Dr. Laurie on introverts and extrovertsMy client Jen slumped in her chair. “They sent me another article”, she said.

“Who sent it?”

“My parents. They are worried I’m spending too much time alone, so they sent me yet another study on the benefits of joining a group to talk about my RA.”

Jen rolled her eyes at me. “You know how much I hate groups. But I wonder if it would help. What do you think?”

It’s a good question. There is some evidence – both research and certainly anecdotal – that being in a group and sharing can help someone manage their pain and symptoms. Support groups allow you to break out of the isolation that pain and feeling different create.

However, I am also a big believer that each person can and must design the system that is supportive of their own healing path.  No two paths look alike. We can hear lots of well-meaning advice, but it may not fit who we are.

Jen and I have talked a lot about her introverted temperament. Being extroverted or introverted is a hard wired part of our nervous system, and it doesn’t change much over time. You can get a sense of your own wiring by thinking about where you get your energy, or re-charge when you feel a little low.

Extroverts get energy from stimulation. They “plug in” to people, events, activities – and when they do, they feel revived. If they have to spend a lot of time by themselves, or working alone, they begin to get tired and cranky. A phone call, a quick chat on Facebook, or even moving to some music helps.

Introverts get energy from going inside themselves. They need to reflect, read, sleep, and “un plug” from external stimulation to feel revived. If they have to spend their time working in an open office plan, listening to others, being in a group meeting, or even surrounded by a lot of noise, they tend to shut down. A few minutes alone, a quiet space where they can hear themselves think, or even a quick catnap can charge their inner battery.

Most of us exist somewhere on the continuum – there are few people who are totally one or the other. But most of us also have a regular preference.

Jen, as you probably guessed, is more introverted. After working as a teacher all day, the thought of going out to a group makes her cringe. I don’t blame her – it doesn’t suit her wiring. But one of the dangers for introverted people is they can use up their external energy time on work or others, and then withdraw. The lack of meaningful engagement does have an effect on how one handles pain, flareups and even sharing tips about medications.

I encouraged Jen to think about what she needed – and then we worked to help her figure out how to get it. She needed to be in touch with others who are going through and managing her disease.

We looked for online or phone groups, and when she didn’t find one, she decided to start one herself. It is small – which is comfortable for Jen, and for the others who have chosen to join. But the difference it makes to Jen – knowing she has some others to ask questions, and even vent to on occasion, is incalculable.

Are you more extroverted? Then you don’t need me to tell you need people –but here’s a gentle reminder. Find yourself some conversation partners to share your RA! Are you more introverted? It may feel comfortable to pull back into your own world, and conserve your energy, but it will also hamper you. Find even one person who might listen and pull you out a bit. You will find that this connection gives you more energy than it takes.

However you define yourself, it is your gift and responsibility to keep noticing what works best for you.