“I don’t think you’re an introvert,” says my husband. “I think you’re an extrovert who got the extroversion beaten out of her.”
I’ve learned to take these insights from him seriously, even when they run in stark contrast to what I actually assume about myself. The number of times I’ve heard him pose such an insight, and I’d swear that it’s not the case — only to have life gently (or, at times, not so gently) unfold to me the truth behind reality. I’ve learned to hold such assessments with both hands and with cared regard.
An extrovert who got the extroversion beaten out of her. “But, like, not literally beaten,” I’ve said when telling others about it, like the only way a spirit could get crushed is under the weight of swinging fists.
I cling stubbornly to my trappings, my proof of introversion. My awkwardness in social situations. My proclivity to quiet observation. My almost pathological need to disappear into the woods, alone, sometimes for the entire day. My assertion that I’m a social introvert. But the concept is something I keep playing with, what it actually means to be introverted, or extroverted, and what about the amorphous people whose shape can’t be defined, even when painted with both colors.
Dates, events, plans, people.
A hurricane of the four — that’s what life has felt like for us. Life has become a reverse game of whack-a-mole, attempting to grab a free day, free evening, before it disappears down the hole and something more substantial pops up in its place. Life has been a flurry of text messages, conversations, me frantically texting my husband, constantly trying to pin down plans. Did you see these friends want to grab dinner? When are we free? How about this concert? This comedian? Do you want to sign up for this event? What’s your Tuesday night looking like? And Thursday? And Saturday?
A constant flurry, and me perennially on edge, waiting for the moment I’m told I’m too much, too annoying. Waiting to be told to buzz off, for a snap that never actually comes, that I actually know would never come. But some echoes are hard to stop hearing. After a certain point, you always flinch when a fist is raised, even if those hands have done nothing but hold you.
“Ah, so you’re a secret introvert, then, huh?”
We’re skating around an outdoor rink on an unseasonably warm day. Skating is quickly turning into an obstacle course, avoiding the deep grooves we’re creating as our blades make canyons in the semi-slush. I’d been talking about the mountains, about needing to hike to recharge.
I turn to my friend with a curious look. Have I been presenting myself as an extrovert this entire time? I feel like I once did at camp one summer, when a boy told me I must be the popular cheerleader back at home. Oh, if you only knew the truth. I’m clearly guilty of false advertising.
Secret introvert. It’s a step beyond social introversion. No longer the inwards-focused wallflower who enjoys gatherings. Now you’re the outgoing one that no one suspects is secretly the pattern of those flowers.
“It’s all about the community.”
It feels like that’s been our mantra as of late. It’s what drives everything we do these days, even if it doesn’t look like it on the surface. But it’s all about the groups of people, the interconnectedness. Smiling at everyone you pass by, because you know them, or simply because we’ve all collectively welcomed each other in. Shake hands and say good morning or hug and say good night.
It energizes me. It’s what causes me to stay up until 1 in the morning, purely because I’m engrossed in conversation. Why I can come home from an event and be too charged to get to sleep and wake up bone tired and go to the next thing without hesitation.
But I still assert that I don’t get my energy from it. At least, not from the mere presence of people. Being around groups doesn’t fill me up. It’s about the connection. Connection makes me feel like I’ve tapped into something. Connection feels like one more electrical cord has found its outlet.
The deep dives into the Enneagram still prove fascinating. The writer in me lives on it — if nothing else, to get an outline of how certain personalities interact with other personalities, what motivations would cause a person to act in certain ways and under what circumstances.
The irony is that people in my personality category love categories, and will adjust themselves to better fit in the box. So I have to be careful. Fascination can turn into a crutch with startling speed. But still, I love it.
I used to contend that interacting with people drained me. That was all the proof I needed that I was an introvert. But it stopped being a sound argument once held up to the light. Being around the right people never drained me. Being around those whom I felt safe and welcomed with never did.
People with my personality category obsessively people please when insecure or stressed. And the realization, the moment I put the two pieces together, came to me as I was pulling onto the highway one cold winter morning: I used to drain myself around other people, not because the act of interacting was taxing, but because I was depleting myself making sure everyone, absolutely everyone, was happy with me. That no one was mad at me, or anyone else. I ran myself ragged to appear as nonthreatening and unassuming as possible, even when it was threatening my longterm health.
It’s an old habit that I still have a hard time shaking: that monitoring in times of insecurity, watching for any sign that they are no longer pleased with me, accommodating by any means necessary.
Extroversion doesn’t have to be beaten out of you. Sometimes it’s rearranged in order to navigate toxic environments during your formative years.
My relationship with labels is a difficult one. They are simultaneously impeding and freeing, toxic and supportive. Labels are just clusters of words to make complex thoughts a little more linear. But there’s a great temptation to reshape in accordance to those words, or reject everything when the line isn’t perfectly straight.
Labels are liberating, at times. To say, “I am this,” and realize there’s a word — or, with Enneagram, a number — for something so beyond explanation. It’s like getting a diagnosis and finally knowing what your treatment plan is. That others have experienced this so often that they’ve created vocabulary for it. Vocabulary is freeing. Just ask any writer, or any reader who leaned on a writer for the words they couldn’t find.
But as soon as the label is up, so are the edges. There is prosecution and defense: one to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt and one to throw the whole thing out. Maybe labels are like that vital friend that you have to keep at arm’s length: their role in your life is instrumental, but too much time around them proves toxic.
The mountains. I haven’t hiked since the first snowstorm in the Whites this past fall, and I’m itching to go back. The weather refuses to let up, and I refuse to go at those mountains alone in it. I understand what forces they are. I won’t let folly be my downfall, at least not here.
Even with snowshoeing the local forests to bide my time with, I count the weeks until I can hike again. I feel the drain, perhaps more than the lack of sunlight, the cold days, the freezing rain. I need that time. I need to be alone and in the mountains and in the silence and eventually return to the trailhead with a soul so full that I don’t even want the radio on during the drive back, lest I disrupt the experience.
Maybe it’s not a sign of my introversion. Maybe the whole concept of introversion and extroversion is exhaustingly binary and should be scrapped entirely. What is the label for someone who finds energy through connection? Whether that’s in profound chemistry, or finding something in common, or a shared laugh, or a good song, or poetry that punches you in the gut.
Sometimes I think of the Alan Watts quote, about going into the forests and learning what the hermits have learned: that we are connected with everything. And perhaps those hours alone on the trail, sometimes seeing no one else, being a hermit on the move, and eventually summiting a spot above the clouds, are proving exactly that. In order to truly recharge, I need the ultimate connection — the reminder that everything is a complex set of cords and outlets, everything interweaving together, the same electricity pulsing through every channel.