The Unforgiving Cycle: An Extrovert's Learning Experience


by Megan Nightingale


This first thing you need to know about extroverts is that for us, learning is a shared experience. Things become real to us once they are talked about. Somehow, it's just not quite real enough to merely think about things--they must be shared. For most extroverts, it is this need to share that leads to a process which I'll call the unforgiving cycle.

Despite outward appearances, extroverts are generally the most insecure people at heart. Although this contradicts what society seems to teach (that the "go-getters" are the ones who "have it all together"), it makes sense once you look at the underlying motivations involved. As an extrovert, I get energy from people. Not merely get energy-- I love people and being around people. I need to be around people. This very need, however, is what provokes my insecurity. For while I love to be around people, their moods, opinions and actions are also very important to me. As I said, I get energy from people, but this energy can be positive or negative. Let me go into an example as to how this leads into an unforgiving cycle between my need to share learning and my reliance upon the reaction of those around me in gauging the impact or worth of my ideas.

I attend my English class, in which we have read a highly abstract piece about a certain type of literary theory. I didn't understand the work--not because the words or even the ideas were beyond my capacity, but because the entire article was written in the realm of thought and not the realm of experience. This, by the way, is a common problem for those of us who gather information by sensing. So, I walk into class feeling inadequate because although I did do the reading, I cannot begin a discussion on it because I have not yet understood it. I haven't understood it because I haven't heard it discussed, and I haven't myself had an opportunity to talk it out yet. Because I am an extrovert, most people in the class (including the professor) will expect me to be one of the first to speak. This expectation is created because I do generally talk a lot in class. However, what is sometimes forgotten is that I "warm up" as the class goes on--that is, at first I am unable to discuss the issue at hand because I draw energy and sometimes understanding from hearing what others say about it. What is remembered, then, is that fact that I talk a lot. What isn't noted is that I don't often talk at the beginning of class.

This is where I begin to feel some pressure. If the prof raises an opening question and is greeting with silence, she or he is more likely to turn to one of the extroverts for an opening opinion or response. Perhaps not even verbally, but if you look around the table, many eyes will turn to you, hoping for a response. This is the first instance of being trapped. While as an extrovert you have a need and desire to please others, you also have a learning style that profits more by discussion than by isolated thought. So, once the silence gets uncomfortably long, I feel a responsibility to speak up, despite the fact that I do not yet feel as though I understand what I am saying.

Here the unforgiving cycle continues. The professor may ask, for example, "What is this person's view of morality and how does that relate to Critic B's position?" I feel obligated to formulate and voice a response. However, this response is merely the first step in my thought process--a kind of "getting my toes wet" beginning. So, I respond even though I feel as though my response is at best inadequate (more frequently, stupid) and exposes my secret--the fact that I really don't understand what we are discussing. Now I'm nervous because I've thought out a statement that I'm not entirely sure I believe in to a question I don't understand.

What usually happens at this point is another extrovert responds to me, as my initial response has given them something to work from. They're likely to pick apart what I have said in an effort to begin their own process of understanding. Unfortunately, this compound my problem. I already feel as though my idea is stupid, and anything short of absolute agreement will reinforce that feeling. Add to this my high level of awareness as to what others in the class are thinking and feeling and you can see how my insecurity and nervousness rise. In addition, other extroverts intimidate me because I feel that they are, unlike myself, truly as comfortable and masterful as they appear, whereas I know just how inadequate I am.

At this point, the cycle comes full circle. As an extrovert, I take comfort in (you guessed it) extroversion. This means that at this point in the class I am likely to keep talking, both to try to defend my position so that no one will guess that I really don't understand this yet, and because I am nervous and my natural defense to nervousness is talking.

However, all the while I'm talking, I'm feeling more and more ridiculous because the attention of the class is of course on me, and I still don't yet have a firm grasp of the theory at hand because I'm the only one who's talked about it. Plus, since this act of talking is my learning process rather than an expression of previously thought-out ideas, I am all the while gauging the reactions of my classmates to try to see if my ideas make sense or, if they don't, where the flaws are so that I can explore them. This is where the famous killing comment comes from the professor: "I'd like to hear from some of the people who haven't said much today." What they're really saying is that they'd like you to shut the hell up so someone else can talk. The sad thing is, you want exactly the same thing to happen, but now you feel even more stupid because even the professor is sick of hearing you talk.

I think you can see how this cycle perpetuates itself. Generally, somewhere in he middle of the class, I will have a revelation in which I understand the question being asked and what my true response to it is. This usually comes in response to someone else's expression of an opinion or theory. Either they will say nearly exactly what I believe, and my opinion will come by fine-tuning the specifics, or they will say something I completely disagree with and will come to my own understanding thought the disagreement.

It's such an odd and lonely position. Others see you as very confident because you talk often. Actually, silence from an extrovert is often a good sign (unless, of course, they're asleep or dead) because it means that they are arriving at an idea of their own or have already formulated their idea and, either way, are feeling comfortable enough to not talk. Plus, there are likely to be only two or maybe three other real extroverts in he class. By the end of class, you feel like a bully because you have dominated discussion, like an idiot because the entire class was a workshop during half of which you presented half-baked ideas, and isolated because the very people who share your experience are the ones who most intimidate you, so you can't talk to them. So, on the way out of class what do you do? You ask a person in class whom you know fairly well (most likely an introvert), "Did I sound really stupid in class today?" At which point, said person is likely to get exasperated with you because of your undying self-centeredness. Plus, one simple "yes" will not be enough, because that question is just the beginning of yet another learning process. "Well, I mean, what did you think about my idea of Critic B's version of morality--was it clear? I thought it was really interesting, but then again . . ." As you begin to discuss the class discussion, the unforgiving cycle begins again.