I am standing in a beautiful church watching a bride and groom walk down the aisle. They are newly married, they are full of smiles, their happiness is written in every step they take. There is an array of cakes laid on at the back of the church, their wedding cake is five tiers of wonderful decorations, I am standing side by side with my husband and people I know and like. All I can think is ‘I can’t do this.’
I love weddings. I love preparing an outfit, I love discussing what might happen with friends, I love receiving the order of service at the door and noticing the little details, I love spotting the floral arrangements and I love seeing what everyone else wears. I love buying gifts for people and writing heartfelt cards. I love dancing and speeches and hugging a happy bride.
But I’m an introvert. An introvert with fairly acute social anxiety. It only takes one little thing to upset the careful balance of control that I need to make a day possible. Perhaps it’s feeling a little bit ill, being on an unexpected period, not being able to find anything I can eat (gluten and lactose intolerant), or not having enough money in my bank account to pay for a taxi home alone. It only takes a small shift, and then the whole thing becomes untenable. It leaves me standing in a room full of happy people, realising I don’t have the energy or the capability to be who I need to be for this occasion.
I can’t do this.
This is what my husband called it when I decided to leave the wedding. I called it running away. As I moved through the crowd of happy people to the door, shamefully keeping my eyes downcast, I thought about all the effort and happiness I had put into being able to attend this wedding. I told myself that this was something I should be able to do, I should be able to stay at the wedding and celebrate with my friends. But my mind had already turned inside itself and I was barely responding to questions. My fight or flight mode had switched on and my body was pumping with adrenalin. Get home. In a daze I got in the car, dropped my husband at work, and went upstairs to bed. Relieved and guilty I lay down in the quiet and closed my eyes. I tried not to think about the wedding and my friends there having fun. I tried not to call myself names inside my head.
‘I don’t think it was running away,’ my husband said. ‘I think it was self-care.’
People often think introverts are anti-social people – that we are quiet loners who shun public speaking and don’t like leading. This is completely untrue. An introvert is simply a person who gets energy from being alone rather than from other people, and even that description is perhaps too black and white for something that is essentially multiple shades of grey. Because we all need time alone from time to time, but it doesn’t make us all introverts. The best way to describe the difference I know, is to explain the difference between me and my husband.
We are both quite outgoing people. We are both strong public speakers, we both like to involved in our community, we both love to spend our time quietly reading, we both love slow evenings in working our way through a netflix series. But I’m an introvert and he’s an extrovert.
What does that mean?
It means when he gets home from a day at work, he wants to talk about it. When I get home from a day at work, I want to be silent for an hour. Often, talking is physically difficult and exhausting for me. I can’t do it until I have recharged.
It means that when we have people over for dinner or drinks he will find it easy to mingle and chat with the guests whereas I would prefer to be in the kitchen doing something else to give me a focus. I find it difficult to start discussions and easier to join them.
It means that social gatherings enthuse him and give him energy, when they can quickly exhaust me. To him he is happy to follow a party with a couple of quiet drinks at the pub as for him it is a continuation of the fun – for me, it might be a life-saver, the thing that gives me back my energy. That intimate time with maybe just us, or just some close friends, recharges my batteries after being socially drained at the party.
It means that we cultivate friendships differently – I invest deeply in certain individuals and their presence gives me energy and inspiration. My key friendships always motivate and encourage me and give me ideas, and I process my deepest emotions better with these important friends. He often needs to be alone with his own thoughts to process deep emotions.
He is the extrovert, but he finds it difficult to be emotionally vulnerable.
I am the introvert, but I find it easy to be emotionally vulnerable with several people – because they are all deep friendships with individuals I trust.
He is the extrovert, but he prefers to do his work in silence in his office.
I am the introvert, but I prefer to work and write in public places like coffee shops where there is lots of noise.
He is the extrovert, but he keeps his online presence is anonymous.
I am the introvert, but my online presence is often very personal and involved.
These words don’t always mean what you think they do. And whoever you are, whatever you are like, you deserve self-care too. Perhaps that means that you need to leave a wedding and go home; perhaps that means you need to go to a party and socialise with some people to give you some perspective. Whatever you need, it should be okay to need it, and then it should be okay to give it to yourself.
This is what I am working on. Helping myself see that sometimes it is okay to give myself what I need to get through the day. Even if I think it makes me pathetic or a failure, which it often does, I should still try because it is a self-care is a sign of progress. Self-care means I am learning. Self-care means that depression and anxiety don’t get the last word, self-care means that being introverted is a valid way to live in the world. Self-care means acceptance. And that’s what I’m aiming for.