When I was young, nobody talked about how it’s okay to be an introvert. Susan Cain’s bestselling book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talkinghadn’t been published yet. So, I didn’t realize it’s okay to be an introvert until I was well into my twenties. I was none of those things, but I wanted to be successful.
So I pretended.
I don’t think I was particularly likable throughout my college days. I don’t think anybody who tries to be something they’re not ever is. I was loud, I was offensive, I was confrontational. I took everything too far—as people tend to do when they’re trying to be someone they’re not.
I talked when I should have listened. I bulldozed when I should have finessed. I stomped when I should have tiptoed. People didn’t like me very much. They called me a demagogue because I was strong in opinions and character.
Many people avoided me–probably because there was no real space for anybody but me to talk.
Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t a bully. I just held court, so to speak. And if you didn’t like it, then you were kindly (or not so kindly) invited to take yourself and your interests elsewhere. That’s what many people did.
There were a few people who enjoyed being around me. I wasn’t stupid, and since I gave it my all in an argument, I naturally attracted the weirdos and the strange ones. I protected their interests and didn’t care about what other people thought. That’s how I, an introvert pretending to be an extrovert, became their loud and obnoxious misfit king.
Faking It Took a Toll on Me
Of course, trying to be someone you’re not is tough. It takes a lot out of you–particularly if you’re an introvert who needs to recharge in private. I rarely got to do this because I often surrounded myself with people like I thought I was supposed to.
My solution was alcohol and drugs. I skipped my college classes and didn’t do my work. In truth, it’s amazing that I graduated at all. I lived on campus and quite often I saw my fellow students sitting on the benches, as my misfit friends and I gathered outside on the grass, in our morning robes, a cup of tea in one hand and a music player in the other.
I think the alcohol and the music protected me from the loud and jarring world around me. I think it was a cushion, a holdfast, a shield that kept me isolated and away from what was going on around me.
But I was still awkward.
That never actually went away. People’s attention—when I wasn’t prepared for it— felt like nails on a chalkboard. I hid my discomfort behind a layer of boorish aggression. Because I was battling my own feelings, I often didn’t have enough wits to be any more nuanced.
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When It All Fell Apart
I can’t tell you what happened, exactly. I fell in love with the wrong girl (she was my best friend’s girlfriend). I started to party too hard. I insulted the wrong person. But suddenly I went from misfit king to utter outcast. I was shunned, deserted, and abandoned by all but a handful of friends.
I went from the center of attention to a shadow that slunk around the edges.
For a few months, it hurt. Actually, “hurt” is an understatement. It felt like my heart had been crushed. My identity had been shredded. My meaning had been torn apart. I didn’t know anything else. I didn’t understand anything different.
But then, as I adjusted, I started to find something that I hadn’t had before. And that was peace. The friends that had stuck around turned out to be true friends. We got along brilliantly. We got caught up in our classes.
Now this was not an instant process. I think it took me a year to fully recover from that period. After all, I had to peel away all the layers of my artificial personality that I’d created and discover who I truly was. But eventually, I did.
And when I did, I realized there was also a life outside of the limelight and that in many ways it was more enjoyable than what I’d experienced before. I started making new friends–people I actually listened to rather than talked at.
And though this will probably not take any of you by surprise, it turns out what I now had was a much better basis for friendship.
Rebuilding My Broken Life
In truth, I couldn’t have gotten my life back together without the help of a girl. Ironically, this girl was the same one who made everything fall apart. When we started dating, everybody accused me of stealing her away from my friend. And I did. I will accept responsibility for that. I stole her and she let herself be stolen.
That act caused my world to break apart. But she also helped build it up again. We helped each other find ourselves, which is the greatest thing any one person can do for another. We stuck together through the problems and the pain. We hung together through the trials and tribulations. We gave each other space to discover who we really were.
It turns out she was also an introvert pretending to be an extrovert. Like me, she’d been lead to believe that was the right thing for her to be.
Finding Light in the Darkness
So out of the darkness came light—not just for me but for her as well. Isn’t that amazing? I’ve always found that the hardest parts of your life are the ones you learn from the most. It’s how you find out if you’re just another person or if you’re one of those people who actually have character.
If I could, would I go back and do things differently?
It would have been nice if I could have found out earlier that I’m an introvert. Not so much for me, but for the people who I waltzed all over with my metal-clad boots.
In the rearview mirror of my life, I still see the looks of annoyance and pain on people’s faces when I interrupted them or blasted my opinion at them. None of those people were permanently damaged by me and my opinions. I just don’t like the idea that I made them uncomfortable. I made their lives a little bit worse, and now I’m a black stain on their memory.
That I would do differently.
Also, I wish I wouldn’t have damaged the life of my friend–the guy whose girlfriend I took. I definitely left him worse off. And that is something we should never aim to do, not to our friends or to our enemies. I hope one day he’ll be able to forgive me.
But for me? From the rubble, I rebuilt myself. Though the pieces still don’t fit perfectly (do they ever?) I became a better person for it.