I Didn't Know I Was An Introvert Growing Up
Here's what I wish I had known
Thinking back, I really did have a wonderful childhood. My family was loving and supportive. I lived in a beautiful small town nestled in nature. I had a few close friendships throughout my school years. Despite all of these things, I struggled as a child and adolescent, even through my twenties.
I had a wonderful life on the outside, but on the inside, I dealt with anxiety, depression, and deep insecurity. I spent so much of my life feeling broken, and like something was wrong with me. I was different from other kids, and I wouldn't understand why until many, many years later.
Why? I was an introvert.
Growing Up Introverted
If there's one thing I wish I had known when I was growing up, it would be that I was an introvert, not broken. Growing up is tough at the best of times, introvert or not. Kids deal with physical changes alongside learning who they are and who they want to be.
Many introverts feel so deeply out of place throughout childhood and adolescence, that it follows them to adulthood and beyond. Personally, I only began to know and accept myself at the age of 28, and this was only the start. I didn't make the connection that I was an introvert until I was 32.
And though this feels late to me to be figuring out such an important part of how I function in the world, there are many who never accept this part of themselves. Some who spend their whole lives pursuing extroversion, believing it to be the path to success and happiness, only to find themselves burnt out, depressed, and anxious.
I am grateful I embarked on the journey to figure out who I am because though I may continue to grow, morph, and expand, I can finally stop feeling like something is wrong with me because I'm quiet. I can instead, use my introversion as my superpower.
As many kids growing up no doubt encounter, I never felt like I fit in. Because I lived in a small town, my class and my entire school were quite small. Most of my graduating class in high school had been together since kindergarten.
Looking back, this is both good and bad. I knew everyone in my class and it was rare to have new students join us, this provided a small measure of comfort to a shy child. On the flip side, I found it difficult to find others who were like me, more on the reserved and quiet side. Sheer lack of numbers meant that there just wasn't that much choice of who you hung out with.
The feeling that I was somehow different than my fellow classmates began when I was quite young. I quickly realized I didn't feel good in a classroom with 30+ kids. I felt overwhelmed and usually tried to make myself small and unnoticed. Teacher's calling on students for answers or to read aloud a passage from a book we were studying sent me into a heart-racing, anxiety spiral.
I suffered through. And my anxiety built. I remember feigning sickness often to get out of going to school. My mother, with her keen eye, didn't usually fall for it, and I would trudge along to school feeling frazzled and on the verge of tears because I didn't understand why I felt so overwhelmed.
How many times I wondered what was wrong with me is probably too many to count. And how many times I read, "too quiet, needs to participate more," written on my report cards is also likely too many to count.
I preferred time with my family at home. Being a small family with only four of us, I felt comfortable and safe in such an intimate group. Playtime with my older sister was my favourite, as we let our imaginations take over. Spending much of our time outside in the woods surrounding our house, I felt a level of peace I struggled to find anywhere else.
As I moved through high school, the challenges were much the same, and yet felt deeper. Now, I was becoming very conscious of the fact that I was different. I felt alienated, isolated, and lost amongst fellow teenagers who always seemed to know what to say and spoke up confidently and succinctly.
I diligently attempted to make myself invisible in the classroom so I wouldn't be called upon, but even when that worked, group projects were all the rage and I was forced into socialization and group learning that didn't suit me.
Speeches, public speaking, and presentations were mandatory and terrifying experiences. Anxious nights and panic-filled mornings led up to days that involved any of those activities.
High school also brought parties and other big group activities. As these were outside of school and not mandatory, I managed to escape most. But because of this, I often felt left out and alone when everyone was reliving the funniest moments from the weekend before. This only exacerbated the idea that it was me that was the problem.
So often, I wondered what was wrong with me. I wondered why I couldn't be more outgoing, more lively, more fun. Why couldn't I just be like everybody else?
What began as introversion had developed into social anxiety, shyness, deep insecurity, and depression. Things that I would continue to struggle with long after school ended.
The Extroverted Mask
As my classmates were looking at universities, I knew that wasn't my path. I stayed in my hometown and entered the workforce. And I began down a path that many introverts know well. Faking it.
I thought if I could force myself to socialize, to hang out with big groups of friends, to do all these fun activities that young twenty-somethings do, it would become my normal. I was tired of feeling isolated, alone, left behind. Instead of embracing the things I actually enjoyed, I put on a mask of extroversion.
I set myself up in one of the most extroverted jobs out there, working in a young, hip, and busy restaurant. And this fake-extroversion, it worked for a while. Or so I thought.
I made lots of friends. We partied at the bars at night, we adventured during the day, and worked in between. The years between 19 and 28 were ones where I rarely spent a moment alone. There was always something to do, someone to see, somewhere to go.
And I do actually have good memories from these years. There was laughter and adventure. New things and new people. Alcohol helped my case in many instances, boosting my extroversion and making me appear outgoing.
But this mask was taxing.
And underneath it, I was beginning to crack.
By 28, I was deep in depression. Crippled by anxiety and insecurity. And exhausted. I was breaking down, and so I tossed all my masks aside. This breakdown led me to my breakthrough, as these things often do.
My own experiences tell me that this is why introversion and mental health issues often go hand in hand. Why so many people assume introverts are shy and socially anxious. Growing up in an environment designed around and for extroverts, it's far too easy to believe there is something wrong with someone when they don't thrive in such a setting.
I believe that everything we experience in our lives adds to and shapes who we are. I feel no regret over the path my life has taken, I doubt I would be where I am now without the bumps and bruises I experienced along the way.
But as I've done the work to return home to myself, to my true self, these last few years, there are a few things I wish I had known growing up.
I wish I had known I was an introvert, not broken.
Knowing this simple distinction would have saved me so much heartache. Even if I hadn't fully understood what being an introvert meant, to know that I was not broken and that there was nothing wrong with me would have likely alleviated much of the insecurity and self-doubt I felt growing up.
Childhood and adolescence and even adulthood are trying enough, without the addition of feeling like something within you is wrong. To have understood that I thrived in a different way, in a different environment may have allowed me to avoid some of the deep sadness and hopelessness I felt at such a young age.
I wish I had known that it was okay not to fit in.
I think we have all felt the pressure to fit in and to belong. But I do wish I had known that it was okay if I didn't. That not fitting in would actually be one of my greatest strengths later in life.
I find so often when we attempt to fit in, we sacrifice our uniqueness. We toss aside what makes us different in order to be one with the group. But being an individual with our own ideas, thoughts, and quirks is really what makes each and every one of us special.
Not fitting in provides the perfect opportunity to create that feeling within yourself. That sense of belonging, of loving, or safety, comes from within. And when we cultivate this feeling of belonging and safety within ourselves, we can then show up in the world as who we truly are.
"It is a gift to not fit in. It sets you on a journey of finding a sanctuary within yourself."
I wish I had known that being quiet didn't make me boring.
I had worlds upon worlds in my own mind that no one knew about. I had ideas and opinions that no one ever heard. My mind is anything but boring.
But on the outside, I was quiet and reserved. To be called boring at a young age certainly leaves its mark. I wish I had known that what others saw of me, was not who I really was.
Though I was not prone to speaking up in front of others, in truth, I was not antisocial and standoffish like I seemed. I was vibrant and intelligent, I just didn't verbalize it often.
I wish I had known that my quiet nature allowed me to observe, watch, and form my own feelings about things around me. That my quiet nature actually allows my creativity to thrive.
Neither a Flaw Nor a Choice
Growing up will likely never be easy. Navigating through different environments, personal changes, and figuring out who you are all at the same time will always be a challenge.
But the more we can cultivate a culture in which all personalities are embraced, in which all ways of being are honoured, the easier it will be for anyone to confidently accept and love themselves.
Introversion is neither a flaw nor a choice, it's simply how we function.
And when we drop the masks, learn to accept and know ourselves, it's also how we thrive.