As a child, I made friends fairly easily, but I also thrived on alone time. I could hole away in my bedroom or in the backyard for hours, entertaining myself with my fertile imagination. I wrote stories, journaled, drew pictures, painted, and created worlds within my mind. I gravitated toward animals and nature, and always had an itch to explore the world around me.
But as I grew older, I felt torn between my quiet inner life and the life that was expected of me. I was raised in evangelical Christianity, a very extroverted religion, and I absorbed all this into my identity. I wanted so badly to please. What was “pleasing” in that world was to fill your religious resume with service and social involvement in the church community. To be loud and boisterous for Christ, in song and in sharing the faith with others. To rarely say no to others, especially those “in need,” church leadership, friends, or family.
I had no idea what an introvert was. I just thought I needed to work harder at being the kind of person I was expected to be.
Growing Up in the Dark
Growing up as an introvert today is very different from when I was a child. My parents didn’t have online articles about how to raise an introverted child, let alone tests and quizzes that would help them understand my personality and how to best nurture it. There’s very little, admittedly, I envy about what the children of today face, but one thing is the abundance of resources for self-discovery. I can’t help but wonder where I would be in life today if I had understood as a child, on some level, what I now know in my late thirties.
I’m certain I took the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator several times as a young adult, whether in a psychology class or later in graduate school, but I can’t, for the life of me, remember what my personality type was — except that I teetered between extrovert and introvert, leaning slightly to the extroverted side. I remember secretly wishing I would test squarely as an introvert. Alas, the assessment always told me I was essentially straddling two worlds.
Though I couldn’t see it at the time, what the test really told me was this: I straddled the worlds of expectation vs. reality. I answered the questions, subconsciously, as I thought I “should” instead of how I was actually wired.
I didn’t know the signs of my introversion, let alone what they meant. When I grew exhausted in social gatherings or from a too-full schedule of commitments, even when I tried to juggle too many friendships, I wrestled with guilt over my need to recharge. I thought it was a weakness, a spiritual failing. I was told by the church, over the years, that too much introspection was dangerous, and too much alone time was selfish.
So I stuffed down my introversion and kept going as an extrovert.
Turning the Page
I continued this unconscious charade through graduate school, into my late twenties. I chose the counseling profession, not without a great deal of self-doubt, because it made the most sense. It checked the boxes: helping people in need, utilizing my listening skills, a traditional career path. I excelled in the program, as a disciplined student, and finished top of my class.
After graduation, I confessed to my dad that all I wanted to do was write. I felt guilty for pursuing a degree, and more educational debt, for a job I never actually wanted to do.
And he told me to write.
It was one of the first steps toward peeling back the expectations of who I was “supposed” to be and trusting what my gut was telling me. Much later, in my mid thirties, I took the MBTI again and balked at the result: INFP. I was far from the middle line, nestled deeply in introversion. I think it was the first time I took the assessment and answered the questions from a place of self-awareness and authenticity.
In the years since earning my Master’s degree in counseling and deciding not to practice, I’ve been on a rollercoaster of self-discovery. Shedding layers of identity, stepping out in ways that honor authenticity over people-pleasing, learning to say no to what doesn’t serve me and yes to what is genuinely me.
Over a long stretch of time, I’ve come to understand that I best thrive off the beaten path. I’ve also seen that, while I genuinely love helping people, what really makes me come alive is helping animals and the environment. What was true of me as an unidentified INFP, all those years ago — championing a cause and making decisions based on ideals — is true today.
The difference is now I understand that helping people to the extent that I had been pursuing was draining the life out of me. Caring for animals and the earth, however challenging it is, fuels my energy, especially when paired with writing and creative pursuits.
Redirecting my energy has been a homecoming. A liberation and a validation of who I am.
The Process of Becoming: A Few Takeaways
I’m reminded of these brilliant words from E.E. Cummings:
It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.
I wish I could give a formula for how we become who we really are, but that would miss the point. The point is, getting to know ourselves is a lifelong commitment. My story of embracing introversion did not happen in one “a-ha” moment, but in a series of revelations and my responses to them. This story will look different for each of us, but here are a few things I’ve learned along the way that I hope will empower you in your own journey.
1. Let go of the past.
You can’t change where you began or what you didn’t know back then, but you can shape who you become from here on out. Who you become is a choice you get to make every day, and rather than seeing it as daunting, embrace it as the gift it truly is — a chance to begin again.
2. Dare to be curious.
Rather than seeing things in black and white, with a “right” and “wrong” way to be, what if we got curious about who we are? Indulge that curiosity, seeking the resources and experiences that will help you better understand yourself and grow.
How can you do this? It starts with listening to yourself without judgment. What are your desires, interests, anxieties, etc. telling you? Are you making decisions that are in alignment with who you are and what gives you energy? Or is your life filled with things that drain you? Where can you make small adjustments to support who you are and who you want to become?
This may look like saying no to social engagements that take too much from you; carving out time to pursue an art, hobby, or career path that excites you; reading new books; going to therapy; giving yourself permission to be “different” than x-y-z. The more you do this, the more you will fill in as an individual.
3. Becoming is not for the faint of heart.
Like E.E. Cummings said, it takes courage. You will find yourself in uncharted waters at times, with no map, only your internal compass as a guide. Here, you have to learn to trust yourself — and that can be scary for those of us who have been conditioned to follow a set path. You have to be willing to risk disappointing others, make mistakes, start over, and experiment. As you practice living with courage, dear introvert, you will find your way.
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The Ever-Unfolding Story
Letting go of the past won’t be easy. There’s a temptation, at times, to look back on my journey and mourn the time and resources it took for me to arrive here. All the years of education and money spent on something that didn’t suit me as well as I thought. And all the years of floundering, trying to figure out where to go now that I know what I know, fighting the feeling that I’m getting a late start.
But here’s the thing about this life I’ve lived so far, and I believe it’s true for all of us: All the missteps and later-in-life discoveries have made me who I am today. My life, or at least my career path, might have been smoother had I started out with the resources I have now. But then I wouldn’t have had this story to tell of how hard I’ve worked to live from a place of courageous authenticity. I wouldn’t be able to speak to the ones in their early twenties who are struggling not to feel like they should have their lives figured out by now, and tell them, Trust the process. I’m still figuring it out, too. We all are.
This is where the real nitty-gritty growth happens. In the messy and the not-yet-figured-out. In the ongoing work of excavating who we are and learning how to live in alignment with that truth.
I may have been an introvert all along; I’ll never know. But what I do know is that I can’t go back and rewrite my story. I can only turn the page and keep writing what is still unfolding.
And so can you.