I had just returned from a 3-week respite in Spain, and I was riding the post-vacation emotional high.
The quaint cobblestone streets of Seville left me with feelings of joy and amusement; the romantic plazas of Madrid left me with love; the vast beaches of Barcelona left me with serenity and awe; and the seafood paella in each of these cities left me with each of the top 10 positive emotions (mostly gratitude).
I was rejuvenated, and I was eager to dive back into work.
Discovering my Introversion
My first day back to work was at a new therapy rotation. For the first time, I was scheduled for five consecutive 1-hour sessions (my previous maximum was two consecutive sessions). New schedule, new clients, new office – a perfect reset after vacation.
But by the time my fifth client left my office, I was feeling sheer exhaustion. I felt like someone siphoned every drop of energy out of me. I ended up napping for an hour on my therapy couch (indeed, therapy couches are a real thing) before driving home. I chalked it up to jetlag.
The following week, the same thing happened. This time, I concluded I needed to get my interpersonal stamina back up – three weeks of traveling by myself had led to social skill atrophy.
Fast forward one month, and each week I found myself feeling the same way after my sessions. After a brief WebMD search (“severe exhaustion following conversation with humans”) and consultation with my supervisor (“Is it me? Is it my clients? Walter Mischel’s person-situation interaction?”), I came to a simple conclusion: I’m an introverted therapist.
Introversion vs. Extroversion
In general, introverts tend to prefer solitude, devote social energy to family and close friends, and listen more than speak. Introverts enjoy quiet nights at home curled up with a book, intimate wine nights with a close friend, and solo deep dives into their work.
In contrast, extroverts tend to feel energized by social attention, seek out opportunities to meet new people and try new activities, think out loud, and dislike solitude.
Being an Introverted Therapist
Now consider the context of a therapy session. A good therapist is a good multitasker.
At any given moment during a therapy session, a therapist is doing one or more of the following:
- actively listening
- determining how the client’s current symptomatology fits into the larger conceptualization of their functioning
- deciding what part(s) of the client’s comments to respond to
- maintaining appropriate body language (e.g., regular eye contact, open posture)
- actively steering the conversation in a certain direction
- managing time
This type of social multitasking requires a large energy exertion. For introverts, this can be especially exhausting.
Of course, this is not to say that introverts derive any less meaning or pleasure from their therapy sessions than do extroverts. Sessions can be ripe with meaning (and for me, often are) but still leave a therapist feeling depleted.
Quick Tips for the Introverted Therapist
Given an introvert’s preference for solitude and need for quiet space to recharge, how can introverted therapists strategically plan their therapy sessions to maximize their abilities as a therapist while attending to their own personality needs?
The Before: Schedule wisely.
If you have some degree of control over your schedule, create your schedule strategically. Think in dosage. Plenty of introverts are socially skilled and enjoy a range of social interactions, but they tire easily and before long wish they were bedside with their favorite book. Capping consecutive sessions at two or three, then building in a break (e.g., for administrative duties, lunch) can prevent major dips in energy throughout the day.
The During: Craft the coveted 10-minute break in between sessions.
Therapy sessions typically start on the hour and last for 50 minutes. This format leaves 10 precious minutes in between sessions. Some of my colleagues use these 10 minutes to log their note from the prior session before jumping into their next session. This method is hard for introverts. Rather than trying to squeeze productivity out each minute, an alternative is to use this window as a rest period. Take a 5-minute pseudo-nap, walk around your office, or bend into a few yoga poses. A quick refresher could jumpstart the next 50 minutes.
The After: Build in decompression time.
Once sessions are over for the day, build in time to recharges the batteries. This recharging activity will range for people depending on preferences. A quiet car ride home on the back roads? Listening to Explosions in the Sky? Journaling? A nap on your therapy couch? Find what restores your energy and schedule it in.
Leaning toward either side of the introversion-extroversion spectrum is not a prescription for which job you will succeed in.
Albert Einstein. Steven Spielberg. Sir Isaac Newton. Larry Page. J. K. Rowling. All known as introverts, all widely successful in their respective professions.
Instead of precluding career choices, attend to the various dimensions of your personality, recognize the situations in which you feel energized versus feeling depleted, and design your life in a way that attends to your psychological needs, and ultimately, maximizes your well-being.
Note 1: The labels “introvert” and “extrovert” are commonly used to categorize people into the group they most closely align with. It is rare, however, that people fall exclusively into one category across all situations).Note 2: If you missed it, check out the ultimate resource on introversion, where much of my inspiration was derived from – Susan Cain’s groundbreaking book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.