I wrote this at the end of a weekend during which I spent more time feeling misunderstood than not. I was peevish, and yes, a little defensive. I think that comes across, and I’ve really debated whether my crankiness deserved any air time here. Clearly, the decision to share won out – because it’s my truth, and because it’s important to talk about the variations of normal, and frankly, because we all just want to feel understood, yes?
At the four-year college I attended, the freshmen arrived on campus a couple of days before the upperclassmen came back in order to get acquainted with their new lives as students. Shuttled from one session to another, through a multitude of ice-breakers and periods of “forced fun,” I found the beginning of my first semester to be an exhausting and overwhelming ordeal. I just wanted some quiet space without someone trying to engage me through the desire to help me acclimate, but due to the nature of dorm life, my only personal place was shared with yet another stranger. I remember being acutely aware of the need to be normal. To not stand out as anti-social or poorly adjusted. To not just retreat to my room, though every inch of me was begging for that silence. Already my fellow freshmen had seemingly split into halves: gregarious and outgoing, preening and laughing and confident; versus quiet and insular, fringe-y and deliberately different.
I plunked myself down on the sidewalk to watch this social experiment play out through a volleyball game on the quad – another “fun” activity they’d planned for us all. The benches on the perimeter had been claimed by the fringe group, and the scene on the makeshift court was about as appealing as high school gym class. I knew that I should participate in some way, but I didn’t really want either side. I’d been operating at a frenetic pace for days, and I had nothing left to give. No, I wasn’t going out there.
So I sat, the hot August pavement pressed under the heels of my hands as I leaned back as nonchalantly as I could. Hoping someone would join me and help me look normal, knowing this wasn’t the behavior I should be exhibiting during this particular period of forced fun. I sat alone and I could feel the eyes of the orientation staff and the RAs as they fretted. “Don’t you want to join them?” The question came from above me, looking down on me, assuming I’d be better off on that field. No, thank you. I’m happy watching. A head shake, tacit disbelief that observation really was my preference in this situation, and she was gone – back to her squad of raging extroverts charged with identifying those new students who weren’t assimilating. I was positive I’d just made their list.
I eventually found my way, of course. More than that, I found my place and my people. I joined a sorority, and the choir, and the newspaper staff, and worked the circulation desk in the library. And when I became one of those RAs tasked with helping the freshmen acclimate, I took the Myers-Briggs test for the first time, and got verification of what I probably already knew to be true. I am an introvert (INFJ, actually). My own version of normal, but still perfectly normal.
Taking ownership of that label has been a repeat struggle. With each new season of life have come new people and new situations that are at odds with everything that an introvert is and needs: peers who saw me as stuck up for not instantly connecting; coworkers who demanded I better manage my energy, and “push through” exhausting scenarios; friends and partners who felt I just wasn’t trying hard enough; and now my beautiful children who, by their nature, just take-take-take without allowing any time for my well to refill. Each shift has required the acquisition of coping techniques, and only recently as I’m pushing 40 do I finally feel that I might understand what I need to thrive, and that I might also be able to advocate for myself in those crazy, depleting situations.
There are still some tough spots to navigate, though.
I cracked a (lame) self-deprecating joke about being an introvert not so long ago, and a neighbor and fellow parent looked at me incredulously, as if I’d suddenly sprouted six additional heads. No, I’m not actually shy. I like people! Public speaking is a non-issue, and I have no trouble introducing myself to someone new. But unless that new person is an extrovert who makes things easy on me, I will visibly struggle to converse further until our mutual interests have been established and things can flow comfortably. I do not just dive into meaningful conversation, and if you can’t help get me past that awkward start, we’re just not going to connect.
And when I’m done people-ing, I crash. Hard. There is a very short window for my exit to happen gracefully, and as a single woman, I could usually make it work out alright. But as a mother needing to wrangle two wonderfully exuberant children, and as the wife of one of those famous raging extroverts, that window often slams shut while I’m still inside a social situation, and then things get messy. Car rides home are filled with tension and resentment aimed at a mama who made everyone leave too soon. Sometimes it’s my own angry words flying, and my own frustration that small people ignored the “10 minute warning” and refused to put their shoes on when asked – or that my outgoing husband was oblivious to my quiet nudges and furtive looks until I shut down completely and could barely find the polite words to thank our hosts for having us. We’re still navigating this one, clearly.
But what I’m really working to internalize these days is that these traits are normal. They are my normal, and I’m sure they are normal for other introverts. Being an introvert is an energy thing, and it doesn’t mean we are defective, or that we need to improve, or that we need to seek professional help (not always, at least. There are exceptions, of course). It is who we are and it is how we function. It is innate. The world holds up many extroverted qualities as the standard to which we should all aspire, and that’s just not the whole truth.