Tendencies on a Continuum

If I didn’t know better, I might think that title had something to do with science and physics and maths! But I want to use it to talk about life.

We’ve talked about how important it is to “Know Thyself,”  as the ancient maxim states. How can we know which way to aim if we don’t know where we’re starting from? Aristotle talked about virtue lying in the middle of two extremes of vice; but I think it’s safe to talk about a balanced life of happiness lying the middle of two extremes of personal tendency, which aren’t necessarily morally bad or good.

Envision human preferences and action (behaviour) as a continuum. At each end is an extreme, but very few people actually live at one extreme or the other. We rarely meet someone who always wants to spend time in giant roomful of strangers, for example, or someone who never wants to meet anyone new. Most of us tend towards one or the other, but there’s a lot of room for variation, even in our own lives.

Personality tests (which can be helpful!), sometimes offer the temptation to classify ourselves according to nice, neat clearly drawn lines: “I’m an introvert, so I hate parties.” Or, “I’m an extrovert, so I hate quiet walks in the woods.” Usually it’s not too long before experience reveals that nice neat boxes are the provenance of geometry and library card catalogues.

So instead of putting ourselves in boxes, let’s think of ourselves along that continuum, generally gravitating towards one end or other.

Neither end is necessarily morally good or morally bad. Consider the classic distinction between “extrovert” and “introvert.” Some people tend to draw energy from being with others, and some people tend to draw energy from being alone. Each has its own pros and cons: but an extrovert might have an easier time in a job that requires constant team collaboration, while an introvert might have an easier time in a job with lots of individual tasks.

There are times in life when team collaboration is required. If you know yourself to be an introvert, you can make plans to help you cope with what might be an exhausting situation. Similarly, there are times in life when individual tasks are unavoidable, and if you know yourself to be an extrovert, you can plan to arrange these tasks in a way that is less draining.

But sometimes morality does come in to play, and this is where we are challenged to move a bit on that continuum. Let’s say you have a duty to a friend or family member who talks incessantly – and expects you to chatter back! – and the introvert in you wants to die a little at the thought of an afternoon with her.

Being an introvert doesn’t give you an excuse to forego helping her; but it does give you the self-knowledge necessary to know it might help to bring a chatty friend along with you, or to plan a quiet evening for yourself after your work is done. It also gives you the ability to recognize that an afternoon of small talk will exhaust you in a way it won’t exhaust your extrovert friend: and you don’t have to feel guilty for being exhausted!

Classifications like “introvert” and “extrovert” are only as helpful as we let them be: they can serve as catalysts for self-knowledge, or as straight-jackets for behaviour. Envisioning ourselves as moving along a continuum, with a natural gravitation toward one end or the other, allows both flexibility for good personal development and permission for real self-acceptance.


Have you ever thought about your own tendencies?