Not that long ago, I was invited to a friend’s housewarming party. I knew I wasn’t going to know anybody other than the hostess. Still, I was happy to be asked and I wanted to go, so I did. But after an hour of making awkward small talk with a few guests about Mission of Burma, who were going to be playing on campus a few weeks later, I felt a pull toward the door and my solitary walk home. I was ready to leave, anxious to get back to my dorm room, where I could read Gone Girl and maybe watch a movie.
Almost every party and social gathering is like this—I want to be there, but once I arrive, I’m typically at a loss, mystified by the ease and energy with which everybody else makes conversation. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to think that the way I connect with people is different from how most people connect with one another. My friends want to go to the movies and get dinner and hang out together all the time, it seems like, whereas I’m always drifting on the fringe, content to tag along on these occasions, but never one to agitate for them. But they’re having so much fun! They seem so excited to be spending hours in each other’s company, dancing or talking about school and crushes and life. And I never am. There’s something wrong with that, isn’t there?
I asked myself this question a lot. In high school, I never cared about going to parties as much as my friends did. I spent my freshman homecoming dance in the art room, hanging with my BFF, rather than grinding away to “Paper Planes” on the dance floor with my classmates. Every year, the cast party for the school musical would roll around, and I would force myself to attend. I loved working on the production with the other students, and I thought that I should socialize and celebrate some more, but I didn’t really want to. My classmates seemed to fit together like an awesome jigsaw puzzle, and I somehow didn’t.
This wasn’t how I pictured high school would be. In middle school, I fantasized about finding a big group of cool friends à la Skins (minus all the drugs) to sit at a lunch table with and talk about Gregg Araki and New Order. This was, I thought, what it was supposed to be like, and what I was supposed to want. In reality, though, I was happy for the few good friends that I had. I went to backyard barbeques and concerts, but I would have rather stayed at home, and sometimes being in those situations made me feel more painfully aware of my disposition.
But lots of us feel awkward and alienated in high school! I figured college would be different (because everyone kept telling me that college would be different). But when I started at a university in New York last fall, it took about two seconds for me to feel pressured to socialize. During Welcome Week there were group circles to be sat in, introductions to be made, and various outings around the city that demanded our presence. I found it exhausting. “Why don’t you go out more?” people would ask me. “Why won’t you come to this bar after the show?” I felt ashamed to say, “Because I don’t feel like it.” When I caught up with friends from high school over the holiday break, I realized they were finding their place on athletic teams and at the school paper and totally thrilled about it. I went back to college feeling like I had a problem.
Then one day I happened to come across a blog that linked to an article in Psychology Today. The author was explaining the difference between introverts and extroverts, and how extroverts are stimulated by company and gain energy as the night goes on, whereas introverts are often overwhelmed in similar situations. And it hit me: I’m an introvert. (“DUH!” screams the world, but I wasn’t so informed.) It was reassuring to read something that basically said I wasn’t a loser. The article explained that it’s not that introverts don’t like other people, it’s just that socializing isn’t necessarily a huge source of our happiness. We take pleasure in solitary activities. For us, sometimes even ordinary everyday questions like “How are you?” can cause a tiresome amount of consideration.
As I got further into my first year of college, I didn’t feel like such a recluse anymore. I still went out sometimes, but I stopped worrying about how I’d be perceived if I didn’t. It’s tough, because I think the world values extroverts, and I can see why. People are drawn to outgoing people: They lead class discussions, they find their footing in unfamiliar situations, they make good impressions on job interviews, Facebook wants them to upload the photos of every party/dinner/bris they’ve ever been to and tag, tag, tag away.
But I’m starting to feel lucky that I’m comfortable being by myself. There are advantages to feeling like you don’t need to be around people, but instead choose to be around them. I don’t struggle with solitude. A weekend without plans doesn’t bore me or make me panic that I’m not popular enough. I’ll go to MoMa or walk around the city or write this Rookie essay. Spending so much time alone has actually helped me define who I am. It led me to start a blog. It allowed me to read many amazing books. It helped me decide what I want, free from the expectations or ideas of other people. It’s impossible not to compare myself with other people sometimes, and to want to be more like them. I can admit that, just like I can admit that I’m happiest when I’m alone. ♦