind of needs surface levels of social interaction, they can’t be entirely avoided. However, the introvert’s aversion to them and awareness of their meaninglessness as an end unto themselves is a gift from heaven.

The introvert has a hair trigger bullshit meter. We can spot someone who is talking about a subject they have no knowledge of a mile off. And introverts tend to have little patience for “dick measuring” contests. Do you want to know where real connection is happening? Follow the introvert.

introvert spirituality

Caring For An Introverted Soul

An introvert and an extrovert tend to do spirituality very differently. All human beings need things, like connection to others, but that plays out differently in different people. Caring for your whole self as an introvert will likely look quite different than your friend the extrovert.

Quality over quantity

An introvert needs connection to other people every bit as much as an extrovert, but we tend to need a different sort of connection. Introverts thrive on a few deep relationships. You might not have even ten friends you can name, but the one or two friends you have are very dear and very important. For introverts the need for deep, meaningful connection is particularly important. Most introverts find general “socializing” to be a draining experience (it might still be enjoyable, but it is work). But with those few trusted friends the tables turn. Spending time with the one or two people with whom you have created a deep trusting bond can be energy creating almost as if one were an extrovert. We live in a society that emphasizes more is more, but for introverts less is more. Let go of the need to have a “posse” of friends and cultivate deep connection with a select group. 

Plan regular alone time

Introverts more than anyone else need time alone. What that looks like will be different for all of us. For me it often looks like a nap and then an hour or so of Youtube videos curled up in bed. Once a year it means taking a full week away by myself with books, and art supplies in a tiny cabin in the wilderness. (I can happily go that week without ever seeing another human.)

For you it might mean taking the dog for a long slow walk. It could be time spent working in the garden, ears covered with headphones. The key is that it needs to be regular, something you can count on. I know that every Sunday after I’ve preached and led worship at my church I will come home to a home cooked lunch (thanks partner!) and my weekly alone time. Nap, reading, Youtube, all in the cozy comfort of our bedroom with the door shut. It’s like clockwork, it’s reliable, and that matters. Schedule time for yourself on a regular basis, put it on your calendar if you have to, but make sure it’s something you can rely on.

Otherwise you are apt to find yourself grumpy, and exhausted. That does no one any good. A retreat can make huge difference for introverts. I take a week long retreat, (yes all by myself) every year and it has made all the difference.

Practice speaking up

This one might seem counterintuitive, but bear with me. One of the things that often happens in mixed groups is the extroverts get all the floor time. All of it. Extroverts tend to process externally, so they keep that stream of conscious thought process rolling like a three mile long freight train. And the introverts in the group, who tend to need a bit of quiet before they offer their ideas, sit silently waiting for an opening. I can tell you from experience that after a while either you begin to doubt that you have anything worthwhile to contribute or you start to feel down right bitter about the way the group behaves.

Don’t do either.

Instead, practice speaking up. Make it a spiritual practice. (Yes. Really.) It won’t be easy, but it’s worth it and you’ll be helping others as well. Think of it as introverted mindfulness, and as a gift that your spirituality can bring to groups. Pay attention to group dynamics, does one person (or a couple people) dominate the conversation? If so do your own internal processing and then interrupt.

You don’t have to interrupt for your own benefit, it can actually be easier if you don’t. Try this:

“Excuse me Bret,” (Yup, you just inserted yourself in the time it took for him to finally take a breath,) “but Sam, Judy, and Ruth haven’t said anything yet and I’m sure they’ve got great ideas! Sam?”

Ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to offer their thoughts and input is a gift you can offer. Of course you can always interrupt to offer your own ideas but it’s often easier and will come across as generous instead of rude if you invite other quiet folks to speak. Be mindful of being gentle, but firm. And here’s a hint, plant one of those quiet folks, let them know you will get the ball rolling and ask them after you’ve invited them to speak to invite someone else who is usually quiet to speak next. The formal version of this is mutual invitation and it’s a brilliant way to make sure everyone’s voice is heard.

Choose Spiritual Practices For Your Personality

I’ve got a whole article on spiritual practices based on personality type. I find that often introverts in certain religious traditions end up feeling less-than because what is most natural for them isn’t what is valued. For example, in the Christianity community worship is the norm. And in more evangelical circles those worship services can be boisterous affairs where everyone is expected to speak up, profess faith publicly, or even speak in front of others, spontaneously. It can be an intensely uncomfortable experience for introvert Christian and others who value quiet, intimate connection, and contemplation.

To care for your soul, choose spiritual practices and communities that value you and your strengths. This doesn’t mean that you have to leave the community you are a part of, but that you can offer your own spirituality as a gift for that community. After all, you aren’t alone. If you prefer quiet, contemplative practices I can promise you there are others who do as well. Introverts in the church have unique gifts that their spiritual communities desperately need.  (After all, look how often in scripture Jesus goes off by himself to pray. A lot like… an introvert!)

What would it look like if you offered your leadership and spoke up for those people? Maybe your big boisterous evangelical congregation starts a Taize service in the evening, and maybe that even transforms who that community is.

Go Deep in your practices

Introverts tend to love depth rather than variety. Spend your scheduled alone time reading deeply on your favorite spiritual practices. Sign up for a weekend contemplative retreat, or time at a monastery where you can spend hours in silent prayer or meditation. Revel in your inner spiritual geek.

While everyone else is running after the newest and coolest thing it is totally OK to go deeper in to practices that have worked for you. Below you will find a list of practices I find work well with introverts and the way our hearts and souls work.

Cultivate a “soul friend”

Caring for your soul should involve people. As an introvert your immediate instincts on self care of all sorts might lean toward solitude. But don’t neglect your soul’s very real need for companionship.

While an introvert isn’t likely to look forward to a busy religious conference that does not mean we are all meant to be hermits. (And even hermits have important spiritual relationships with mentors and colleagues.) The gaelic words “anam cara” mean “soul friend” and the relationship they describe is exactly what introverts need.

An Anam Cara is a person with whom you share a deep spiritual friendship, this doesn’t mean you agree on everything, but that you share a mutual love for one another and a desire to help one another grow in spiritual maturity, health, and joy. An anam cara is often a spiritual director, someone trained to help spiritual seekers deepen their connection to the Divine. But anam caras can appear in the most surprising parts of our lives.

What is key is trust and affection.

Learning to love your introverted self

Introverts have unique gifts and abilities as well as unique needs. There is no right way to be human, and we are all just trying to do our best. On this journey of life there will be many voices telling you that you must change who you are in order to be successful, happy, or accepted. Don’t listen to them.

Your introversion is not a flaw, it is not something that needs to be fixed. It is a part of who you are, and as you learn about yourself it will give you gifts that you can in turn pass on to a busy, tired, stressed world. Within all humans is a piece of the Divine, waiting to be uncovered. And your journey is just getting started.

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