Becoming an Introvert

Renee Pepmiller

I always assumed I was an extrovert.  I’m quite good at talking to people, even those I don’t know. I can host a party, flitting from group to group like the proverbial butterfly.  I was once even described as ‘bubbly’.  Of course I was an extrovert.  So what if I didn’t particularly like talking to strangers; that was merely a personality quirk born out of switching high-schools.  And that tight feeling high in my stomach before social events was probably indigestion.  It didn’t mean anything.  I knew I was an extrovert.

I was wrong. I am an introvert; I just didn’t realize it until I was well into my twenties. That probably seems like something I should have figured out earlier, but it truly caught me by surprise. I was always sociable and able to talk to anyone, but then when you change high-schools twice, you learn to be friendly real fast. And I guess I just got used to acting like an extrovert.  It wasn’t until a few years ago that I read something about introverts and had my own little epiphany.  All those small things added up. And then the real discovery began.

When I polled those closest to me, my best friends and family, most seemed to have known I was an introvert before I was even aware.  My mother, ever the supporter, encouraged me not to submit to labels.  “You have qualities of both…It depends on the situation, sometimes you’re an introvert and sometimes you’re an extrovert”. I almost never do this, but I have to disagree.  I think it’s less flexible.  Rather, I think I am an introvert who sometimes pretends to be an extrovert.

Like a child at Halloween, I wear my extroversion like a mask.  A costume I allow to drench and protect me.  I can pull it on like a cloak, covering my back and cloaking my insecurities.  Discarding is a little more difficult. Once the weight is released, I can feel the exhaustion; the act of carrying a personality not my own leaves me weak and battered.  But what other option is there, to stand in a corner silently; to show my distress? I think that would cause more discomfort than my disguise.

So, I slide on my mask, it’s almost second nature.

I’m not sure when or where I developed my mask.  Was it a conscious effort?  Did it begin in grade school? Junior High? I know it was well in place by the time I started high-school and continued to develop from there.  The more I ponder, the more I think it was a subconscious creation, born more out of society’s preferences than even mine.  As early as grade school, extroversion is almost assumed.  There are presentations and group projects, team sports, kickball at recess.  While I understand that things like public speaking skills and teamwork are perhaps important to foster, that doesn’t make them any easier. What does make things easier is to pretend.  Pretend that you’re good at talking to people and eventually you will be.  Pretend that it doesn’t make you nervous or uncomfortable.  And the mask begins to develop.

By high-school I was already masquerading as an extrovert.  This is the time I was dubbed ‘bubbly’ and nicknamed ‘peppy’.  My family moved a few times and I started new high-schools.  There are many great things I gained from starting over, not the least of which is the knowledge that it’s ok to do so. But being the new girl also cemented my extrovert mask.  If you’re starting fresh, it seems important to be outgoing and friendly, to make new friends as soon as possible, to find a group to hang out with.  

And then came college, where I met the man I would marry.  My husband is an extrovert.  I guess we give credence to the old adage of opposites attract: different cultures, different interests, and apparently different personality types.  In college he was voted social chair of his fraternity, in essence, the alpha extrovert.  He set up parties with other organizations, talked to everyone from the preppy sorority girls to the country fraternity guys and enjoyed every second of it.  I wasn’t a recluse by any means. I went to the parties, talked to the guys, danced to the party tunes, and sipped on cheap ‘wine’ and free beer. It was easy to see myself as an extrovert.

With the space of time, and a new, deeper understanding of self, I see a different picture.  I look back and see a girl who went to the same parties at the same fraternity house, where I knew just about everyone. Then I labeled it as safety.  But that was another mask, a flippant remark of misdirection.  I went to the parties where I knew people.  The parties where everyone knew my name, where I didn’t have to meet anyone new; an introvert through and through.

My husband knows I’m an introvert.  He knows that I prefer to stay home and that ‘I really don’t like people’. In fact he enjoys staying home too, but not in the same way I don’t think.  It’s still odd to him, my resistance and dislike of social events. He thrives on meeting new people and talking to strangers. As an extrovert, he doesn’t ‘get it’.  He doesn’t understand the nauseous pit in my stomach before dinner parties, the uncomfortable feeling that won’t go away through sheer force of will, he doesn’t get why I would consider excuses over group outings.  He doesn’t know the unease in my head or the back and forth that I put myself through to hype up for an event.  He’s an extrovert; he thrives in the places I hide. Like I said, opposites attract.

Through chance and circumstance I developed the personality of an extrovert. It was never really my personality, but I used it as necessary.  As an adult it made me a successful salesperson when I worked in retail. It helped me in job interviews and at the proverbial water cooler. And I didn’t look any closer. I didn’t consider why after 8 hours of being surrounded by people and sitting in an open cubicle all I wanted to do at 5pm was crawl under the blanket and listen to music. I didn’t consider why I didn’t like my job, why I was so willing and eager to leave it when an opportunity for travel arose.  

It wasn’t until I was halfway around the world, reading about personality types that I realized I was checking all the invisible boxes under Introvert.  Suddenly so many things made sense.  I didn’t really dislike people; I was just uncomfortable in groups or around strangers.  I thrived in a small office and given time to work by myself.  I had a small number of truly best friends instead of collecting acquaintances. I am an introvert. My mask was just so good that I fooled myself.