I’ve written a whole bunch about being an introvert with social anxiety, and I’ve written a few posts that talked about or at least implied that people from my past (and some from my present) found (find) me intimidating. It’s always been pretty weird being me. It was always hard for me to connect with people, because our greater society in general operates on the belief that introversion is a problem to be solved. It’s something that needs to be changed about a person. From early childhood into adulthood, people constantly pressure introverts to ‘get out of their comfort zones,’ and ‘branch out,’ and ‘go out.’ Believe me, I get it. While most of the people I am closest to NOW, at 40, are also introverts (J, my son, the people I would consider my three closest friends), growing up, most of my friends were extroverts, because most PEOPLE are extroverts. There is a lot of coaxing to join groups and do group activities and calling working in groups ‘opportunities’ to make connections, and the connections I did make were never considered ‘enough.’ It’s like having more connections meant I was a better, more normal, more functional person….to everyone else. That’s what it meant to everyone else, but not to me. I always kind of secretly felt like…
And while I can’t speak for all or any other introverted people, I never saw social events or group projects or activities as opportunities. I always felt more like this…
I love this cartoon. I mean, I liked my extroverted little birdie friends and I liked hanging out with them, but when they started wanting me to change who I was because they were convinced I was missing out on life, it always confused me. Like…okay…YOU’D miss flying and feel cooped up in this shell, but to me this is home…this is safe…and I don’t even have wings. Can you guys not see that? We’re not the same.
So when I was working for the construction company, one of my ‘jack of all trades; master of none’ stints was working intensely with home sales staff (ALL *big time* extroverts…salespeople are like Grade A Prime Extroverts. Introverts are in hiding everywhere because we’ve learned to compensate and mask introversion because people think it’s a flaw or a disease or a disability that needs to be corrected. You will occasionally meet a performer who’s really an introvert that loves to sing or act or play the guitar or do stand-up comedy or something, but I’ve met a lot of salespeople and 100% of them have been extroverts…*pronounced* ones). And their manager was so Salesman he was every salesperson cliche. Would talk your ear off about nothing special. Would engage you every time you made accidental eye contact. Would willfully ignore (or was just generally ignorant of) body language and facial cues that you wanted him to stop talking to you and go away. Sometimes I thought he truly liked hearing the sound of his own voice. He seemed to never be alone in his office and never be quiet. Ever. When The Office first came out on American television, I couldn’t watch it, because this sales manager reminded me *so much* of Michael Scott it was *creepy.*
Clearly, he wasn’t my favorite contact at work. We had nothing in common. I am a quiet person. He was loud and chatty. I enjoyed being left alone to work. It almost seemed like he *couldn’t* be left alone to work or he got antsy.
So one day, before I met J, a man I had been seeing, whom I was interested in (but didn’t really love), whom I thought was interested in me, began that short, painful process of pulling away from a potential committed relationship. He didn’t want to be connected to me anymore. This had happened to me really often (and still does, to be honest…just not in the romance department, because that’s all J and he’s got staying power). There really wasn’t anything special about this man except that I was worn down from being repeatedly rejected. And rejected by men who initially pursued ME. It bummed me out, because I felt like no one wanted to connect to me once they got to know me, that I was a failure at forming meaningful connections with people, and I wasn’t sure how to remedy that without trying to fly without wings, so, as embarrassing as this was, I started crying at work. I wasn’t crying over the guy. I was crying because…well, I’m a turtle and I can’t just change myself into a bird, and I thought I’d never be able to really connect with another person unless I could magically transform into a bird, which I didn’t know how to do. I at least for those moments of despair, bought into, ‘There’s something wrong with you and it needs to be fixed,’ but I didn’t know how to fix it.
The sales manager came over to comfort me. He was literally the last person I thought ever would even NOTICE me crying, much less try to be sensitive and kind and comforting about it. That’s what I get for underestimating people. Once I no longer worked for that company anymore and could actually enjoy The Office, I realized…Michael Scott had his moments too. This is how that conversation went…
SM: Jen, are you alright?
Me: <embarrassed…and lying…which I’m historically shit at> I’m fine. <wipes face…like he can’t see that…again, I’m competitive in the World’s Worst Liar Contest>
SM: I don’t know who’s made you feel like this, but they aren’t worth it.
Me: <surprised he had gathered it was a human connection problem…I never told him anything about my personal life> It’s…thank you, I guess.
SM: If it’s not working out, I can’t imagine it’s something you did. Ask yourself this: does this person make my life better? I mean, do they bring you joy? Understanding? Help when things are hard? Challenges you need to improve yourself? If not, it’s better to let them go. That’s not a tragedy. That’s a relief. That’s making room in your life for someone who’ll make your life better.
That’s some of the best advice I ever got…don’t try to keep someone in your life who isn’t making your life better. And it was this odd validation of my introversion from the biggest, loudest extrovert I ever met. He said I didn’t have to form and maintain connections that didn’t make my life better. He told me it was okay for me to be a turtle. There wasn’t anything wrong with me.
I have a first cousin I used to be very close to (also a really pronounced extrovert). After a relationship of hers ended around this same time, she was obviously upset, and I wanted to comfort her, so I shared this wisdom from my Real Life Michael Scott with her. I told her to be more selfish with her connections, because she seemed to form immediate intimate connections with everyone she met. I told her it was better to be alone for a while than be with a person who doesn’t improve her life on her own. Her response to me was this:
“It’s so easy for you, though, Jen. It’s so easy for you to be alone.”
And she was right. I’m an organic optimist. And an introvert. I liked being alone. I thought my life was pretty great, just me. Of course, I wanted to form connections, and my lack of connection upset me enough to cry, even that one time at work, in front of a person I’d never think would ever make me feel better or validate me. But…I learned that day that the people I wanted to form connections with were people who would make my life better, and my life, alone, was already pretty great. And people that special were rare…people that could make my already great life BETTER. I’ve found some of those people now, and I’m holding onto them. I try my best to make THEIR lives better. But like those top two visuals…I’m no longer trying to force connections to make sure I have ‘enough’ of them. And I’m surely no longer trying to figure out how to fly without wings or change myself into a bird. I’m cool with being a turtle.