When the extroverts struggle with faith

By  Stephen Morris, Catholic Register Special
  • June 6, 2008

Spirituality For Extroverts by Nancy Reeves (Abingdon Press, softcover, 155 pages, $10.99).

As an introvert, I’ve always carried the unexamined  bias that religion is largely the domain of introverts.

Of course this is a fallacy, and Nancy Reeves has written Spirituality For Extroverts to rehabilitate the reputation of non-introverts. Reeves is just the person for the task. She is not only a clinical psychologist and spiritual director, but also an extrovert herself.

Her background as a clinical psychologist is particularly welcome, as so many writers in this field with lesser qualifications settle on fusing spirituality with pop psychology, undermining the credibility of the genre.

Reeves’ professional credibility allows us to begin on solid ground, with a clear understanding of what extroversion is. The term was first coined by Carl Jung in 1923 in his work Psychological Types, and further developed by Myers-Briggs, founders of the type indicator. They have given us our common understanding of extroversion, which is a personality type more open, outward, communicative and friendly.

{sa 0687650747}More recent biological research has supported Jung’s insight, with brain scans revealing that extroverts have more neurological activity in the posterior thalamus and posterior insula — parts of the brain involved in interpreting sensory data. Introverts, by contrast, experience more brain activity in the frontal lobes and anterior thalamus — parts of the brain associated with memory, planning and problem solving. Because people seek out experiences that stimulate their brains, extroverts get more out of interacting with the outer world through positive social experiences.

What this means for spirituality is that extroverts are likely to struggle with traditional spiritual practices that involve turning inwards, such as silent retreats and contemplative prayer. Reeves advocates different strokes for different folks. Rather than the above spiritual exercises, she recommends singing, finding “soul friends,” moving prayer which includes walking a labyrinth or even dancing, even “spiritual photography” — something I had no idea even existed.

 Reeves argues we need to think outside the box when it comes to extrovert spiritual practice.

“Prayer forms are meant to be instrumental, ways to be in communion with God. When they help us achieve our desire, we should not let them capture our attention. As an ancient Chinese proverb states, ‘Only the fool stares at the finger when it is pointing at the moon,’ ” she writes.

Here I caught myself thinking, “Well, if everything is prayer, then nothing is prayer?”

But Reeves pulls through this anything goes section on spiritual practice with the eventual acknowledgment that healthy extroverts must develop spiritually not by struggling against their nature, but within it — and I think this is the most honest and helpful section of the book. The idea is that extroverts share many broad characteristics — the trick is that they must be manifested positively for spiritual growth to occur. 

The extrovert must move along the personality continuum from impulsive to spontaneous, from chatter to focused discussion, from stimulation junkie to diverse spiritual practice, from wandering in space to befriending silence. The goal is to prevent extroverts from becoming slaves to their desire for outward stimulation, to maximize their potential for spiritual growth and psychological integrity.

As this book is written by an extrovert and mainly for them, it is helpful that it is written in a cheerful style, punctuated by spiritual biographies and with short lively chapters. It is also highly interactive, as each chapter concludes with discussion questions and tips for using the book in groups. Spirituality for Extroverts is a little gem for extroverts struggling to find a fruitful spiritual path, and for those who minister to them (especially spiritual directors). But it is brief. More work needs to be done on this important topic. Reeves deserves much praise for getting the conversation started.

(Morris is a freelance writer in Mississauga, Ont.)

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