For two million years, humans have interacted with and needed one another to survive. Through physical stability in the past and emotional satisfaction in the present, the necessity of human interaction and familiarity throughout one’s life is imperative to his or her success. Humans may mold the world around them and build it up as their own, but their environments shape them in return.
When senior Nathan Schneider was younger, he said he was carefree, but with age he became more reserved. Because of his insecurities in middle school, as he has gotten older he has put an increasing value on what others think of him. He said his fear of failure drives what he does and how he interacts with others.
Dr. Peter Helm is a postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Missouri — Columbia. He said people are born with a unique set of personality characteristics, which change and solidify during development as their dispositions, temperaments and modes of expression evolve.
A shy child seeking out more mellow environments will often reinforce his or her reserved behavior, Dr. Helm said. Being less socially active than others does not necessarily mean one is lonely, but in some cases social withdrawal can cause feelings of loneliness. Humans, out of necessity, are social beings, according to the website and magazine “Psychology Today.” The desire for connectedness initially stems from one’s need to survive against threats early in human evolution, which requires one to fit in with his or her community and avoid alienation.
When he does not “fully know all the details” of a social situation, Schneider said he worries there is a chance what he does or says may be wrong. He will sometimes take a step back to observe what everyone else is doing. Once he better understands the existing social dynamics, he will rejoin the conversation. Now, however, he is beginning to learn how to break out of his shell and take risks, which holds true to his competitive, tenacious and outgoing nature.
“I guess I find it easier when people come to me,” Schneider said, “and I kind of do my observing thing and then they kind of — we kind of share a lot of time together, and I get that time to observe them. Then, I kind of open up after I do that, and we’re able to be friends at that point because I feel like I know more about them, or enough about them to be able to interact with them.”
In situations where he may feel out of place, Schneider said he will try to keep to himself and listen to other people’s conversations and find ways to relate to them. If someone approaches him to talk, he will engage, but he tends not to initiate an interaction so as to avoid awkwardness. Over time he said he may become friends with the people around him, but for him it takes a good amount of time to form such a relationship.
“I should really be more trusting that people will be nice,” Schneider said, “but I guess high school isn’t really a great place to develop such a trust in people, necessarily.”
When he is somewhere where he does not know anybody or is in a new class, Schneider said he “definitely feels lonely.” As important as physical separation from others and general feelings of loneliness are in understanding someone’s actions and thoughts, Dr. Helm said existential isolation occurs when one feels unable to share his or her “subjective experiences of the world.” This remains a relatively new field of research, but he said one may feel lonely without experiencing existential isolation, and vice versa, which makes it different than loneliness. He said this “relatively under-discussed type of isolation” brings light to the importance of having the people in someone’s life support and validate his or her actions, thoughts and feelings.
“It’s not enough to just be around others, or to have people you feel close to,” Dr. Helm said. “It’s also important to feel like others really understand you.”
Behaviors possess potential for progress
As Schneider prepares to enter college next year, he said he will remember some aspects of what high school has been like but also expects to lose contact with all of his school friends. At social gatherings or parties, he said he misses out on the enjoyment he could have had because he stays out of the action and tends to remain near the people he knows. Schneider said the variety of available activities in a college environment will help him to make new friends and interact with others. Dr. Helm said humans have an intense need to belong to groups in a meaningful way. When social interactions go well, he said people feel accepted and loved, but if they go poorly, then one may withdraw and have low-self esteem.
As relationships develop, they pass through five stages: acquaintance, buildup, continuation, deterioration and ending, according to the health information website Healthline Media. Lacking strong social support may cause one to feel lonely or undervalued. Interpersonal relationships, however, provide people with a physical and emotional happiness as well as a sense of purpose. Through the Psychology Department at the University of Missouri — Columbia, Dr. Phil Wood focuses his work on changes in personality over the course of one’s lifespan and studies areas such as longitudinal methodology and research on substance abuse.
“We did a study a few years ago which found that people become less impulsive and less neurotic across the college years,” Dr. Wood said. “There were also some trends that people increased in extraversion over this time.”
While people commonly align introversion with shyness and extraversion with loudness, these personalities characteristics instead deal with where one’s energy comes from: within themselves or from others, according to the national nonprofit organization Changing Minds. Dr. Helm said introversion and extraversion are “two sides of the same coin and exist along a continuum.” The degree to which a person displays introverted and extroverted tendencies varies.
“It’s easy to think about introversion and extraversion as personality traits, but really they’re more like indicators for a variety of more specific behaviors,” Dr. Helm said. “For example, extraversion can be used to describe someone who is outgoing, talkative, sociable, warm, assertive, active and upbeat. In contrast, introversion could be used to describe someone who is quiet, shy, aloof, passive and pensive.”
Observation enhances understanding
Schneider’s observational nature allows him to gather information about others’ opinions, beliefs and interests to see if they align with his own. Dr. Helm said one’s family and close friends often make up his or her core social groups. Belonging and acceptance with these people are far more important than with secondary social groups, he said, and thus rejection by strangers is less detrimental.
Schneider cares less about what people around him think of his outside appearance and more about whether or not they value him and his future aspirations. The more Schneider gets to know people, the more he said their opinions matter to him.
Isolation breaks down into two categories: involuntary and voluntary. While Dr. Helm said involuntary isolation has negative associations and can result from deliberate exclusion, rejection, individual differences and an array of other factors, voluntary isolation may have a more positive connotation. Meditation and solitude are just two ways people may isolate themselves, taking time to reflect or, typically in the case of introverts, recharge.
Although Schneider enjoys being alone and having time by himself to work and play video games, he has “learned that too much of that leads to this selfishness” of not spending his time responsibly, which he does not want in his life.Video games consume a large portion of Schneider’s time, which leaves him with little time to do what is important to him like being with his family or completing his homework. He said he often permits procrastination and laziness to “wreak havoc” on his life. When he spends his free time on whatever he wants, Schneider said he starts to feel stuck watching YouTube and engaging in other mindless and idle activities.
“Once I finally force myself to stop, it’s like, ‘Dang. I have not spent any time with people during this spare time that I’ve had.’ Because when you go to school you’re kind of forced to be there, right? So it’s kind of that choice of being with other people,” Schneider said. “And especially when I hear my family doing something else. . . I realize that I haven’t been productive that day. And now I’m trying to be productive, finally, but now I don’t have time to go and spend time with them. That’s really when I realize that I’m kind of lonely right now. I’d like to have some interaction with people.”
“Seen across the entire lifespan, there’s some evidence for less extraversion and openness to new experiences as people age, but increases in agreeableness.”
Who one interacts with and what the interaction entails can determine how it affects his or her well-being, Dr. Helm said, but “the nature and quality of social interactions are of paramount importance.” Recently, Schneider has been trying to combat his self-imposed isolation and cut down on the “me-time” he spends alone by dedicating more time to his friends and family. In the last year or two, Schneider said he has become more sure of himself, even if his previous insecurities get in the way of his goals from time to time.
While personalities naturally evolve with age, maturity and life experience, Dr. Helm said “with enough effort people can intentionally change their personalities if they actively work to change their behaviors.” Up until a year or two ago Schneider said he would “never spend time with other people outside of school” and during the summer would be home all the time. To decrease how much down time he has, Schneider got a job at Hy-Vee.
“I’ve noticed that I like bagging the groceries, and it’s not the bagging of the groceries; it’s that I’m interacting with the cashier or whoever’s buying the stuff,” Schneider said. “And so just that interaction with people, I enjoy that a lot more than stocking the shelves or doing other chores without other people.”
Schneider said spending time away from home while at work and playing games with his friends makes him happy. Throughout high school, he has begun to notice how taking risks, being open to becoming friends with almost anybody and having new experiences in and out of an educational environment can benefit one’s life.
“Seen across the entire lifespan,” Dr. Wood said, “there’s some evidence for less extraversion and openness to new experiences as people age, but increases in agreeableness.”
Fear of failure hinders social interactions
Around people he is close with, Schneider said he is more confident and tends to talk more. Surrounded by people he is unfamiliar with, however, he uses his observations to decide what he should or should not say. Schneider said he may occasionally gloss over an experience he is sharing to make it seem better than it was.
He said there were times growing up when he would get in trouble with his parents and only share the parts of the story that cast blame away from him. While he said he never makes up details, he may omits parts he does not feel comfortable sharing.
“[My fear of failure] sometimes keeps me from even starting the conversation, and I don’t really want to talk to people, or especially to a group, if I feel like they might think that I’m wrong or if I’m weird or something, and so I take that into a lot of consideration,” Schneider said. “And then, when I’m actually in conversation, it also makes me kind of want to justify myself in certain ways and kind of take a little bit more time to say exactly what I want to say.”
His observational tendencies enable Schneider to better understand others, but he said always fearing failure can sometimes slow his speech and actions, even with his friends. Differences in personality can result in varied quantities and qualities of social interactions and satisfaction in friendships, according to the Association for Psychological Science. Dr. Helm said people display different characteristics of introversion and extroversion based on their environment. Dr. Woods said people may choose to isolate themselves for fear of rejection because of race, family structure or sexual orientation.
“A person can have one friend, but only want one friend, and thus not feel lonely,” Dr. Helm said. “In contrast, someone could have 300 friends but want more or different connections and thus feel lonely.”
Although he is always open to making new friends, Schneider said he does not have a problem with how many he currently has. He said his quiet personality may cause others to have an inaccurate or negative view of him. If someone hears him say something rude, because it may be one of the few things he does say, Schneider said he could come across as prideful or insensitive. To avoid such misconceptions, Schneider said he tries to be conscious of what he says and how he acts, observing their patterns of behaviors before opening up and forming lasting connections.
“I think I try to observe who that person is. . . how they talk or their personality,” Schneider said. “Are they a loud person who kind of likes to talk a lot? Especially at school are they a studious person? Are they giving a lot of effort into their schooling? I guess I’m kind of judgmental at times in that way, and so I kind of make quick judgments sometimes, like ‘Is that person someone I consider to be making smart decisions.’ But then after I spend more time with people, that seems to matter a lot less.”
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