May 23, 2018

The Life of a High-Functioning Introvert

003782_sPlease forgive me, upon occasion I dip into highly personal topics that do not focus on digital libraries. Since this is one of those times, you may wish to avert your eyes.

Yesterday at ALA Midwinter I ran into someone I knew who was active in LITA and she asked me why I didn’t show up at the LITA Happy Hour, an event that I have frequently attended in the past and have enjoyed.

I was forced to confess that I am an introvert – a highly functioning introvert, but an introvert nonetheless. In the previous days and nights leading up to the event I had been out with people every night. I badly needed some down time.

Left to my own devices, I might not have been out at night at all. But I was either wise enough or lucky enough to marry an extrovert who has had a very positive effect on my natural tendencies to shutdown socially. Between her extrovert nature and my desire to make a public impact on my profession, I find myself in more social situations than I would naturally participate in. And that is a good thing.

But it also means that sometimes I must simply withdraw. I can’t always be “on”. I can’t always be in a crowd. In fact, I find being in a crowd to be extremely off-putting. During this same trip I had other opportunities to socialize with large groups of people. You can call it whatever you want, but I call it a challenge.

Thus is the life of a high-functioning introvert.

I speak to large audiences. I do things that any self-respecting introvert would shrink from doing. And yet I do it nonetheless. Many of these activities I enjoy, but I can only take them in small doses.

So if I spurn your event or politely decline your invitation out, please don’t take it personally. It is likely that I really do enjoy spending time with you and your friends. It’s just that I sometimes need to not be with anyone. An introvert gathers strength by being alone, an extrovert gathers strength by being with others.

I might be inclined to think that this trait is a serious deficiency have I not seen the other side. I know that the opposite of my situation is no better. When you need to be in the company of others to be happy it leaves you unable to be content alone. I doubt that is better, in the end. It is simply different.

I acknowledge the benefit of not being a hermit. Those who are very extrovert might also want to acknowledge the benefit of being sufficient within yourself. Perhaps then we can all exist with more mutual knowledge and respect of some very different ways of being ourselves in a society that recognizes a variety of ways of being.

There are times where I will push myself to be among a large group of people. I am often happy that I did. Every now and then, if you are a serious extrovert, you may want to push yourself to take a long walk alone. You may be surprised that you are happy that you did. Maybe even one day you could aspire to be a high-functioning extrovert.

Roy Tennant About Roy Tennant

Roy Tennant is a Senior Program Officer for OCLC Research. He is the owner of the Web4Lib and XML4Lib electronic discussions, and the creator and editor of Current Cites, a current awareness newsletter published every month since 1990. His books include "Technology in Libraries: Essays in Honor of Anne Grodzins Lipow" (2008), "Managing the Digital Library" (2004), "XML in Libraries" (2002), "Practical HTML: A Self-Paced Tutorial" (1996), and "Crossing the Internet Threshold: An Instructional Handbook" (1993). Roy wrote a monthly column on digital libraries for Library Journal for a decade and has written numerous articles in other professional journals. In 2003, he received the American Library Association's LITA/Library Hi Tech Award for Excellence in Communication for Continuing Education. Follow him on Twitter @rtennant.


  1. Jackie Dooley says:

    Describes me perfectly! Thanks for posting it.

  2. Describes me too – I bet that a lot of happy librarians recognize themselves here. We get why people NEED to curl up alone with a book (or a tablet) but we want to be with people too. Managing in both worlds is the key.

  3. I’m not wild about the phrase “high-functioning introvert.” I never thought of introversion as an actual disability or malady. Otherwise, I certainly recognize most of this…

  4. Thank you Roy. This absolutely describes me too. There are times that I push myself to be with large groups of people too. I wonder if it takes the same effort for extroverts to be alone?

  5. Shane White says:

    Yes, this is also me, but I’ve just been diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome at age 55. Not that I suggest that’s your problem!

  6. I definitely identify with what you say about being an introvert who actually enjoys getting up in front of people, but would be a hermit if left to my own devices. There are weekends when I don’t leave the house or speak to anyone but my family just because I need to recharge after a hectic, people-filled week at the library. And I have fooled people into thinking I’m an extrovert because I learned how to be loud. But I don’t like the term “high functioning introvert.” It makes it sound like introversion is a mental illness, like a high functioning sociopath, and that is most definitely not true. Introversion and extroversion are character traits, like stubbornness and flexibility. To use terminology that denigrates a character trait that we’re born with almost implies embarrassment. Just own who you are and forget that our society more strongly values extroverts than introverts. In the end, society needs both in order to survive and thrive.

  7. Walt and Nicole: I hear you about the phraseology, but to my way of thinking, anything that potentially limits the range of acceptable behavior that one wishes to partake in is inviting the use of “high-functioning”. That’s also why I attempted to rescue the use of that term with introversion by using it to refer also to extroverts who normally would be limited in terms of the behaviors in which they would partake. But can I see where the connotation may be perceived as perjorative despite my intent.

  8. This piece resonates with me. I find myself needing that downtime while at conferences, including the recent Midwinter. Although I do enjoy the social aspects, large crowds are not my chosen place to socialize. I’m finally recognizing that I can do more if I focus on one-on-one or small group social events.

    However, like Walt and Nicole, I take exception to the high-functioning label. I question why “acceptable behavior” must be spending your social time with large groups of people, most likely in some sort of bar as tends to be the case at conferences. Part of the reason I’d prefer not to socialize there is it’s difficult to hold a conversation due to noise levels. That has nothing to do with my introversion.

    Introverts have long fought against an extremely negative stereotype of the social misfit who can’t deal with other people. There are many ways people may not fit into expectations of “acceptable behavior” that have absolutely nothing to do with introversion. There are people who self-identify as extroverts who display socially inappropriate behavior. I would not presume to say that is because of their extroversion.

    Just some thoughts.

  9. Alex Zealand says:

    I’ve recently realized that part of how I deal with being a “high-functioning introvert” is to use work as a coping mechanism for crowds, conferences or any other social situation when my instinct is to withdraw. If I I get involved so that I have a job and purpose, then I don’t have to make small talk or introduce myself socially, and don’t have to stand still being painfully uncomfortable. In fact, I think this may be part of my definition of high-functioning – I’m okay if I have a clearly predefined role (until I’ve had too much interaction of course, and then desperately need to be alone).

    • Shane White says:

      My experiance is the same, espacially at conferences, but even at my church, where I know everyone! Sometimes it’s not just the crowd, but hte noise that gets to me. However, I really enjoy sitting down at conferences with 2-3 people and talking over coffee.

  10. Ah, but speaking to an audience of a thousand is a MUCH easier introvert trick than speaking with a room of a hundred…

    (I’ve got some time-to-hide in all of my ALA schedules. And it’s a big part of why people don’t believe me when I say I’m an introvert; they only see me, of course, when I’m *not hiding*.)

    • Andromeda, so true. I am MUCH more nervous speaking in front of a small group of colleagues than I am speaking to a large audience of strangers.

  11. Thanks for posting this. I definitely relate. I am giving a talk at a national library conference this June. So this was timely. Though I agree with the above posts…I am more comfortable giving a speech than social situations. For a high functioning introvert, I enjoyed your speech at a lita conference a few years back. It’s always good to make sure you rest. I remember my first ala conference….got takeout in the hotel the last night I was so overwhelmed. Cheers!