Being an introvert is tricky. Traditionally, introverts are defined by the quality of gathering energy when they are alone, rather than when they are around other people. I need a lot of alone time. Taking in my alone time is like that first sip of a cold beer after a long week – it’s relaxation and relief and restoration. I no longer have to perform for or socialize with other people. There’s a natural algorithm that my introversion follows – the amount of alone time I’ll need to feel reenergized depends on how much time I’ve spent with people, the number of people, and how much I like those people. If I catch up with a close friend over a long dinner, I like to follow up with some streaming Netflix (Freaks and Geeks anyone?). If I’ve scheduled back-to-back dinners and a large party filled with strangers, you can bet I’ll need the next two nights to silently peruse my Google reader, read books and blubber through episodes of Doctor Who.
I’m an introvert, but contrary to what many assume, I don’t dislike being social. I just don’t want to be social all the time. I also don’t want or need 100 friends. I need 2 best friends and maybe 5 really good friends. I don’t like big parties. I hate small talk. I need time to process before presenting my thoughts on something.
I was an only child so my introversion was always mis-characterized as other things i.e. quiet, independent, anti-social. At big parties, I carried a book with me or some paper for drawing. When I was exhausted from making small talk – and yes there’s small talk when you’re a kid, too – I turned inwards. My father is a textbook introvert, who, when his social timer runs out, promptly stands up at whatever social gathering he is at, and politely leaves. So my parents didn’t mind my behavior. But everyone else sure as hell did.
The – let’s call it “feedback” – I get from others can usually be categorized into the following phrases:
1. “You’re just shy.” I heard this more as a child. There was no question in teachers or family friends’ minds that I didn’t have a million friends or participate in group activities or sports because I was simply shy. The reality was, I was a bit shy. It takes me a while to warm up to new people, and even more time to feel a real connection. But guess what? I was also introverted. I loved nap time. I loved quiet reading time. I loved study hall.
2. “You’re not introverted!” Like many introverts, I’ve developed a temporary skin. It’s a social, more extroverted layer that I can peel on and off at Thanksgiving dinners and networking events and parties filled with strangers. I used to have much more control over it. Now it’s more like Cinderella’s carriage: At a certain point, I’m turning back into a pumpkin who needs her Kindle and some pajamas.
When people meet me for the first time with this layer on, they’re shocked to find out weeks or months later that this is not my natural state of being. This reaction comes mostly from co-workers and acquaintances. People assume that as a person who works in fundraising, I must love interacting with people. First off, I’m a grant writer (all the introverts are nodding insightfully now), which should, if anything, show that I do not like interacting with people. I like writing to people. Did I mention I’m also a blogger? (The internet was an amazing invention for the introverts.) There are parts of my job that require extroversion. That’s how it goes. It can be draining and it’s certainly an important part of what I do, but it definitely does not make me an extrovert.
Also, I really like to talk. Deep, long one-on-one conversations fill me with insight and satisfaction. Sometimes people confuse this with being extroverted. Note that I did not say I enjoy making chit chat with 20 people at a party.
3. “What’s wrong?” It’s always been a challenge to feel authentic in this, the extrovert’s world. If I’m too quiet or don’t say hi to people at work, I can seem rude or arrogant. If I have to cancel plans because I’m exhausted from back-to-back social events, I seem flaky. And when I’ve turned my thoughts inwards, turning over things quietly in my mind, I get a lot of cocked heads and sympathetic “Are you ok?”s. I am ok. No, I’m not sad. Yes, I’m fine. I’m just an introvert.
But every label has its challenges. Years of people assuming that my being ok alone was the same as being ok with being lonely has creeped into my mental hardwiring. Now, when I feel sad or hurt, my instinct is to reach out and find connection. But the rest of me suppresses this instinct, telling me that introversion means I should be fine handling things on my own. Why would I rely on people when I’m not doing well? Aren’t I an introvert?
Being an insecure introvert also has its downside. If I say no to too many happy hours, will I be edged out of my co-workers’ circle? If I tell people I’m not up for a party, will they think I’m a loser? It’s difficult for me to stay authentic when I’m trying to manage my fear of being disconnected from others.
The reality is, most people take comfort in connections with other people, regardless of where we fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum. That feeling of belonging and understanding that we feel when we connect with another individual is such a wonderful part of the human condition. But how and when we get to that feeling varies. I find my connection in intimate dinners, small social gatherings and reading books next to my bestie – plans that are bookended by recovery time. Yes, recovery time. No, I’m not unhappy or anti-social. I’m just an introvert.