I’m at a party and I’m smiling. I’m caring and I’m sharing, I’m being bubbly and, I hope, only slightly unconventional and just a little amusing. That’s my thing. Yeah, I’ve got my party face on and I’m having a pretty good time.
But as the minutes turn into hours and everyone else is getting more comfortable, gaining energy, getting a bit tipsy, getting their groove on the dance floor, I feel myself fading, like a colour photograph left out in the sun until all that is left are sepia outlines. I’m missing punchlines, I’m forgetting people’s names and connections, I’m not following even simple conversations now and I’m catching glimpses of micro expressions that show that I’m losing.
I slip to the bathroom for a much-needed break, splashing water on my pinched features and staring at the face that, an hour or two ago, was bright and eager and is now pale and tight. And it’s not even ten-thirty. I sit on the edge of the bath for a few moments, taking a couple of deep breaths.
This is a typical experience for me and at this point I usually make some excuse and go home. Sometimes I fake a migraine, sometimes I just say that I’m tired or I have an early morning appointment and I need to go to bed. I don’t always lie but I usually feel unable to be completely honest. To say to a group of friends and acquaintances that I’m an introvert and I’ve just hit my wall of tolerance for socialising seems a step too far and would perhaps be deemed as over-sharing.
But is this really so shameful? I often wonder.
Our culture, or more specifically my culture, requires certain behaviour from us to consistently fit in. We should enjoy other people’s company on an on-going basis, or at least we should appear to.
One of the biggest insults I hear is that someone is anti-social. I hear this especially about women and it seems there is a sexist element to this concept. Men can be loners without being seen as abnormal. They can fulfill that brooding, non-communicative stereotype and still be accepted. It’s permissible to be a man and not need to talk or to share, not need close friendships or emotional support.
Women, on the other hand, are supposed to chat, to gossip, to have girls’ nights out, to go on girly shopping afternoons involving lunches, coffees or cocktails, to do that whole Sex and the City thing where sex lives may or may not be discussed, but at the very least one chats about families and feelings, friendships, marriages and hormones.
I’m not like that. I’m an introvert.
I enjoy reading and writing. Alone.
I enjoy singing, playing guitar and songwriting. Alone.
I enjoy gardening. Alone.
If someone, say a neighbour, pops their head over the fence for a ‘quick chat’ while I’m weeding, they break my mood and ruin what is essentially my battery recharge, and I resent it. The longer this ‘quick chat’ goes on, the more my resentment builds. I continue the pretence of being pleased to see them, I really do try to put manners and other people’s feelings first, but everything in my being wants to just walk away, go indoors into a dark room and sit on my own.
Some dictionaries tell us that the word introvert describes a shy reticent person.
But I’m not shy.
Not at all.
I can, and have, danced on a table (reasonably sober, I might add), I’ve got up on stage in front of hundreds of people and sung all evening and given speeches without even considering shyness. Maybe these activities are still essentially solitary; I wasn’t socialising directly with multiple people and maybe that’s the difference.
We’re also told that introverts are drained by spending time with too many people, enjoy solitude, have smaller groups of friends, are quiet and difficult to get to know, get distracted by too much noise and tend to be very self-aware.
That does sound like me, I have to admit. So, as part of a tribe of loners and seekers of solitude, how can we cope better on a day to day basis? Here’s what I’ve learned, living with my own particular brand of introversion:
I live life on my own terms.
Trying to be like everyone else has never worked and has always left me exhausted and unfulfilled. Now I’m happy to be the weirdo who sits alone (or with a fellow introvert) in the shade with the dogs while others dance and drink together in the sun.
I spend time being creative.
Whether it be writing or playing music, doodling or writing poetry, I’ve learned that these creative moments of flow bring me extraordinary amounts of happiness.
I’ve become aware of what creates energy for me.
I now know to prioritise alone time, reading, walks in the woods, coffees by a deserted seashore and time with pets because I know that these things charge my battery and get me ready for more social pursuits.
I’ve learned to stop being envious of extroverts.
I’ve recognised that they don’t have it easier, they just have it different. I’ve ditched the idea that extroversion is somehow better. Networking may come easier but introverts have other strengths of concentration and an ability to work intensely on solitary projects; it all evens out in the end. And anyway…
I can’t change my personality.
As it happens, I wouldn’t even want to, but as a teenager and a twenty-something, I tried leading a more extroverted life and suffered a heavy price. I accept who I am now, my strengths and weaknesses.
I choose energy over money.
Certain personalities can commute every day on a crowded train into a bustling city. They can work a ten-hour day in a noisy high-stress environment to earn a huge salary. I know with absolute certainty that no amount of money would make that lifestyle a good choice for me. I need a way of living and a profession that leaves me rich in energy and I’m willing to live a more frugal life in order to have that.
I’ve learned to be independent.
I don’t work for others and I wouldn’t have others work for me because I know, as good as that may sound in the beginning, as a medium- to long-term plan, it would be unsustainable.
I mix mostly with other introverts and I married an introvert.
I realised a long time ago that mixing with others who prefer one-to-one conversations about slightly deeper subjects was a better fit for me than trying to fit in a with a group enjoying jokes and banter. Perhaps I’m too serious, perhaps I’m too self-absorbed, but I’ve come to recognise the kind of people I like and the kind of people who like me.
I get enough downtime.
But not too much as that can lead to too much introspection and general disconnection from society. That’s never a good thing. Having built a lifestyle that allows me plenty of my precious downtime, I’ve learned to recognise when to leave the keyboard, to go and take a look at the rest of the human race and engage with the external world. When I’ve got my energy together, I can really enjoy seeing friends and socialising.
I’ve learned to say no.
I’m a people pleaser and in the past I’ve said yes too quickly to invitations and requests, and this led to burnout. I’ve learned to say no or I’ll think about it as a default, giving myself a long moment to think about how much time and energy I have and how I want to spend it.
I think the key to being happy as an introvert is to be just a tiny bit selfish (or maybe very selfish at times) and put your needs first. You can still be a good friend and a good person, but there’s no need to over-tax yourself. The key is balance, like choosing foods for a healthy diet. Balance it out through experience and find that sweet spot and you’ll soon be dancing on the table, just like me.