What It Felt Like Growing up as an Overachieving Introvert

An overachieving introvert

As an overachieving introvert, I kept trying to be someone I wasn’t in order to fit into a world I didn’t feel I belonged in.

For most of my life, I’ve felt different somehow, although I could never really put my finger on why.

Growing up, despite being generally well-liked — and just about as involved in every aspect of school life as a kid could be — I still felt this nagging sense that something wasn’t quite right.

On the outside, I was what most would consider a “high achiever” (or even an overachiever): president of student council and valedictorian in elementary school, captain of several sports teams all throughout school, and involved in all kinds of extracurricular clubs and teams, both at school and in the community I grew up in. I made the honor roll in high school and won leadership awards, sportsmanship awards, and even public speaking contests throughout my childhood.

I don’t tell you any of this to brag, or to make you think highly of me. As a typical high achiever, I almost always feel lacking in the achievement department, no matter what I do or how much I accomplish. I never quite feel like a “success,” because there are always bigger and better things to go after. For whatever reason, I’m driven to achieve — sometimes to a fault.

Rather than being indulgent, I feel it’s important to share these things about my life with you so that you understand what I mean when I say that introversion probably isn’t what you think, and that introverts aren’t always what they seem.

Let me ask you this: Does the description above sound like an introvert to you?

If you’re shaking your head no, you’re not alone. I even fooled myself for the majority of my life — and I am an introvert!

I Saw My Own Nature as a Flaw 

Growing up, and all the way until about my mid-twenties, I had no idea what it meant to be an introvert, and even less indication that it mattered. All I knew was that I’d always felt a bit “off,” even though I may have been the only one who knew it.

I was doing what everyone I knew did, and trying to be like them. Both my parents had public-facing jobs and were well-known and respected in our community. My two older sisters were role models for me growing up, and were just as involved in school life as I was. By the time I came along, most of my teachers had already taught one or both of my sisters, and there seemed to be an unspoken expectation for me to live up to.

I did my best to be who they wanted me to be, and to make my family proud. I was also doing what the world seemed to want me to do, which, essentially, was to be more extroverted. All the signals I was receiving told me I should be confident, put myself out there, be outgoing, be friendly, and be social.

As Susan Cain, founder of Quiet Revolution and author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, says, “A widely held, but rarely articulated, belief in our society is that the ideal self is bold, alpha, gregarious. Introversion is viewed somewhere between disappointment and pathology.”

Not wanting to disappoint anyone, I dutifully tried to be all of these things — and more — but I often felt drained and overwhelmed as a result. Even though I could blend in, I noticed early on that what seemed easy and natural for others often felt like work to me. I was exerting more and more energy just to keep up with everyone else’s norm.

At the time, I just thought I was weird. While my childhood best friend was a social butterfly and constantly had things going on or people over at her house, I silently craved quiet time that I almost never got.

As much as I loved the frequent sleepovers and pool parties I so often attended at her house, I sometimes wanted to skip them and just spend a weekend at home, relaxing. I’d feel guilty every time this happened, wondering why she didn’t feel the same. Was I just not social enough? Was something wrong with me? I often worried about this, thinking that maybe this was something I could change about myself.

I saw the way I was as a flaw — something that needed to be fixed.

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I Thought I Could Change, so I Set Out to ‘Fix’ Myself

After high school, I continued down this path of feeling like my reserved, quiet nature was something I should work on improving.

An article titled “What Is an Introvert?” on Introvert, Dear says, “Extroverts often don’t notice it, but our society assumes that people should be chatty, social, and quick to speak up — pretty much all the time.”

The prevalent assumption is that everyone can “learn” to be confident, outgoing, charismatic, and bold — and that they should! In a culture where status, titles, dominance, and power are respected and admired, outspoken people are seen as the ideal.

Fast forward to college, where one of my summer jobs was working with some of Canada’s top high school students in a renowned leadership and education program, Shad. I graduated from college with honors, and with a double major and a minor. After graduation, I moved across the world and spent two years working as an English teacher in South Korea. And until recently, I was managing a wedding and events venue, and was the main contact person for all our clients.

What all of these things have in common is that they pushed me way outside my comfort zone. So far out, in fact, that I’m still surprised to this day that I did some of them. Even the field I chose to study in college, journalism, required me to be someone I wasn’t for the majority of my degree.

I don’t regret any of these experiences, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. I feel extremely fortunate to have had the childhood I had, with all the opportunities and support my parents provided.

But looking back on my life so far, I can’t help but laugh as I write this, because of how far removed it is from who I know myself to be today.

It Took Me a Long Time to Find My Way in Life

I kept trying to be someone I wasn’t in order to fit into a world I didn’t feel I belonged in.

Eventually, though, I worked enough jobs and got enough different experiences to learn where

I’m meant to be and what kind of environments and work I’m best suited for — but this hasn’t been an easy process. I’m now in my early thirties, and I’m finally starting to feel like I’m doing what I should have been doing all along when it comes to my career

The difference now is that I finally know why I’ve struggled so much: The world isn’t set up for introverts, and it doesn’t cater to them, either. A very clear bias toward extroversion exists, and it’s evident in the way we try to change and mold introverts to display what we deem as more favorable (extroverted) qualities.

Here’s the truth: I’m capable of leading. I’m capable of going after what I want. I’m capable of conducting interviews and talking to strangers. I can generally pass as a “people person” when I need to, and can engage in small talk with the best of them.

But the key distinction and underlying reality is that most of the time, I simply prefer not to.

I’m much happier when I can work from home, by myself, in a quiet house. I can go days without talking to, or interacting with, anyone but my partner. I only have so much energy to dedicate to others, and I reserve it for a very small group of my closest people. I prefer to work independently and at my own pace, free from the demands of a boss or a big company with a culture to uphold and the headache of office politics. I enjoy silence, value my own space, and need time to process things and reflect. A slower, more intentional and reflective lifestyle is what speaks to my soul.

That’s why I knew early on that I wasn’t going to be a journalist in the mainstream sense after graduation. It was clear that I didn’t belong in the world of fast-paced, overhyped news cycles and the cutthroat, competitive styles of byline-hungry journalists. It’s also why jobs like teaching English to a school full of noisy, distracted students quickly became a nightmare for me, and why managing a wedding venue during the COVID-19 era culminated in increasing panic attacks.

I now know that these kinds of jobs are the opposite of where I belong.

But, even more importantly, I know there’s nothing wrong with that.

If You’re an Introvert, You Don’t Need to Change Yourself

Despite what the world might tell you, there’s nothing wrong with the way you are, and your introversion isn’t something you need to “fix” or “cure.” If anything, it’s meant to be understood, accepted, and embraced, rather than changed.

In my experience, it won’t be easy, and you’ll feel pressure from all sides to behave in ways that don’t feel like you. You’ll have doubts, be confused, and maybe even feel a bit like an alien at times!

But eventually, you’ll start to realize that it’s okay to be yourself, because who you are is good 

enough. The people in your life may never understand you, and that’s okay, too. What matters is that you learn to understand and accept yourself, and to give yourself what you need.

The truth is that you can only begin to shine when you come to terms with your natural inclinations and innate personality traits. And whether you believe it or not, the world needs your shine.

Do you ever struggle to know what to say?

As an introvert, you actually have the ability to be an amazing conversationalist — even if you’re quiet and hate small talk. To learn how, we recommend this online course from our partner Michaela Chung. Click here to check out the Introvert Conversation Genius course.

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