An Introvert by Any Other Name

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Fake Twitter OCD Message

As the geek label has become mainstream, unfortunately, so too have many of the descriptors and personality disorders of those who have historically been called geeks or nerds. While a heightened social awareness of these issues can be positive, there is also a danger of casual misuse causing confusion for those unfamiliar with the true definitions.

While I’m not a psychologist or a psychiatrist, nor do I play one on TV, and although I have had personal experience through family, friends, and even myself, with all of these issues, you should not take anything you read here as medical advice. If you have any concerns about the mental health of yourself or your child, please seek help from a professional, whether it be a psychiatrist or your family physician.

OCD / OCPD / Habit

Every morning at 5:20 AM, Julie hops out of bed and immediately prepares for her day. At 6:30 AM she enters her kitchen where she feeds her cat exactly 1/3 cup of Iams cat food from the plastic storage container in the pantry. Julie then fixes herself two scrambled eggs, a single cup of coffee, and a raisin bagel. Clean up takes four minutes, and she is out the door at 7:00 AM. This has been her routine nearly every weekday morning for more than three years. After work she may head down to the bar for a couple of hours with her coworker Sam, or she may just head home and watch a movie. Pulling out of the driveway, Julie notices that the garage door is a little jerky. She makes a mental note to tell the landlord about it next time she talks to him.

On the other side of town, Samantha also awakens at 5:20 AM. She sits up in bed for a few minutes and checks Facebook and Twitter, then proceeds to go about getting ready for her day. This morning she’s having a pancake, but sometimes it’s oatmeal, sometimes Cap’n Crunch. Samantha knows she has no appointments until 1:00 PM today, so she begins taking care of things around the house. On her refrigerator is a list of ongoing projects, as well as the daily recurring tasks that occupy her time. As she proceeds to check items off her list, Samantha starts to feel uneasy. She knows her friend Julie mentioned meeting up later this evening, but Samantha hasn’t heard from her yet. As she plans out the remains of her day, she’s a bit troubled about how she’s going to handle her evening schedule. What if she decides to have dinner with Rob, but Julie ends up calling? Should she not make plans at all? Maybe she should call Julie now and get a firm answer on their evening plans.

Meanwhile, Rob is sitting in his own living room, nervously tugging on his mustache. He’s staring at his television, but not really watching the talking heads because he’s trying to decide if he should go back upstairs and brush his teeth again. He has an electric toothbrush with a built-in timer, so he knows he brushed them long enough, but right in the middle, that Zeppelin song about the ocean that he really likes came on, and now he’s thinking that he may have accidentally skipped his upper-back teeth. He knows it’s probably ridiculous, and that he almost assuredly covered every tooth, but he also knows it’s a lot simpler to go do it again. Also, he kind of feels like his toothbrush is still waiting for him to finish, which makes him uneasy. He knows how ridiculous that is, but the thought remains. Frustrated, Rob gets up, knowing that this internal discussion is only going to end with him rebrushing his teeth completely, so he may as well head that way. As he climbs the 15 stairs to his room, fingers grazing the banister from bottom to top in an effort to calm himself, Rob knows he’ll never make his bus and resigns himself to once again being late for work.

If you were to ask the common person on the street which of these people suffers from OCD, they will invariably say Rob, and of course, they would be correct. However, were you to press them further, they’d probably admit that Julie is also “a little OCD.” Most likely, they would not even be aware that OCPD exists, much less what it means, even though they probably know a dozen Samanthas or are even one themselves.

OCD stands for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, where OCPD is Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder. In the simplest terms, people who suffer from OCD literally suffer from their disorder. They most likely are aware of the irrationality of their obsessions, and can even recognize that they are destructive and should be stopped, but are usually unable to, which leads to even more stress and suffering. Their attempts to deal with these obsessive thoughts are where the compulsions come in. Repetitive tasks are performed in an attempt to relieve the stress of the obsession. Unfortunately, this can create a vicious circle as the person recognizes the compulsions for what they are: an ineffective means at coping with obsessive thoughts. Hollywood generally portrays these people as tormented geniuses, and, while there is commonly a correlation between OCD and increased intelligence, not everyone who suffers from this condition does so in a way that is easily recognizable like Dr. Kevin Casey or Adrian Monk.

Conversely, those with OCPD generally consider their condition to be a good thing. They need order in their life, and are not afraid to attempt to control every aspect of it. Those with OCPD are usually the “list makers” and “schedule keepers” of the world. They know exactly what needs done, and when they are going to do it, and can feel restless and uneasy when faced with either a lack of information, or being forced to give up one item over another on their list due to conflict. People who consider themselves perfectionists are often afflicted by OCPD.

So, what about Julie? This is one of the most often confused amateur diagnoses of OCD. She does not perform repetitive rituals in order to allay the stress of her obsessions, she has simply found a sequence of events that fits well into her life; basically, she has formed a habit. Despite the negative connotations, habits can be very beneficial. They allow the most effective use of time, both by constant improvements in efficiency as well as by allowing the person to focus on other thoughts and ideas as the habit becomes automatic. If this is you, you can stop worrying that you are OCD, and instead be proud of how efficient you are making your life. Many of the most successful people in the world have been creatures of habit.

Introverts Are Shy and Extroverts Are Outgoing

At the annual company party, Dave and his wife, Helen, are deep in conversation with two other couples. Somehow, the topic has turned to politics and it’s become uncomfortably obvious that Helen and the husband of one of the VP’s have diametrically opposing views. Dave steps in and smooths things over with a well-timed joke and a bit of self-deprecating humor that immediately changes the focus of the conversation. The three couples end up having a fantastic evening together, with Dave as the man of the hour.

Across the room, Stephanie is watching this interaction with a small smile on her face. She knows firsthand how charming and entertaining Dave can be, and she is digging the vibe he brings to the room. As she wanders around the room, Stephanie doesn’t really engage anyone in conversation, preferring instead to join existing groups and listen in on what they’re talking about. She is asked for her opinion a couple of times, but after a quick shrug and a glance at her shoes, nobody presses the issue.

Where the Introverts stare at their shoes and the Extroverts stare at yours.
- A Prairie Home Companion

One of the most common misconceptions is that introverts are shy and extroverts are outgoing. While this may be true on an individual basis, there is no correlation between how outgoing someone is and whether they are introverts or extroverts. The definition of an introvert is someone who is more interested in what is going on internally, in their own minds and lives, than what is happening around them, while an extrovert is the opposite, focusing on the outside world and other people.

In the story above, Dave is an outgoing introvert. He has no trouble socializing with others, and can be charming, but most likely he is more focused on how this conversation is affecting him personally. Is he going to lose that promotion because the VP’s husband is angry with his wife? Also, the reason he may be so witty is because he is concentrating on how he can make himself more likable or what he can get out of the conversation to improve himself. That’s not to say that he doesn’t care about other people or their opinions, only that he is more focused internally. Most likely, Dave will end the evening emotionally drained and wish to spend some time to himself in order to “recharge.”

Stephanie is the opposite: a shy extrovert. She is very interested in what is going on around her and feeds off the energy of the room. She is not too comfortable talking to other people, and worries that people will not like her or think her boring, but she loves being in the middle of the conversation. Stephanie is likely to remember all the people she talked to at the party, and will frequently follow up with these people in the future to continue the conversation. She will leave the party energized and may head directly to the nearest bar or friend’s house to “keep the good time going.”

One of the confusions people have when dealing with introverts is that they don’t understand why the person may wish to avoid social functions and instead prefer to spend time alone. Dave was so friendly and personable at the party that when the VP’s subsequent invitations to join him for various social events were rebuffed, he assumed Dave had issues with him personally. In truth, Dave simply finds the constant focus on things outside of himself as overwhelming and doesn’t wish to be in that situation.

Antisocial / Asocial

The confusion between antisocial and asocial is almost always simply a lack of information. Most people are not aware that there is a distinct difference between the two, and some may not know the term “asocial” even exists. Also, much like word pairs like “nauseated / nauseous” and “literally / figuratively,” the term “antisocial” has become more and more accepted as a word that describes both the antisocial and the asocial. Google even gives the definition of “asocial” as the second definition under the entry for “antisocial,” and vice versa.

However, we geeks are nothing if not sticklers for grammatical and etymological convention, and calling someone antisocial, which suggests a hostility or refusal to follow the rules of a society, when in reality they are merely asocial, meaning they have no specific interest in being social, can be insulting to the person and confusing to others.

Walking It Alone
Walking It Alone. Image: Lance Shields, used under Creative Commons License

Why Does It matter?

One, words have power. Telling a kid over and over that he’s antisocial and then having him read about sociopaths who were also labeled antisocial can have serious consequences to that child’s psyche. Similarly, pretending that everyone is “a little OCD” and that it is completely normal can add to the already overwhelming stress true OCD sufferers endure.

Additionally, when someone misunderstands the real meaning of a specific label, they may modify their behavior towards those types of people in the wrong ways. For every fifty tweets like the one at the beginning of this article, there is that one guy in the corner of the coffee shop who knows he’s late for an important meeting, but can’t get his lid, sleeve, and cup seam to line up perfectly. He knows how unnecessary it is, but that only adds to his frustration. Being able to sympathize and support him becomes more difficult when your only exposure to the term OCD is via #ocdlife guy. When a teacher adds a comment to Timmy’s file that he “exhibits antisocial behavior” because he likes lying in the grass watching the clouds during recess, other teachers may equate that behavior to that of Tommy, who pokes other kids with a stick on the playground, and treat Timmy inappropriately throughout the school year.

Finally, as parents, we should know how to recognize behaviors in our own children, and seek professional help when necessary. There are treatments available for those with OCD, including cognitive-behavioral therapy and medication. Also, just knowing and being able to recognize basic personality traits can go a long way toward making a child comfortable with himself. If you notice that, after a day at school or on the playground, your child tends to retreat to his room, or even find a dark corner or a blanket to sit under and read or play video games, it’s worth recognizing that these are ordinary behaviors of an introverted personality. Your child is likely just recovering from an overexposure to external stimuli. Allowing them some time before joining in on family activities and not forcing them to “come out of their shell” can make the time together less stressful for everyone.

“Walking it Alone” image courtesy Lance Shields, under Creative Common license

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