A month or so ago, some truly wonderful family members decided to treat me to something special. They bought a ticket for me to a Ladies Night event, full of massages, nail treatments, and bonding with other women. They purchased this without consulting me, because of course you don't tell people when you're planning a surprise. They presented it to me--Wow! An evening of fun and pampering with lots of other women! And we've already paid for your ticket, so make sure you don't skip out!
Maybe that sounds like heaven to you. I fought the urge to run screaming and vomit in terror. Instead I pinned a smile to my lips as best I could and thanked them, albeit a bit stiffly. When I got the news that the event had been postponed, I nearly cried with relief.
Few things inspire more anxiety in me than hearing the words "group of people" and "must go" and "bonding time." Oh, I like people. I do. I like almost every person I meet. Forced socialization, however, is something I just can't handle. When I'm put into a social situation where I'm expected to mingle, I feel like a rowboat set adrift in the Pacific Ocean--no compass, no sense of direction, no guide, nothing to sustain me, and only a couple of piddly paddles to set me going one way or another. But when I don't even know which direction to head for, what's the point of paddling? I might as well lay back and let the sharks eat me.
Today I finally explained to one of the gifters that I really, truly do not want to go. She seemed baffled, and kept asking why. I did my best to explain: It won't be relaxing for me. It won't be fun. I will be stressed and anxious the whole time, and that's not a pleasant experience for me. I'm not sure she ever understood. I think she was offended that I rejected her gift. It got me thinking, though, about a few other similar situations.
Years ago a friend invited me to a house-warming party. I foolishly accepted a ride there instead of taking my own vehicle. My friend was immediately caught up in the crowds--yes, crowds!--of people, chatting happily and showing no signs of stopping. I spent the evening huddled in a corner, pretending to talk to another very uncomfortable girl. I caught sight of another person sitting alone in the office, a comfortable door between him and the crowds, and I envied him.
A few years later, some other family members bought me a gift certificate for a massage. A massage! How wonderful! How thoughtful! How delightful! I never called to make an appointment. I could never quite pinpoint why I didn't; there always was some reason why I couldn't do it just then. It was only today that I finally nailed it down: They paid a stranger to touch my naked back without my permission. Here, look! We paid an exorbitant amount to have you take off your clothes and let a strange person touch you!
That might sound like an extreme overreaction, and perhaps it is, but this is my body and I get to decide who touches it. I'm sure the masseuse would have been wonderful, but the fact remains that I didn't get to select her. I was not given the opportunity to decide if this was something I wanted or not. I am grateful, really, that my family gives me gifts they very obviously value so much. I just wish they had bought the massage for themselves and gotten me a CD instead.
So is it just that I'm an introvert? Am I antisocial, or a people-hater?
No. I am just selectively social. I really do like people. I can chat easily to other parents on the playground and random old ladies in the grocery store. I go to church and smile and greet people. I can do all that, but it exhausts me. It tires me beyond belief, and then I have to crash by myself for a long time to recover.
That might sound like introversion to you. Introverts get their energy from being alone, right?
The thing is, I also get energy from being with people. Specific people in specific places, and in small groups. By "group" I mean no more than three or four people maximum. Except for when I'm with my immediate family, I am comfortable socializing in three places: my own home, the park, and a coffee shop. In my home, if I'm not involved in a conversation, I can busy myself with fixing tea and preparing snacks. I know the territory and can move where I need to so I don't feel awkward. At the park, I move around a lot to keep up with my children. This keeps me from sitting in an awkward silence. At a coffee shop I can busy myself with my cup. Not much conversation is expected there, anyway.
And yet, I love to be surrounded by people.
Yes, I love to be surrounded by people. Not all people, mind. A few of my friends; a few of my stepson's friends.
I like the sound of conversation swirling around me as I sip my tea. I like hearing laughter and joking as I change a diaper. I like contributing a sentence or two as I pass cookies around. I like having them present, having them in the house, in the room, without feeling the need to entertain them.
So what's the difference? The difference is that these are people with whom I am supremely comfortable. They know me. They know what to expect when they see my home. They don't have any crazy expectations of me. More importantly, I know what to expect of them. These are people who have woven themselves into my heart and made themselves family. They know my fridge and pantry; they know where the tea is stored. I have tested them with small fragments of my soul and they have not disappointed me. They belong here, in a way I could never describe with words. Having them around is simultaneously relaxing and energizing for me.
So do I get energy from being alone? Yes. Do I get energy from being with people? Yes. Both of those can also weary me beyond belief. It just depends on the situation and the people involved.
If you're not yet one of my inner circle, I still want to see you. Yes, you. I really do like people. Just--one at a time, please? That will give me an opportunity to focus on just you and get to know you better, instead of feeling harried and pressured to chat up everyone at once. I might even bake cookies.