Being an Introvert in College

I’m embarrassed to tell people I’m living in a single dorm in college.

I’m afraid people will think I’m spoiled, or that I’m anti-social, or that I’m weird.

But my blog has always been centered around one rule: talk about the shit you don’t want to talk about.

When I was younger, I tried really hard to be like everyone else. I tried to be loud because the loud people were the well-liked people. I tried to be overtly feminine because the girly-girls were the popular girls. I tried to go to parties and big social events and constantly be around people until I was so emotionally exhausted that I would isolate myself for weeks at a time, all because I thought that was what it meant to be a “fun” person. I didn’t understand who I was, how I operated, or how to find and respect my limits to optimize my happiness and productivity.

After years of soul-searching, therapy, journaling, and reading the book “Quiet” by Susan Cain, I’ve come to realize I’m an introvert, and that’s okay. Being an introvert is not an inherently negative characteristic: I’m not painfully shy, I don’t lack social skills, and I CAN be an effective leader. It just means I need time by myself to recharge and reconnect in order to be happy and productive.

And while some may say I’m missing out on “the college experience” by not having a roommate in the dorms, I know I’m making the right decision for myself. I know that in order to serve others, I must first serve myself, and I cannot pour from an empty cup. I know that I need a space to be alone and disconnect in order to reconnect. I know that it’s okay to make decisions that may be different from the norm because we are all different in our constitution and perception of the world, and that my “college experience” may not be typical, but it will be exactly what I need, even if it looks a little different.

Understanding who you are is the biggest key to a successful life. Do you require constant social interaction to be happy, or do you need periods of alone time to recharge? Do you do best with a flexible and loose schedule or do you get overwhelmed without some rigidity? Do you enjoy following rules made by someone else or do you prefer to make the rules? There is no wrong answer- only one that will best serve you.

But coming to this conclusion and respecting the process of personalizing your lifestyle took me a long time. For the vast majority of my life, I thought I was simply “weird.” I thought that because I preferred working on my own to working with a large group meant I wasn’t a team player. I thought that because I preferred to spend the majority of my time listening and observing rather than speaking, I simply wasn’t meant to be a leader. I thought that because accepting and hearing praise made me nervous and uncomfortable I was lacking in self-confidence and needed to be more prideful in order to be respected for my abilities. It never occurred to me that I may just be built differently, not broken.

I think this is because in the media we tend to consume, extroverts are touted as the cream of the crop. They’re outgoing and charismatic and good with people. They get what they want and they have fun doing it. They like throwing parties and people like going to them. We’re let to believe that in order to be successful, we need to have typical extroverted traits. We’re led to believe that the most powerful leaders are extroverts because they’re good at influencing and leading large groups of people- in order to do that, you have to be extroverted, right?

I’ve come to learn that many, many effective and well-respected leaders in our culture are introverts. Rosa Parks. Steve Wozniak. Eleanor Roosevelt. Abraham Lincoln. In fact, Lincoln is sometimes referred to as “The Introverted Orator,” something I identify with. I’ve never had a fear of public speaking, because I lack shyness (fear of social judgement) in front of large groups of people, and in fact, there’s reason to believe that my introversion can give me the upper hand when I do publicly speak. Many attribute Lincoln’s renowned oration skills to his ability to listen when others chattered and fought for attention- he absorbed information, collected his thoughts, and then spoke with conviction. I’d like to think that I utilize this tactic as a result of my introverted nature, and it’s served me well, especially considered my job requires publicly speaking on a daily basis.

In her book (and new podcast, which I’ve been devouring lately), Susan Cain says there are a few simple questions you can ask yourself to determine whether or not you are an introvert:

An hour or two into a party that you’ve legitimately enjoyed, are you feeling energized, or like you need some downtime?

Do you tend to think before you speak, or process your thoughts out loud?

Do you prefer one-on-one conversation, or big groups of interaction?

Introverts don’t not enjoy interaction, they just don’t gain energy from it in the way that extroverts do. My mother, for example, is a classic extrovert. In order to feel happy and fueled, she needs to be around people and be constantly reminded of their friendship and presence. It was hard for her to understand when I was younger why I didn’t want to always spend time with her (or anyone else, for that matter), or why I would request alone time after what was seemingly a great day spent together. Over time she’s come to realize that I just need time to recharge alone, whereas her recharging comes from time spent with others. Neither is right or wrong, they’re just different ways of operation.

As college gets ever-closer as the days go on, I’m becoming more fascinated with the idea of being an introvert in a full-time university setting. I’m moving into a building of other people my age, I’m constantly offered opportunities to socialize and interact with others, and, one could argue, I’m encouraged to be an extrovert in order to “maximize” my enjoyment of the experience. Whenever someone mentions college, an extroverted definition seems to float to the surface: parties, sororities and fraternities, big sporting events, communal living. Growing up, I was completely overwhelmed by what people around me were portraying as “the way to go to college,” and the fact that, well, it frankly sounded completely disinteresting (and even overwhelming) to me.

But as with all things in life, there is more than one way to do something. 

While I feel like I have no problem “making friends” with anyone and everyone (I’m a fairly personable and conversational person, especially when in a new environment), I definitely prefer having one or two very close relationships with people rather than constantly being in a large group. While I can go to a social gathering or event and thoroughly enjoy myself for an hour or two, by the end I’m definitely craving some time alone in my pajamas with a book or good movie to watch. While I’ve been a part of- and even lead- a few clubs and causes that are very important and meaningful to me, I’m rarely overcommitted because once I spread myself too thin, I become completely useless and ineffective.

What does understanding this about myself mean as I move into college?

It means I’m choosing to live in a single room so I have a sacred space that is my own to retreat to when I need alone time. It means while I will make an effort to get to know everyone, I will probably find a handful of people who I spend the majority of my time with and get to know particularly well. It means that I probably won’t be a part of every school activity, party, or club, I’ll find one or two things that really call to me and spend my time doing that. It means that while some people really will find genuine value in exploring a time of parties and fun, I might find myself spending more time exploring my studies and growing myself personally. My approach isn’t better, it’s just the best one for me.

Going into college with this understanding and general plan takes a great weight off of my shoulders. I know what I’m comfortable with and I know that I don’t have to do anything that won’t best serve my journey of self-growth and betterment- because that’s what college is. It’s a time to explore and grow yourself, in a way that is most conducive to who you are. None of this means that I won’t push myself out of my comfort zone or won’t try new things, it just means I’ll understand my limits and respect my personal needs. Moving away from the place I’ve lived my entire life, giving up some of the responsibilities I currently hold and taking on new ones, and leaving a community I love with all of my heart is a big enough challenge in and of itself, at least for the time being.

And the best part? I have 2,000 acres of redwoods and nature paths to spend my alone time exploring.

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