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The world is divided between left-handed and right-handed people, right? Well, like so many things in life, it’s not that simple. While most of us who can use both hands have a preference for one hand or the other, some adapt to a style of their own. For example, a left-handed kid who can’t find a left-handed baseball glove may have to learn to play right-handed to make the team. They’re still “left-handed,” but watching them play baseball you wouldn’t be able to tell. A person who learns to use both hands more or less equally to do things is called ambidextrous—the Latin prefix “ambi” meaning both, and “dexterous” meaning skillful with the hands.
Two sides of the same coin
We hear the same thing often about personality. Some consider themselves an Extravert, while others feel distinctly like an Introvert. Well, what if someone cherishes their alone time once in a while, but too much solitude leaves them wanting to see people? Conversely, what if a day packed with productive meetings is great—even necessary—but after a lot of socializing, they need to draw the curtains and be alone with a book, a show, a hobby, or simply their own thoughts?
One of the most common questions people have when figuring out their Myers-Briggs® personality type is how to classify themselves if they have an equal preference for spending time alone and spending time with others. The answer is almost always that everyone does both. So, those of us who feel equally comfortable being an Extravert or an Introvert may call ourselves ambiverts, right?
Well, it’s true that human beings are inherently social creatures, but we all—sometimes desperately—need time for introspection, meditation, writing down our thoughts and feelings, or any number of solitary pursuits like gaming, reading, running, surfing, or maybe taking a quiet nap on a Sunday afternoon.
Likewise, as the COVID-19 pandemic slowly diminishes, many of us who have always identified as Introverts have had quite enough alone time for the past couple of years and are searching for ways to increase the time we spend socializing outside our homes. So, instead of saying we’re an “ambivert,” maybe we might just as well say “human.”
We all have some introverted and some extraverted parts of ourselves, but according to the theory of personality types on which the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® assessment is based, ambiverts don’t exist.
Personality preferences such as Extraversion and Introversion are hardwired into our brains—just like being right- or left-handed. But being right-handed doesn’t render your left hand useless. In fact, many people practice using their nondominant hand enough to become ambidextrous. It takes a lot of practice, but it can make them more versatile at a great many things.
Similarly, whether someone prefers Extraversion or Introversion, they will inevitably learn a wide range of behaviors over the course of their lives that will help them function better in the world. These behaviors include both extraverted and introverted preferences, which are required—depending on the situation, and in varying degrees—to operate effectively as human beings.
Some may think of a preference in a single, specific area of their life and believe that this must identify them as either an Introvert or Extravert. Professional behaviors can be quite introverted, especially for occupations that call for a lot of solitary work or study; think of librarians, researchers, and writers. But those sorts of professions might make a person long for conventions, conferences, and after-work happy hours.
Others may work with a bunch of outgoing, gregarious people—and although many people feel energized by being around these folks, they may describe their own behavior as introverted. They might say things like, “Yeah, we have a good time at the office, but somebody has to be the quiet, reflective one—that’s me.”
Get comfortable: Introvert or Extravert?
When you first take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI®) assessment, try to approach it as your “shoes-off” self. That is, your most authentic self; yourself if you had no one else to answer to, no one else to influence your behavior, and no expectations of any kind put on you.
If you think about acting one way at work but another with family and friends, you’re probably not going to get the most authentic results.
We’re talking about human personality here, not a mathematics-based aspect of the universe like the speed of light or the number of square meters in a hectare. People are always going to have questions about MBTI types and how to best identify their own.
People often ask if their MBTI type can change over their lifetime. It might seem a bit complicated, but the theory boils down to this: each of us has a natural preference for Extraversion or Introversion, and that tends to stay the same throughout our life. However, other factors change, such as our behaviors based on stress, the demands of our environment, and our changing perceptions of what’s going on in our lives—particularly as we age and gain new experiences. We might realize that we’ve been focusing on some things and neglecting other, equally important, things. That can cause us to temporarily change our behaviors, and maybe even change the way we answer the questions on the MBTI assessment. This is known, perhaps unsurprisingly, as “midlife theory.” But changes in our perceptions can also relate to changing circumstances—for example, leaving a career that rewarded extraverted behaviors for one that encourages the opposite. Whatever the cause, the resulting behavioral changes are hardly ever long-lasting. In other words, changing someone’s behavior or environment doesn’t normally change their natural preferences.
For more on whether MBTI types change, check out these links for a short animated video and a deeper explanation by MBTI expert Dr. Rachel Cubas-Wilkinson, or listen to Rachel on The Myers-Briggs Company Podcast season one episode “Inclusive Leadership” wherever you listen to podcasts.
Was Beethoven left-handed?
Let’s talk more about ambiversion. The words “Extravert” and “Introvert” are more accurately used as verbs than as nouns. Once we gain a deeper understanding of personality type theory, we can better grasp that, although each personality type contains an “E” or an “I,” type dynamics describes how the four letters, or preferences, in each type work together. No matter our preferences, we all extravert some part of our personality and introvert some other part of our personality.
It’s rumored that Ludwig van Beethoven was left-handed because some people claim to have seen him composing with a quill in his left hand. But listening to his eternal music won’t tell us which hand he preferred. A piano sounds the same whether the pianist is left- or right-handed because both sides work together to produce a balanced effect. Similarly, the effects of Extraversion and Introversion work together to make us who we are, despite our preference for one or the other.
So, ambiverts don’t exist, despite what the most outgoing-yet-deeply-introspective of us might tend to believe. We can’t prefer both Extraversion and Introversion equally. One will always be stronger than the other, though it may not always seem to dominate the other. We can and do use both preferences every single day.
What we do in the external world (what we extravert) and what we do in the internal world (what we introvert) demonstrate how the parts of our personalities operate together. This is the part of the theory known as type dynamics. If you feel equally comfortable alone or in social situations, you’re probably someone who has developed balance and flexibility by exercising “both sides” of your personality. Being a so-called ambivert is an indicator of a high level of personal development that allows a person to choose how to best behave in an unpredictable world full of unexpected situations. Nevertheless, each of us has a preference for Extraversion or Introversion, and that doesn’t change.
For more in-depth information on introverts, extraverts, and how each type handles conflict, download our free e-book, Psychology of Conflict in the Workplace.