Understanding Yourself Is Key to Understanding Others

Park-in-the-fallI am an introvert. Both of my daughters, now grown, are extroverts. When the second was in her mid-teens, I was working very long hours. I would frequently come home, brain fried, and find her waiting to tell me all the things that had happened during her day. I would try to listen, but more often than not I did not have the energy to do so.

One evening, after a few minutes I apologized and told her I was really tired and needed to just sit and read. She was more hurt and confused than angry. She said, “Daddy, I do not understand. You listen to others all day long, but when you come home you do not want to listen to me.”

I felt bad, really bad. However, feeling bad did nothing to generate the energy needed to engage. I apologized again and she left the room. I did not understand what was the matter with me. Her statement was so reasonable.

It was during this time, quite by accident, that I became aware of the existence of natural and normal differences in how individuals perceive, process, assign meanings, and respond.

These differences are determined by the degree to which each is:

  • More extroverted or introverted
  • More literal or possible-meanings oriented when processing information
  • More thinking- or feeling-response oriented when making and communicating decisions as well as in experiencing emotions
  • More structured or open-ended in their approach to life events

The stronger an individual’s response orientation is toward one pole or the other on these dichotomies, the more likely the characteristics and traits known to be common for individuals with that orientation will be present. These differences are natural and normal, present at birth, identifiable at an early age, and do not change much across time.

An individual’s response process may be the same as or quite different from a parent, sibling, significant other, or child. A naturally extroverted parent, for instance, cannot get a naturally introverted child to become more extroverted any more than a naturally introverted parent can get a naturally extroverted child to be more introverted.

My efforts to get my extroverted children to be less talkative were about as successful as my extroverted children’s efforts to get me to be more talkative: close to nil. As best I can tell, the only change that has occurred across time has come from our accepting each other’s natures as a given and accommodating this difference whenever possible.

A number of misperceptions exist regarding the meaning of these differences in response orientations.

Extroverts, for example, tend to view introverts as quiet, shy, withdrawn, maybe depressed, or antisocial, withholding, self-centered, or uninvolved. Introverts tend to view extroverts as talkative, sociable, and friendly, or noisy, needy, intrusive, and either unable or unwilling to listen.

These assumptions regarding the meaning of these response behaviors are usually inaccurate.

Extroverts, in fact:

  • Are energized by interactions with others
  • Have immediate access to words required to express what they are thinking and feeling
  • Feel connected to self and others when talking about their thoughts and feelings
  • Require external affirmations to feel internally grounded
  • Think out loud. Hearing themselves express their thoughts helps ground them with those thoughts. If no one is available to talk to, they may talk out loud alone to accomplish this end.
  • May experience a loss of connection to self and others if required to listen beyond a certain point without speaking. When this happens, they may interrupt in order to get that connection back.

Introverts, on the other hand:

  • Think about what they are thinking and feeling and may require time to access words with which to express themselves
  • Are energized by introspective processes
  • Rely on conclusions drawn from introspective processes for feeling grounded in self separate from others
  • Experience their conclusions as self-evident, as reality, and therefore may assume it unnecessary to share them
  • May experience a loss of connection to self separate from others if required to interact with others without break beyond a certain point. When this happens, they may try to disengage in order to get that connection back.

This information helped me understand my own process as well as that of my daughter in a way that took fault finding out of the equation. A natural disparity existed at the end of the day in what she needed to feel connected to me and what I needed before I could meet her need.

Conversations with her since regarding the nature of this difference have been very helpful. I had always thought I was too self-centered and insensitive, and she had thought there was something wrong with her, that she was too needy. Once we understood that natural differences were the real culprit, we were able to reconnect through an understanding of ourselves and each other.

Seventy percent of the nearly 400 couples I have seen since 2000 have combined an introvert with an extrovert. The information provided above has helped many move from never-ending debates over right and wrong to identifying ways to accommodate and compromise when differences lead to disagreements.

Misperceptions are also common regarding response orientations on the other three dichotomies.

  1. Individuals who automatically process information from a literal frame of reference, from noting what is happening in the moment within the context of past experience, are not usually rigid or lacking in imagination. They are simply wired to provide practical responses to what is happening in the moment. And individuals who automatically process information from a possible-meanings context are not usually unrealistic or unable to face facts. They are simply wired to explore alternative possibilities for meaning and application to future situations.
  2. Individuals who naturally come to conclusions based on objective assessments of cause and effect are not usually insensitive or uncaring. They are simply designed to draw conclusions logically, a process that requires feelings to be experienced in a more neutral manner. And individuals who automatically factor in how others will, or may, feel when making decisions are not usually emotionally weak or unstable. They are simply wired to make decisions in a way that minimizes disruption of harmony in human relationships.
  3. Individuals who naturally plan and structure life events are not usually inflexible or controlling. They are simply wired to plan events in a manner that minimizes the possibility of the unexpected happening. And individuals who naturally respond more in the moment as events play out are not usually immature, irresponsible, or unreliable. They are simply wired to respond more spontaneously as events play out and provide optimum creative adaptations when the unexpected does occur.

There appears to be a yin-yang aspect to these dichotomy-specific differences; responses that can appear contradictory but are actually interdependent and complementary, with each covering one part of that dichotomy’s whole that the other cannot. In my experience, understanding the meaning of these differences leads to increased self-acceptance as well as acceptance of those who naturally differ.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Michael L. Jackson, MFT, Conflict Resolution Therapy Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Raquel

    July 10th, 2014 at 11:13 AM

    Alot of what we deem to be weird are really just small differences in how we interact with others

  • Tamera

    July 11th, 2014 at 10:48 AM

    Isn’t it sad when we have to devote so much our time and energy at work to doing things that we really don’t like that when we get home we want to be our true selves but even there there are times when you don’t feel like you can. Your kids want to play or need to talk and while you may just need to unwind for a little they still feel like they don’t get what they need and of course you are feeling the same way. I have to have a little me time when I walk in the door or I know I will take it out on the kids. What acatually works a little better is when I can run to the gym on the way home and work out some of the stress from work so I actually feel a little reenergized for the evening at home.

  • Mike Jackson

    July 11th, 2014 at 5:03 PM


    Hopefully this information helps you realize the way you are is natural and normal. I think as self understanding and acceptance goes up the energy we have to give to others quite naturally follows, Mike

  • julie

    July 12th, 2014 at 6:04 AM

    I admit that I have wasted a lot of time and negative energy in the past trying to get others to bend to my wil and turn into something that I want them to be instead of looking at the good that is included in who they actually are.

    Why have I spent this much time doing this when I would never want someone to do this to me? I suppose that a large part of that was based on I didn’t know who I really was, or if I did I was uncomfortable with that and so I wanted to create my own vision and story, never thinking about how this would them impact anothter person.

    I find that as I have gotten a little oldre I see now and have a better acceptance of myself the way that I am which then helps me to see past so called imperfections in others and see the beauty that lies in them.

    I have stopped hoping so much for change and have now started hoping and striving instead for greater understanding.

  • Mike Jackson

    July 12th, 2014 at 3:13 PM

    I think the unintentional culprit is the explanations provided by my profession regarding child development and personality. Individual differences in response orientations associated with personality are considered to be learned rather than innate when, I believe, they are not.
    So when someone differs, the conditioned perception is that they are choosing to differ rather than that they naturally differ. Without a context for understanding that some people naturally differ you would automatically assume they could understand your point of view, if they wanted to, and be frustrated or annoyed when they did not.
    There are four distinctly different types of human beings based on what are called temperaments. I wrote an article for GoodTherapy. org., https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/parenting-understanding-your-childs-nature-052814 that provides information on temperaments.
    Your life experience dealing with people really fits with the natural frustration of individuals with the SJ temperament, like my mother. One time, when she was well into her nineties and still sharp as a tack, she said to me, ‘Michael, I believe I would have been a great deal happier if I had not had to deal with people!’
    Cheers, Mike

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