I’m coming in just under the wire for Throwback Thursday so I don’t have time to write a witty intro. Although I do want to note that I test more in the spectrum range of “ambivert” than “introvert” these days. But I drift.
Original post is from March 20th 2013.
I came across one of my old handwritten journals from my year in Israel, and thought this entry was EXTREMELY interesting, because some of it is so far from who I am now that I barely recognize myself. It sounds like some people I know, but not like me anymore.
“October 27th 2008 (Chaya Solomon’s b-day)
“ ‘I can’t’ usually means ‘I won’t’ — but aren’t there times when ‘I won’t’ isn’t such a bad thing? And some things aren’t just a matter of your will; you need the cooperation of others.
“What I want more than anything this year is to make friends. Good friends. If it’s girls or boys, I don’t really care. But whenever I try to go out and ‘be social,’ meet new people, I always find myself fading into the background while other people do all the talking, make all the jokes. So I just stand around half the time, being weirdly silent, and I end up no better off than before. I suck at group dynamics. One on one, I’m fine. How in the world am I supposed to change that? But maybe more important than that: Why SHOULD I change that? Why should I try to turn myself into the life of the party, talk when I have nothing to say, pretend to be an extrovert? I’m an introvert. It’s not a condition — it’s a fact. And I want to find someone I connect with on that level, not by pretending to be someone I’m not. Duh. Doing it any other way would be counterproductive. But what’s the point of going out to these social gatherings? The kinds of people I’m looking for will not be in those groups; they’ll be back where I want to be, in their rooms, reading, writing, or on the computer.
“It’s paradoxical. I’m intensely introverted and the only people I can meet when I go out are more extroverted than I am, and therefore I don’t get noticed or appreciated by anyone there. I just come across as dull and boring and I’d be kidding myself if I said that isn’t pretty crushing to my self-esteem.
“So, should I change? Is it my fault? If so, how would I change? Read books about taking control of social situations? Ask therapists? Do anything and everything to change my introverted nature, to put on a mask and compromise my self, this major part of my personality?
“Or is this a case of drawing a line, an ‘I won’t’? How far am I supposed to compromise, fake my way through in order to get a friend? Personally, I think I’m looking in the completely wrong place.
“But the other introverts . . . I don’t know. The few that I’ve met seem worse than me, more determined than I am to shut everyone out. They’ve got their own tight circle of friends, here or back home, and they don’t seem interested in letting me in.”
The biggest, most obvious question that gripped me while reading this is, of course: What changed?!
I’m still a reclusive introvert who rarely leaves her room during the week, but if you’ve met me in a group setting, you know how I am there — I’m not “the life of the party” necessarily, but I do that thing that actors with screen presence do: I pull focus. I’m brash and unapologetic, I crack jokes, I say outrageously honest things, I hold my own in almost any conversation. One of my friends, who I met this year at a New Year’s Eve party, told me, “I bet no one who meets you ever forgets you,” and while I wouldn’t go anywhere near that far, I will admit that I’m probably the furthest thing from “dull and boring.”
But there are times where I can feel the remnants of the things mentioned in that journal entry.
I do have days, or even random minutes or hours here and there, where something just switches off, and I’ll go silent or monosyllabic, and I’ll be that boring girl who sits on the couch and reads or sleeps while everyone else carries on just fine without me, or I’ll sit in the thick of it and tune you all out like so much white noise.
And there are certain crowds where I just don’t feel comfortable and don’t feel like talking.
Secret: Mostly this happens in crowds of Jews. Religious Jews who I don’t know make me more uncomfortable than anyone else, and that includes the horrendously smelly, schizophrenic homeless people I encounter on the subway.
Why is that?
Well, because they remind me of what I’m supposed to be but am not.
I felt this to a crippling degree while socializing during my year in Israel, because Israel was a place you were supposed to go so that you could connect with your religion and connect with God, and I was still laboring under the notion that if I just studied hard enough, and focused myself properly, and found the right teachers, then I could learn to believe the way I was supposed to, the way believers did. And I hadn’t yet come to inhabit the religious identity of “agnostic” — that came much later. At the time, I just (very, very secretly) self-identified as a “bad Jew.”
I still don’t think of myself as a particularly good Jew, in the religious sense of being Jewish. As I’ve written in other pieces, I eventually realized that the only reason I kept trying to believe was because I wanted to please the people around me — parents, teachers, friends, community — not because it mattered to me personally. And at some point, I just got tired of pretending to care and trying to make myself care about religion when I don’t, and was only searching for answers in order to fit in. The simple fact of the matter is: I don’t have answers, and I don’t care that I don’t.
So to me, hanging out with a bunch of religious Jews I don’t know can sometimes feel like hanging out with a bunch of mathematicians — it’s not that I don’t respect them; I just don’t have much to contribute to the conversation. And even if I did, I wouldn’t care about it the way they do, and I wouldn’t want to give them the impression that I do. (I dislike writing about religion for that reason; it makes people think you want to talk about it, when honestly, I really don’t.)
Being uncomfortable because of this is silly, obviously — whether the people are religious Jews or mathematicians, they’ll almost definitely have interests, likes, and dislikes outside of Judaism or math, respectively. Even if people are extremely passionate about one thing (and by no means are all Orthodox Jews passionate about being Orthodox Jews, but even if they were) they seldom obsess over it to the exclusion of all else. I have plenty of religious friends, and we hardly ever talk about religion. So of course I could easily talk to a religious Jewish stranger about Star Trek or baseball or Green Day or how hot Jennifer Lawrence is.
But when you’re insecure about something, you feel transparent except for that one thing. You feel like if you open your mouth or call attention to yourself, everyone will somehow figure it out. And you feel like there’s this huge wall between you and them, because you have this massive secret, and there’s an unbridgeable gap between your understanding of the world and theirs.
I’ve long since parted ways with the shame I used to feel about my faith or lack thereof.
I will drop “agnostic” into conversations with religious Jews I’ve barely met, just to get it out there. I have my religious views of “culturally Jewish, religiously agnostic” visible publicly on my facebook profile page, visible to people who aren’t even my facebook friends. I have no patience for pretending anymore, and no interest in misleading anyone into thinking that just because I wear skirts and sleeves and high necklines and keep shabbos and kosher and just about everything else, that I am religious.
That is just one example of a major insecurity that no longer plagues me to the degree that it used to. Others were my weight, my skin, my voice, and the fact that I don’t know what I want out of life. To name a few.
I’ve become a sort of pro at overcoming insecurity, in my old age. It’s become second nature to the point where I often don’t even realize I’m doing it.
It’s a basic two- or maximum three-step regimen.
The first step is recognition. If you don’t recognize the insecurity that is holding you back from feeling comfortable, you have no chance of overcoming it.
The second step is contextualization. How big and bad is this insecurity? What’s the worst it can do to your life, e.g., is that zit really going to make a huge difference, or are you blowing it out of proportion? Is this something that no one has ever overcome before? Do you know people with this exact issue or a similar one or worse, but it doesn’t seem to bother them and you think they’re awesome anyway? If so, what makes them awesome and why should it be any different for you?
Sometimes you can stop after step two, because the answers are obvious enough that the insecurity shrinks away to nothing. Other times, it’s not so simple, and you need to move on to step three:
Honesty. (You knew that was coming, right? I’m super predictable.)
You don’t need to be one thousand percent honest with everyone, about everything, at all times. You don’t have to shout it from the rooftops. You don’t have to post it on facebook.
But you should try to have various different people in your life that you can be honest with about some things some of the time, and hopefully if you have enough of these people, then [some things] + [some things] + [some things] = Everything. For instance, there are certain things I can’t tell my parents, and there are certain things I don’t put on facebook (le shock!), and there are certain things I can tell some close friends but not others, because of overlapping social circles and violation of other people’s privacy and other sticky circumstances. But I have very few secrets of my own that I keep purely to myself. (I have some, by choice, and there’s nothing wrong with that, either.)
As important as it is to have the courage of your own convictions, it’s also important to have validation from others. Ideally, it shouldn’t be necessary, and you shouldn’t rely on it for all things, but we’re human and we’re wired to want to belong, to be understood and accepted by a community of like-minded people, and we should draw strength from that when we can.
Shame tends to seep in when you feel like there’s something you can’t talk about with anyone, and shame is one of the most corrosive and least productive emotional states in the universe.
Sometimes you really have no choice but to feel like the lone freak because your opinion is so singular or unpopular within your community that no one seems to get it. But those are rare. Most of the time, everyone is struggling or has struggled with the same things you are; they just don’t admit it. Or sometimes don’t realize it.
As a general rule, the more honest you are about who you are and how you think, the more unremarkable it will seem to you and to the people around you. These things just become a part of you that doesn’t scare anyone away any more than any other part of you. If people do get scared away, you can be sure they aren’t the kind of people you want in your life.
To be all clever and clichéd: The more you own your insecurities, the less they’ll own you.
But the big question 2008-SM was grappling with remains: How do I find these people I can be honest with? How do I make friends?
I just asked that as if I have the answer, didn’t I? Sorry, my mistake.
I don’t have an answer. There is no blueprint for making friends and I am definitely not an expert in this area.
I can tell you that it’s a numbers game. Pickup artists can tell you that if you go to a bar and set your sights on one specific person, you’re probably heading for disappointment. Not everyone you reach out to is going to reach back. People can be very standoffish and averse to new faces, and something about you may just rub them the wrong way, and these things aren’t necessarily within your control.
(For instance, I find a lot of people to be nice, friendly, upstanding human beings, but they bore me. I swear, that’s all it is. There’s nothing wrong with any of them; we’re just not on the same wavelength and there’s a limit to how close a friendship we can develop when I can’t connect with you. We can be friends, sure, but never close friends. It sounds harsh to say it like that, but everyone gets a lot more out of friendships with people who get them than with people who don’t.)
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t reach out. On the contrary — if you want more friends, you should reach out more. If statistics show that 4 out of 5 people don’t reach back, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that reaching out to 15 people will yield 3 potential friends while reaching out to 5 will yield only 1.
The downside of this is that while the percentage rate of rejection stays the same (4 out of 5, 12 out of 15 = 80% rejection rate), the quantity of rejections goes up (4 rejections from reaching out to 5 people; 12 from reaching out to 15). And that can be exhausting and demoralizing.
And of course, since I just made up these statistics, in real life you don’t have any guarantee that even 1 in 5 will reach back. You might get shut out 15 to 0.
I’ll tell you another secret: I have 1 close friend from high school. There were 70 kids in my grade.
And another: I have 1 close friend from Israel. There were 105 girls in my school.
I have a few reasonably good friends from both those places, a ton of acquaintances who probably think fairly well of me, and I never made any enemies as far as I know, but close friends? The ones you can really get to know and let them get to know you? The ones you tell the things you can’t tell facebook? The ones you’d stay on the phone with for as long as they need you when they’re having a crisis? The ones you go to when you need help?
The odds are not in your favor.
But this is a textbook case of quality over quantity. I’ve never in my life wanted to be popular. (I didn’t even understand the concept in elementary school; I remember having a conversation with a friend in 6th grade where she explained to me who the popular girls were. “So-and-so, she’s popular.” “She is? But I don’t like her.” “Yeah, but she’s popular.” “Okay. Whatever.”) But I always wanted friends.
It’s a slow process. You can’t rush friendship any more than you can hurry love. You will be rejected or ignored with varying degrees of politeness by most of the people you attempt to befriend. You will grow apart from people, and the nature of your friendships with them will change, or they’ll disintegrate entirely, and that will hurt.
But if you keep your eyes open, and you keep making an effort, you’ll find people you want in your life who will want you in theirs. Try not to assume that just because you think someone is awesome, then they must have a ton of friends and no room for little ole you. That might be the case, but if you connect with someone and appreciate them deeply, sometimes that’s because you speak the same psychic language, and that’s a two-way street. People are almost always willing to enrich their lives with other people who speak their language.
I won’t say that conquering your insecurities and cultivating a core group of close friends will turn you into a wise-cracking attention-hog like me, because let’s face it — I’m just naturally charismatic and witty and gorgeous, and ain’t nobody gonna teach you that.
But learning to accept who you are, down to the not-so-shiny nuts and bolts, and having people who accept you as well, can give you that little bit of confidence you need to be just fine with being the boring one, the quiet one, the one who doesn’t need to drink or smoke, or the one who isn’t terrified of splitting off and heading home early.
Because you know you don’t need to impress anyone. You’ve got it made.