Growing up I was often told, explicitly and otherwise, that I wanted to have many friends, that I wanted to go to parties with many people and dance and drink and kiss strangers in the the throbbing bass and strobe lights of some backward club that was so obscure it didn’t have a name, only a location. I was told that I wanted to be wanted, well liked, popular. I was told that the last thing I wanted was to be alone and at home, ready for bed by 7pm on a Friday night.
This extended into my high school and college years; in some ways I was fulfilling those standards perfectly; High School saw me always full on a weekend thanks to band and theater, and college found me with a full social life of both found and group-bonded “friends” with whom I’d spend late weekends drinking myself silly and talking or dancing or watching funny movies.
But these things didn’t make me happy. Oh no, dear readers, quite the opposite I found them exhausting to the point of near destruction.
Typically we learn about the concept of introversion as opposed to extroversion early on in college; most students take a psychology 101 course or know someone who has. It’s a topic that gets discussed, albeit uselessly, and thought about. People categorize themselves on the scale, often with little real insight into what either category means, let alone the fact that they’re really not a dyadic spectrum but two different qualities that exist in amounts completely unrelated to one another.
And, until recently, the collective conversation has never been about how the US culture (or at least the culture in North East Ohio) values extroversion and systematically devalues introversion. I have actually heard the insult (and felt the sting of one hurled at me) “you’re such an introvert.” As though it were a negative thing. As though it were something I could change. As though it were something I should dread being.
I grew up being told I was an extrovert, that extroversion was what I wanted. I was never asked what I wanted. One teacher saw that I liked to sit alone and read in elementary school lunch and recess and summarily banned books during both for our class; I was the only person who would do those activities. It was clearly a rule “for me” and not “for the class” and everyone knew it.
I don’t really blame her. She believed the hype. She honestly thought that there was a problem with my otherwise-natural display of introversion. Had she asked me why I was reading books instead of eating and socializing, I would have told her that my mother taught me it was rude to speak while eating. I would have told her that I enjoyed reading and didn’t feel like I got to do it enough while I also felt like I was forced to socialize with my peers too much in and around class.
The same thing happened in middle school (7th grade) two years later, and I spoke with the teacher in question who lifted the ban on the condition that I eat and socialize with my peers once a week and sit at a table with them the other days, even if I was reading. Not only did I follow our agreement, I started an impromptu book club, sitting with others who enjoyed reading so we all read during lunch.
Despite coming to terms with the fact that I did not, in fact, want many friends and extreme amounts of socialization, I still struggled with my introversion. I was picked on in school for it, I was often told that it would ruin my life, and even more often told that it would mean that no one would love me.
Think about how scary that is to a 15 year old kid, hormones raging, whose desperate desire to connect with another human being almost takes precedence over anything else in their life.
It’s funny how things change but really don’t. Nowadays I struggle with my introversion because I’ve really set myself up for an extrovert’s life. I have many friends and low time commitment in the prime capital of time. Many of those friends would like to see me, either in large or small-scale social events, much more often than they do. It’s exhausting.
This weekend I have been invited to three different shindigs through three different sets of friends. I will likely attend none or, make a brief (less than an hour) showing at one and then bow out for home.
Really, at it’s core, this swirls down to that base introversion for me, that desire to be alone or among very few and my need to do that to really rest and care for myself. The path I took to get to that realization, though, was fraught with rationalizations and doublespeak on the part of my mind.
Simply put; not wanting to go to a party because it is a party and I don’t like them that much wasn’t a good enough reason. I needed to have other reasons that were “better” in order to justify not going to these parties. This all goes back to that early indoctrination that “what I wanted” was to be at parties with lots of people that I knew.
First I recognized that at two of the parties, most people are not only going to be coupled, but will be cisgender and heterosexual and bisexual. Reason A that brain brought up that this mattered is because I would be the only gay MAAB (male-assigned-at-birth) person there or the only gay MAAB person who was unpartnered. On it’s face, this is a great reason for me to not want to be in a space, right now. I’m still feeling very vulnerable in heteronormative spaces and have been trying to limit my time there to allow for more healing.
But it turned out to be a thinly veiled disguise.
I asked myself a few questions to try and probe at this.
* Would it be different if everyone were gay and all partnered couples except me?
Answer: Yes. This answer was a red herring. The real answer is no. It was the “right” answer because (remember) I really *want* to be an extrovert, so I should *want* to be at that party.
* Would it be different if you had a partner (queer or otherwise) to attend the parties with you?”
Answer: Yes. Wait. What? I thought the problem was that it was a heteronormative space!
* Why would having a partner there have any impact on the enjoyment or desire to be there?
Answer: Because then I would have a person with whom I could create an intimate space where “we” existed in a vacuum of the people around us. Simply put, because then I would have someone who I could *be alone with in the crowd* or whose identity I could use as a barrier to becoming a part of the crowd.
This made me re-ask the first question. The answer changed! Turns out it’s that whole inability to create a space for myself in a crowd that’s the problem.
I continued asking questions, just to be sure.
* Would it be different if everyone else were unpartnered and queer?
Answer: NO. This is what really solidified the whole thing for me. It wouldn’t be different because then I would still have the same levels of social anxiety. I would *still be missing that space to myself* that I need to feel really comfortable and “like myself” in a group of people. That intimacy to withdrawal and connect as I need/want to and as I’m able to.
And that’s when I remembered. This was my brain doing the Introvert Tango. I’m not allowed to be an introvert because *being an introvert is bad* according to my socialization growing up. Because of that, my brain had to concoct brilliant reasons, like a dancer with turns and twists so sharp you could cut your eyeballs by watching them, as to why it’d be ok to not go *if I were an extrovert*.
What’s really amazing to me is that none of this was prompted or created by my friends; most know that I’m an introvert, even the hosts for BOTH parties I was planning on ditching told me ahead of time that they understood if I didn’t come! That it’d be pretty heteronormative and a lot of people and that they knew that was just not my thing right now.
But it sparked this whole other line of thought, now, that I’m having trouble splitting the knotted threads within from each other. Do I go, now, knowing that my actual reason is one that a large portion of me thinks is “silly” or do I not go, and remain mindful of the fact that I’m not going *because I’m an introvert*, not *because it’s heteronormative*? Bearing in mind, in both instances, that my enjoyment isn’t really a question; I’d definitely enjoy both parties (thought, they’re at the same time; I’d have to make a choice. Ignoring that though), and I’d definitely find a way to entertain myself and enjoy the time alone if I didn’t go. Bearing in mind, as well, that the *reason* I think my reasoning for not going is silly is because of that socialization when I was younger.
So really the question I’m asking is “do I give in to the socialization or do I give in to my nature?”
This question *matters* because there’s a huge weight to it in regards to personal growth. Since extroversion and introversion are not intrinsically inversely linked, this means that they are individual traits that can be learned and trained. I actually function as an extrovert in my work and school lives and do so very effectively (I actually receive the complement that I’m “so extroverted [I’m] easy to get along with”), but since it is one of my natural deficiencies, it makes sense to continue to nurture its growth.
Which I can only do by continuing to practice it.
Conversely, I clearly have a very negative association with my natural tendency toward introversion; in that same pursuit of growth creating a positive self-image, one where it’s not just acceptable to be an introvert but as much a strength as extroversion, is something that I should strive to achieve! The only real way to do that is to practice introversion mindfully, purposefully, and with acceptance that, yes, I’m choosing this *because* I’m an introvert and yes, that’s not only alright, but fantastic!
Which brings me to my current dilemma: trying to decide which growth to foster, or even if there’s a way to foster both.