Content note: The piece contains mentions of drug use, suicidal thoughts, and alcohol.
It’s Friday night, and I’m getting ready. Putting clothes on, painting my nails, doing a face mask, shaving my legs, checking social media to see where people are and what they’re doing.
Then I jump onto the couch, snuggled into my coziest pajamas, and turn off my phone so I can have a relaxed night drinking tea and watching a favorite movie.
This is a big shift from who I was 5 years ago.
I never used to feel FOMO, the fear of missing out, because I was always “there”: sex parties, bar crawls, karaoke nights, house hangouts — I was at them all, often with a 12-pack of cheap beer and $40 cash. Whenever I felt anxious or uncomfortable, I would just drink another beer, snort another line, or kiss another guy, because no matter how introspective I became, there wasn’t a solution to the way I felt, only disassociation.
I became trapped between not wanting to go to activities alone and look like a loser and not wanting to be in a large group, feeling the need to drink so I’d feel confident. I felt small, my world closing in on me as I tried to find a way through my social anxiety. I thought my introversion was something I needed to fix in therapy or medicate away.
I did whatever it took to numb my nervousness so I would appear carefree and extroverted — and therefore normal.
Moving from the East Coast to the West Coast made me reassess my understanding of social interaction. Suddenly I had hundreds of “friends” — people who would hug me, with or without my consent, whenever they saw me; people who would say how much they looked forward to seeing me for lunch or dinner or a game night.
Those smaller hangouts never came, and I grew to realize that if I wanted to spend time with those people, I would have to be at the events they were already at.
So, to keep up with my new social expectations, I went to parties. Lots of them. Constantly. In stark contrast to my straight-edge teenage years, I found myself reaching for enough uppers to stay awake until the early hours and then enough downers to prevent my anxiety from going through the roof.
I began to depend on this constant chemical balancing act to reach the level of ideal extroversion I needed to be at to be seen as “fun.”
“Society seems to privilege extroversion at almost every level — the personal (‘Why aren’t you talking? What are you, stuck up? Think you’re better than me?’ or ‘What’s wrong? Are you bored, mad, sad?’) and the professional (‘We’re really looking for someone who is bubbly, outgoing, a team player, etc.’),” says therapist Alice Phipps, MA.
According to Phipps, social situations — including educational settings, romantic relationships, and even family relationships — are built to prefer, expect, and reward extroversion: “Introverts often suffer [from] social anxiety, and [it has] more to do with the exhaustion and anxiety it takes to perform an identity that is not your own.”
In other words, social anxiety isn’t the nature of introversion. It can be a symptom of exhaustion. And it’s an exhaustion I am intimately familiar with.
Despite being delighted when plans got canceled, I still felt pressured to perform being outgoing, perky, and available for adventures. I would even overcompensate, which led to me always being the one to reach out first.
I got used to friendships that were lopsided, where I would get hit up when someone wanted me to signal-boost an event but not very often for genuine hangouts. I call this experience “being the person of more interest.”
I’ve spent some time considering why I chase after people who only ever reach out to ask me to do something for them. I quickly realized that it was because I was deeply terrified of what I would see if I stopped, if I stayed home and waited for the invites to come to me.
The inbox, most nights, stayed empty, and I found myself continuing to make the plans while feeling increasingly resentful. Was I only valuable to people when I was useful? Was I forcing myself to be extroverted and hurting myself in the process, and it still wasn’t enough?
“As you continue to perform a false self, your resentment may start to leak out in the form of passive aggression, outright lying, and other unconscious ways to ‘get back’ at others for all you are giving up for them,” says Phipps. “You won’t mean to do these things, but your true self is justifiably pissed off in there.”
Drinking and drugs became so linked to my social outings that when I decided I wanted to be sober, I felt scared that it meant I wouldn’t see my friends anymore. Were we still friends when we were sober? Was I ready to find out?
For a long time, I wasn’t. Instead, I would plan around an event, using the day after to recover from various hangovers while also trying to rest, emotionally, from a day of performing friendliness.
I got so good at ignoring my body’s discomfort, my desire to run away from big social situations, that I wouldn’t notice when I was hungry or dehydrated. I really began to suffer for it, feeling increasingly suicidal, trapped between feeling anxious when I tried to leave the house and angry when I used coping mechanisms to get me through.
I felt broken.
And truthfully, I might still be going through the burnout/recover/try again cycle if it weren’t for my body shutting down. Acid reflux, a symptom that can be made worse by alcohol, cigarettes, drug use, and stress, was a nightly visitor, and I just couldn’t keep it up anymore.
My body was drawing boundaries my brain couldn’t or wouldn’t, shutting me down and increasing my aversion to social activities.
So I began to set boundaries for myself: For every day of socializing, I’d schedule a couple of days of recovery to do my own hobbies. If I felt uncomfortable enough at a party that I wanted to do a bump or have a drink, I would make my excuses and leave, rather than stay until I succumbed.
I had to learn how to accept what I enjoyed and didn’t enjoy so I could communicate those boundaries to my friends and partner. This meant learning that it was OK for my partner, who is much more extroverted than I am, to go to parties without me.
It was incredibly freeing to no longer feel tied to expectations. But once I was aware of how much more people seemed to like me as long as I appeared extroverted, I began to see this cultural bias elsewhere.
At parties, my love of delving into deep conversations was pushed away in favor of those willing and able to engage in surface-level small talk. In school, I noticed that students who raised their hands and shouted over others got most of the attention and were praised for being brave, while the quiet, studious types were often invisible and dismissed as not engaging with the material.
It wasn’t just about my social life, either. Extroversion affected my work life and my activism as well.
At work, I was literally told that not going out with my coworkers for post-work drinks made me seem stuck up and could prevent me from moving further in the company. As an activist, I felt like my desire to sit back and listen instead of talk made some people doubt my commitment to the cause — was I passionate enough if I didn’t want to speak over others?
“The magic of introverts is that they are paying attention to everything while the extroverts are yapping away,” says Phipps. “So, as a teacher, manager, or leader of any kind, you want to hear from the introverts — they are remarkably insightful. But you have to create an environment that nurtures them to get their voice in.”
I began to notice the ways my favorite places create space for introverts like me. For example, the conventions I love always have a room for people to share a quiet or even silent space. I began to make that space for others too.
“Other ways to do this is to invite written feedback as an after-meeting option or have folks discuss something in pairs first before opening a whole-group discussion,” Phipps says. “This might give an introvert a chance to form thoughts one-on-one, which can bolster them to share more broadly.”
Now, when I do a talk, I make sure to tell people how long I plan to speak. I also set up a 15-minute break in the middle so people can take care of their biological needs, whether that’s the bathroom or just having some fresh air away from everyone else. Sometimes these breaks also give people who are less comfortable interrupting a chance to weigh in on the topic.
And after all this, I feel calmer and less tired.
By not trying to make myself an extrovert and destroying myself in the process, I’m no longer fighting myself while also fighting to be heard. I’ve also managed a month off of uppers, prescribed or otherwise, for the first time in years. It’s not always easy, but it’s what I need to care for myself.
A side effect? I’m spending more social time with my introverted friends, watching shows together or reading in the same room. Friends and extroversion aren’t entwined like I thought they were. I don’t need to lean on drugs to make it in society. I just need society to see me for who I am.
Kitty Stryker is a queer, asexual, Juggalo anthropologist and an anarchist cat mom. Her first book, “Ask: Building Consent Culture” was published through Thorntree Press in 2017. Follow her on Twitter, on Facebook, and at #KittyLearnsToCook. Watch her bumble through various recipes as she learns how to adult.