A few years ago, my best friend of over a decade called me and I chose not to answer. We were living in different states and hadn't seen each other in months; in his voicemail, he was crying. How had I not known something was wrong? When I called back, he didn't answer. My husband—at the time my boyfriend—watched as I cried for an hour because I wasn't there for my friend like he had always been there for me.
This wasn't an isolated incident: It was one of many unanswered calls, one of many commitments left unfulfilled. I wasn't always this way. In high school, I never missed an episode of One Tree Hill, but almost every other night was spent with friends. I wasn't exhausted after an hour of conversation. I didn't excitedly make plans only to say, "I don't want to go," 10 minutes before said plans were to take place. Now, all that has changed; even though I'm lonely, I can't stop isolating myself.
I work from home as a freelance writer and that leads to at least eight hours each weekday I am guaranteed time by myself. Why do I still crave alone time after my husband gets home, preferring to curl up with a television show? Why can't I just convince myself I will have a good time at an event and go? Why is my first instinct when a friend tries to make plans to say no?
While introversion is a concept that gets thrown around loosely, it's not synonymous with shyness. "In most psychology circles, the term introvert, popularized by Carl Jung, is used to describe a person whose focus of attention is primarily on his or her own thoughts and feelings," explains Dr. Simon Rego, director of psychology training at the Montefiore Medical Center/Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. Jung, the pioneering Swiss psychiatrist, used the concepts of extroversion and introversion to explain different psychological types.
However, today, many people are familiar with these concepts not from Jung's work, but because of their use in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality test, which, despite criticism from psychologists, has been used in recent decades for everything from leadership training to marriage counseling. In this test, you answer a series of questions related to Jung's idea of four cognitive functions—thinking, feeling, sensation, and intuition—that are related either to extroversion or introversion. My Myers-Briggs personality type is an INFJ—introverted, intuitive, feeling, judging—and out of the 16 possible combinations, Myers-Briggs notes this is the rarest, representing about 1 percent of the population.
I have always wished I could wear a sign that says, "It's not you; it's me. I'm an INFJ," so that when I don't smile or talk a lot at social gatherings people don't automatically assume something is wrong. As an INFJ, I care deeply about others' feelings, and in social situations, this leads me to spend a lot of time worrying about what others are thinking or feeling toward me. This can be especially true in times of conflict, as INFJs avoid disagreements at all costs for fear of hurting others' feelings and because they are sensitive to criticism.
But though I spend lots of time thinking about others, this doesn't always come through in social situations. My introversion is exacerbated by what's colloquially known as resting bitch face: When I'm wrapped up in own mind, I appear angry or, at best, disinterested. Many people think I am unhappy in a group, when in fact I am usually completely content, just living in my head.
It's not that I mind socializing, but I do find it taxing in a way I know others do not. "Introverts are not necessarily shy, so they often report valuing social gatherings and interacting with people," Rego says. "However, introverts are thought to be more sensitive to stimulation, so they may burn out more easily from routine social activities than others." After just a few hours of spending time in a group of people I am usually exhausted, often needing a nap to replenish my energy.
After reading MWF Seeking BFF: My Yearlong Search for a New Best Friend, by Rachel Bertsche, I was inspired to go on friend dates as the means to find a local best friend, but the idea of meeting enough new people to truly make a connection overwhelmed and exhausted me. My post-college life included a move 1,500 miles from home to a new city where I knew one person. Seven years later, I've barely added to my circle.
My bridal party was filled with people I have known since what I think of as my outgoing years—when we were just teens—and sometimes I tell myself I haven't tried harder to find new friends because I love the ones I already have so much. But when I find myself screening their phone calls because I know it will be a long conversation and the idea of that makes me tired or one of my television shows is starting in 20 minutes, I inevitably wind up spending part of the night blaming myself when I feel lonely just a few hours later.
Even with loneliness often lingering over my head, my introversion has held me back from making new friends. I often feel like I am stuck between a rock and a hard place: longing for companionship, yet preferring to hide away at home. It is that contradiction that frustrates me on those nights I am watching Sex and the City reruns wishing I had a close group of friends in my city. Instead, I often turn to Facebook and Twitter for personal connection at a distance. I want friends, but apparently I want them only on my own terms.
Technology is both a valuable tool and a trap when you are an introvert. You can immerse yourself in TV's no-stakes social settings or dip into social media to get a feeling of community without having to, say, make small talk around your husband's friends. You can still feel needed on a daily basis when a new email comes through, but you don't have to respond right away. However, that doesn't stop me from refreshing my inbox five minutes later because it's a distraction from the loneliness and boredom I feel from choosing to seclude myself. Technology can help introverts stay connected with loved ones, but it's also a crutch to distract us from our feelings.
And I see the toll this takes on my marriage as well. My husband is a video-game enthusiast and animator, and we often spend nights on the couch, together but apart: him playing a game while I watch TV on my iPad with headphones. Sometimes, however, even this level of togetherness is difficult for me; I would much rather be watching my shows alone in bed. You can be a good wife and an introvert, yes, but I feel guilty for retreating. I don't want him to feel like his time isn't as important to me as my own.
Luckily, he is content spending most of our nights at home and understands that when I need space, it isn't a reflection of my feelings for him. My past relationships lacked that same understanding; my college boyfriend would get frustrated when I retreated for a few days or when he had to explain to my friends why I had vanished. My husband, however, simply tells anyone who asks that I get overwhelmed in large groups and that if I disappear, I am just taking a break to rest.
Introversion is part of my personality; it's not something I can simply walk away from. However, I try to see the positive side of my predicament as well. My focus on the feelings of others leads me to care deeply for my friends and family. And my introspection is part of why I was always drawn to writing. For me, it is a means of communication that is much easier than the immediacy of a social setting. I am able to think and reflect on what I am saying before it gets shared with the world.
In addition, while it's tempting to reducing people to simplistic labels, humans in all their contradictory complexity rarely stick strictly to type. Jung himself was careful to note that no one falls entirely on one end of the introvert-extrovert spectrum, and Rego says most people live somewhere in between.
Recently, I've embraced mindfulness: I try to realize when I am feeling lonely and recognize that I have the power to do something about it. Even if I am an introvert, I can socialize on my own terms. When I catch myself watching TV while scrolling through Facebook and simultaneously checking my email, I try to choose one activity. That is at least a way for me to check in with my feelings. Is this something I actually want to be doing, or am I just lonely and looking for a distraction? Would I rather be on the phone with one of my friends, or in the other room spending time with my husband?
I have started to realize I'm ashamed of my introversion because I don't own up to it. I know my friends would understand if I answered the phone and said I had only a few minutes because I'm tired or because I have plans to do something I enjoy (even if those plans are watching the latest episode of my favorite sitcom). My friends love me and they want me to be happy. They don't want me to sit around feeling guilty for a character trait that I can't fully control. I shouldn't want that for myself, either.
So, friends, next time I don't answer the phone or I cancel on you last-minute without admitting it's because I am planted in front of the television wearing sweatpants, call me out on it. Then tell me you understand. And next time, I'll try to do better.
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