The Introvert’s Path

An introvert walks into a party…

That sounds like the beginning of a bad joke.

But introverts do, on occasion, walk into parties. Sometimes even on purpose.

And sometimes it goes a little bit like this:

Going to a party, especially one that lasts for more than a few hours, is like going on a journey with that group of people. It usually takes the introvert a little time to find the path the others are on, but as long as the stars are aligned and it’s a party she wants to be at with people she likes, often within a few hours she’ll be there with the rest of them – and glad to be. She’s never really the life of the party, but sometimes she can be the soul of it. 

After a few hours, she comes to a bump in the path. No one else can see it; she stumbles, but two quick steps and she’s caught up with the others again. It’s fine. 

Some time later, there’s another one. This one is more like a little wall, really, but she was watching for it this time and she can step over it. A minor inconvenience.

Still later, there’s another. A little taller. This one she has to climb over and it takes a bit more effort to catch up again, but she can handle it.

And so it goes. The farther she goes, the more walls she encounters, and every wall is just a little bit taller. Most of the time they come closer and closer together, but irregularly – every now and then there isn’t one for a long time.

Eventually the walls are so high that climbing over them requires jamming fingernails into crevices and scrabbling for footholds. Sometimes as she climbs she falls back down and has to try again, and her body becomes bruised and her hands start bleeding. 

Time after time, she sprints to catch up with her friends. Sometimes they slow down for her, but she doesn’t think it’s logical to ask all of them to wait on one of her again and again, so she doesn’t always tell them when she runs into another wall. Jumping down the other side of one wall sprains her ankle and she starts lagging a little behind the group, but she keeps going. She wants to be with them. Her friends are worth more than the walls.

And then, finally, inevitably, she comes to a wall that she cannot get over. She climbs and claws but always she falls before she reaches the top. Again and again. Her friends notice her delay and they come back to find her, and they want to help but they can’t see the wall. For them, the path is smooth here.

But with them there, caring, she finds the strength to climb again, and they catch her on the other side, and they all keep going together.

Her body aches and she’s so tired now, but she pushes herself to keep up. She wants to be here, but that’s become a thought she keeps repeating to herself more than a feeling. 

And so soon, too soon, there’s another wall. Still higher. 

Once she climbs, and falls. 

Again, and falls. 

The third time she almost reaches the top, and the fall hurts in every part of her body, and she doesn’t get up again right away. Curled up in her bruised bones, blood on her fingers and salt in her eyes, she no longer knows if being on the other side of the wall is worth the climb. 

Maybe it would be better to stay here, alone.  

So when her friends come back to find her, she asks them if they would go on and leave her behind, just for a little while. She wants to be with them, but even more than that she wants to just stop.

And when they leave, the knowledge that for a little while at least she doesn’t have to try to keep up, she can rest, fills her with such relief that there’s no room for anything else.

But later, when she’s not so tired anymore, when her spirit has space for more than exhaustion, she feels a bite of envy.

Why is it that her friends seem to glide along their paths with such ease, hands linked and hearts open? If there are walls in their way, they must vault over them with the airiest of grace, because they never seem to fall even a step behind. They could keep going for days, apparently, growing stronger together.

Why is she so weak?

.

An introvert walks into a party…and that’s a little bit like what happens next. At least, if the introvert is me.

I’ll admit that most of the time I don’t push myself to the bruised-and-bleeding stage. 

The reason for climbing the walls at all, of course, is because intimacy lies far along the path, beyond many high walls, and I crave intimacy almost as much as I fear it. But at most social events, I’ll stop when the walls get waist-high. Most of the time, I act as though intimacy is not worth the blood and bruises.

I’ve learned to appreciate many things about being introverted. I like that being alone is not hard for me. I’m grateful that it’s not difficult for me to think deeply and read deeply and listen deeply. I like that I don’t define myself by any one group. I’m grateful that I don’t require someone looking over my shoulder to get things done, that I don’t feel the need to always find someone who wants to do it too before I can move forward. 

But sometimes I hate it.

Sometimes I hate having this particular struggle over and over again, year after year. I get tired of being the one on the edge of the group, of monitoring my social battery, of escaping to the bathroom to recharge for a few minutes, of trying to find ways to self-medicate and supplement my energy levels so I can stay present just a little longer, of carrying headaches and exhaustion for days afterward – and especially of it never being enough, because no matter how hard I push myself, no matter how many walls I climb, everyone else always has more energy, enough to go dancing further down the path together, into levels of intimacy that I can only hear faintly, echoing in the distance. 

I hate that loneliness feels like home to me, and connection is a place I can only visit occasionally.

I don’t know what the answer is.

My most common way of dealing with it has been to tell myself that I’m being unreasonable. So many people have close friendships; why would I think I’m so amazingly special and different? Maybe everyone deals with this, and they’re just better at getting over their walls than I am. Or maybe everyone deals with this, and they’re just better at pretending than I am. If I really wanted it, I would find a way to have it, and since I haven’t, that must mean I don’t – or at least that I want something else more. Something else is probably the safety of isolation, since that is what I have.

So I focus on my relationship with my husband – a magical place where the path has become worn smooth in most places and the walls are rare. I remind myself to be grateful in my friendships, grateful that these beautiful people let me be any part of their lives, because even when it feels to me like I’m giving much, to them it must seem like almost nothing, compared to what most people give.

And I stay home. I fill my days with work so that by the time I’m done, I’m tired enough to desire rest more than connection. And I don’t look too closely at other women’s friendships, because loneliness doesn’t usually show up when I’m alone. It shows up when I see other women being together.

My husband says “You’ve got to accept how you’re built and then work with that,” and he’s probably the least victim-enabling person in my life so I tend to trust him but I don’t want to accept that I don’t have the capacity for the level of connection that I want in my friendships. 

But what if I don’t? 

No one is stopping me from pursuing that kind of intimacy in my friendships – except me. I mean, I don’t know how to, but also I haven’t tried very hard to figure that out. Because I don’t think I’ll be able to handle it. I don’t think I’ll be able to show up enough for her. I think I’ll be a disappointment five minutes in, and I won’t know why.

.

I’ve been talking with people about this, since I wrote that first part, mostly women. And it was hard, and it was helpful. They’ve said things like, why can’t I just ask what someone wants in a friendship, if I’m afraid I’ll be a disappointment because I don’t just know? And what if I would ask for the things I want?

And what if, instead of looking at my social energy like a battery, I would look at it like a muscle?

Strength isn’t built by going to the gym once a month and pushing yourself to the extreme ends of exhaustion. Strength is built by working your muscles consistently, and on most days not so hard that you can’t function afterwards. Marathons are great, but if you actually want physical endurance, you have to train repeatedly across time.

I tend not to do that socially. When I do show up, I do my best to really show up. I push myself. I desire deep connection, and socializing without that feels pointless and shallow to me. I’m often tired by the time I go home – sometimes very tired. I often feel like I don’t want to socialize again for weeks. Sometimes months. Especially because my work brings me into contact with other people regularly, it’s so easy for me to literally go for months without any intentional socializing.

So I appear, and disappear. I do a marathon, and then I spend a month on the couch. 

This is the first time that it occurred to me that when people make small talk, they’re doing the social equivalent of taking a five minute walk. 

I’ve always despised small talk, because I’ve never been able to see any point in it.

But I know what can happen when you walk just a few miles every day for months on end.

So I’m trying it. Small connections consistently; building strength into a muscle by using it, instead of saving the energy in a battery by not using it.

I’m not trying to turn myself extraverted. I may never really want to socialize as often as I see some people do, and that’s fine by me. But I would like if my social connections were only limited by my desires, rather than by my capabilities.

So we’ll see. Ask me in four months.

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