I never really understood why I often felt so awkward and antisocial in high school.
It’s easy to attribute all those feelings of anxiety, of wanting to be alone, of needing to be away from the energy of others, to a lack of self-confidence, right?
Appearing to fit in was the goal; to be like everyone else, talking about the same things, wearing the same clothes. But inside, there was always a heightened sense of isolation and a profound awareness of my separateness.
My Secret Double Life
Throughout my twenties, out of necessity, I learned to fake the social skills required to interact with others and eventually became so good at them that I was able to convince myself and others of my extroverted nature. Because I was also naturally empathic and good at reading others (having become a life coach), I could chat easily with anyone, start conversations with complete strangers, and even speak in front of audiences.
But there was always a breaking point, a threshold in every social situation beyond which I simply couldn’t keep up the facade of extroversion any longer. I would leave an event or gathering suddenly and without explanation, slipping away before anyone noticed, and hide out in my room or apartment, sometimes for days.
At times like these, I felt irritated, overwhelmed, and drained of all motivation. I’d resurface some time later, make excuses to my friends and family, and don the mask of the extrovert once again. I kept this secret double life to myself for years, believing it was just another flaw, another reason I would never fit in.
Being Authentic Helped Me Connect More Deeply
Eventually, my path to self-awareness and personal growth led me to realize and accept my introverted nature. It began as a subtle recognition of what I needed from my surroundings in order to feel centered and calm, and a gradual understanding of which types of activities and interactions energized me, and which ones left me drained.
Slowly, I began to embrace my true inclination towards quiet or solitary pursuits, and smaller more intimate interactions. I exercised my new-found self-confidence by saying no to those social invitations I knew would deplete my energy. I stopped working so hard to “entertain” others in conversations, and practiced just being the observer, sometimes saying very little, or even nothing at all. I ceased being so worried about others liking me, or of fitting in, and instead focused on being at ease.
I was amazed to find that people didn’t suddenly cease to enjoy my company — nor did I become a social outcast as I had once feared I would. In fact, by being more authentic, I noticed that others seemed to feel more comfortable around me, and they actually opened up in deeper and more meaningful ways than they had previously.
Not Everyone Understood
Surprisingly, the challenge came in relating to those I was closest to. Casual acquaintances and co-workers either adjusted or drifted away, but it was my family and few close friends that had the most difficulty acclimatizing to my new, more authentic social persona.
Friends just couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to come out and be “social.” My family members were surprised to hear of my actual experience with school, and still to this day can’t quite reconcile my more quiet, solitary inclinations with the chatty social butterfly I portrayed myself to be for so many years. And I still encounter resistance from those who have known me the longest when I try to explain my need for rest and solitude after attending certain social gatherings or entertaining visitors.
There was also a significant degree of internal resistance in the form of lingering negative self-talk. I still felt immense pressure at times to be “on” around others, and often found myself worrying about what others would think if I stayed home to read a book instead of going out with friends. Weekend nights were always the worst for this type of thinking — many perfectly good evenings were ruined because of wasted comparisons to what “others” must be doing.
Now It’s a Choice, Not a Compulsion
Happily, I have reached a place where I can make use of my extrovert social skills and tendencies in a healthy and authentic manner, without betraying my introverted nature. I no longer fake being gregarious and outgoing if I’m not feeling it, and instead either choose to politely decline the invitation or at the very least behave and speak more in line with how I truly feel at any given time. I freely share my interests and hobbies with others that I meet, no longer afraid of being judged a loner or nerd, and as a result, attract like-minded individuals with whom I have more in common.
I also have more meaningful conversations as a result of speaking in a way that is more in tune with my true inclinations and feelings. I no longer feel the need to fill the air with conversation in order to make the other person feel comfortable or to engage in gossip or idle gab.
I can still engage with strangers easily and carry a conversation when it’s lagging. The difference is that now I do so when I choose to, and not because I feel I have to. My social interactions have a different quality these days because they are genuine and honest rather than forced and affected. I believe others can sense the difference and respond in kind.
Embracing one’s true nature is about taking an honest look at oneself and welcoming all of it. Rather than rejecting the extroverted coping mechanisms I developed in response to social anxiety, I have chosen to welcome and appreciate them along with my introvert traits.
By learning to use these social skills in an appropriate manner that no longer masks my authentic self but instead reveals it, I find that I am comfortable expressing myself in all situations with full integrity.
You can find Mike Bundrant at the iNLP Center where he trains life coaches and NLP practitioners. Also, check out his book, Your Achilles Eel: The Hidden Cause of Self-Sabotage.
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