An introvert is often defined as someone who is inward-turning – energised by being alone and drained by being around other people. When I first learnt about introversion, it was a lightbulb moment. Was this why I never quite felt as though I fitted in? It seemed possible.
Whilst my schoolfriends went to Girl Guides, I scorned it as “organised fun”. On the morning after a sleepover, I’d find a book and sneak away to read in peace, exhausted by the experience. And I hated small talk, all the “how are yous” and “lovely days” (why couldn’t people talk about things that actually mattered?!).
At breaktimes, I’d be bored out of my mind while my friends discussed TV shows and actors and moisturiser. I’d rest my head on my arms and take an impromptu nap instead. When I got a little older, I drove my friends mad by sneaking away from them at festivals and gigs, needing some breathing space. Oh, and I was terribly socially anxious.
Being an introvert was a great excuse! At one point, one of my friends was pretty obsessed with the MBTI personality types. She was extremely extroverted, but would stop pestering me to go to parties if I said I needed alone time.
Uni was more of the same. I hated nightclubs, had no interest in getting drunk, and despised group projects and presentations. All I wanted was to be left alone, and I avoided my party-loving housemates if I could help it. When I met my partner, we bonded over our dislike of other people!
It all seemed pretty straightforward – people drained me, I preferred being alone, so I was an introvert. Case closed.
I did think a lot about what it meant to be an introvert, though. I frequented online forums about personality types, and the curious thing I noticed was that many introverts reported having one or two ‘exceptions’ – people they could hang out with without feeling drained. This fitted in with my experience – I could hang out with my partner all day without feeling the least bit tired of his company. The same had applied to my ex and also to my brother, who I considered one of my best friends.
But that just didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. If the difference between introverts and extroverts was to do with brain structure, as many sources implied, why were there exceptions?
And there were other inconsistencies too. Yes, I preferred being alone to clubbing – but I also felt lonely a lot of the time. I didn’t really get on with anyone I met at uni, but I still wanted friends – I just couldn’t seem to find anyone I clicked with. And when I went vegan, it seemed to cement my status as an outcast.
Then something magical happened. I went along to a local animal rights demo and met the organisers, a group of friends about my age. They invited me to hang out with them that afternoon in a bigger city, 15 minutes away on the train. At first I felt anxious and said no, making excuses about uni work. But then, uncharacteristically, I decided to embrace the opportunity and see where it took me.
So I went with them. We met with someone else they knew and volunteered at Food not Bombs. We chalked animal rights messages on the pavement, and another vegan girl who was passing joined in. And the group of us, by then much larger, went for food at a vegan cafe nearby.
I finally returned home at 11 p.m., on a high. Despite the late hour, I felt energised and incredibly excited. “I have friends!” I exclaimed to my slightly bemused partner. Somehow, I knew this marked a turning point.
And it did. I loved hanging out with my new friends. We went wild camping, cooked vegan meals together, and did activism. When summer came, we had spiritual gatherings in the park, where we meditated, lit candles and had deep discussions about life. I was in heaven.
And what I noticed was that these friends didn’t drain me at all. Quite the opposite – they energised me, even when we hung out as a big group. That’s when I began to wonder whether ‘introvert’ really was an accurate description of myself. I realised that when I felt drained in people’s company, often it was because we had little in common. Talk about TV shows drained me because I found it boring and just couldn’t engage with it. It felt like it was sucking away my mental resources.
Other situations were draining because they triggered my social anxiety – parties and large groups of unfamiliar people were an example. Being on high alert and not being able to relax are themselves very draining.
That explained why neither my partner nor my brother drained me – I knew them very well and was completely comfortable in their company, so there was no reason to be anxious. And I had a lot in common with both of them, so I found them interesting!
Ditto with my vegan friends. I was totally comfortable around them, as they were completely on my wavelength. And we shared so many interests that hanging out with them was really fun and rewarding.
Many friends have remarked in the past that I seem quiet at first but am the opposite once they get to know me. One friend used to describe me as “the most outgoing introvert I know”!
Gradually, as I started to hang out mostly with people who shared my interests and overcame a lot of my social anxiety, I stopped feeling those old emotions. I began to quite enjoy meeting new people, and found that many of the people I met seemed more introverted than me. I realised I felt lonely and sad if I had to spend the whole day by myself. And the label ‘introvert’ started to feel as if it didn’t really fit anymore.
So am I saying all introverts just need to make some better friends and get over their social anxiety? Well, no. Some introverts say they don’t even have social anxiety. And others are drained by hanging out with anyone for too long. My partner is an example – even hanging out with me all day tires him out. I sometimes find this hurtful, but he insists it’s not personal and applies to everyone!
My experience is specific to me, and I don’t intend to challenge anyone else’s. But to me, it feels liberating to have left the ‘introvert’ label behind and to be embracing myself as the social creature I am. Having said that, I wouldn’t call myself an extrovert either. I’m still happy to spend a fair amount of time alone – reading, writing, meditating, cooking, and so on. I just go a bit mad if I don’t see anyone all day! The word ‘ambivert’ has been created to describe someone who doesn’t really fit into either category, but I feel that people are just too complicated to categorise in this way. I’m beginning to see that personality is a very fluid thing which changes based on mood, situation and the people we surround ourselves with.
What do you think?