Although said with good intentions, this phrase may actually alienate introverts, preventing them from getting the help they need in difficult times.
“Let me know how I can help.” “Just reach out whenever you want.” “I’m just a phone call away.”
For a lot of people, these expressions of care are a great way to show support. But for some introverts, they’re not enough. At worst, they alienate introverts, preventing them from getting the help they need in trying times. If you’re an extrovert trying to reach your introverted friend, it’s important to understand the best ways to care for us “quiet” personality types.
Think about personality types like house plants. Your succulents need to be cared for just as much as their leafier cousins, but you wouldn’t give a philodendron the same treatment as a cactus. Introverts need care and support from their friends just as cacti need water and sunlight, but you have to know the best way to provide those resources without flooding or neglecting them.
Why ‘Just Reach Out’ Doesn’t Work for Some Introverts
“Being there” can be a generous offer to people of all personality types. But while many people will leap into your arms as soon as you open them, you shouldn’t expect most introverts to come running. Telling an introvert to “just reach out” can be a misguided and ineffective way to support people who dread activities like calling someone on the phone, meeting up in person, and verbally expressing deep emotions. Every introvert operates differently, but for many of us, the need for help may be outweighed by the difficulty inherent in reaching out and asking for it.
Once in college, a teammate burst into the locker room and threw herself into my arms, crying loudly. Concerned teammates flocked to her, offering hugs and words of comfort. I was going through a difficult time too, and it was a frustrating scene to watch as I suffered in silence. But if making a scene and getting engulfed in a (well-meaning) crowd was the path to support, as an introvert, I was pretty much hardwired not to walk it.
I’ve heard many fellow introverts echo this feeling of being overlooked, unsupported, and left out by friends and support groups that use a “reach out” model to support their introverted loved ones. In most cases, it’s not because our friends don’t care, but because they don’t know how to.
What You Should Do Instead
So how can you take better care of the introverts in your life? It’s simple: Reach out to them!
Instead of waiting for your introverted loved ones to come to you, do your best to proactively look out for them. If you know or suspect that they are going through a hard time, or if they exhibit warning signs like changes in behavior, long absences, listening to a sad Spotify playlist, etc., take the initiative to check on them. Ask them how they are feeling, reiterate how much you care about them, and give them a private, low-key environment to open up to you. It’s a myth that most introverts don’t like people or talking; we just need a safe, comfortable environment and the right audience.
It would have helped me, for instance, to talk to friends about my hurt and frustration when the 2018 Tree of Life Synagogue shooting took place in my hometown. I come from a Jewish family in Pittsburgh, and I had family friends who were injured or killed in the event. But like most introverts, I’m not one for heated discussions or crowded events at my best, let alone when reeling from a tragedy. So I watched passively as my social network activated, posting lengthy paragraphs on social media and organizing events, while only one friend actually checked with me to see if my family and I were okay.
In dire situations and everyday struggles, be proactive with your introverted friends. The worst that can happen is they turn you away.
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Why Introverts May Initially Turn You Away
Speaking of turning you away…
If they do turn you away, understand that it’s just as important to actively look out for an introvert as it is to respect their need for solitude. Alone time is an essential feature of life as an introvert, made all the more important when dealing with a difficult time. When you check in on your introverted friends, respect them and their wishes if they choose not to talk or spend time with you in that moment. Overexposure can harm a cactus just as much as neglect.
To appreciate this cornerstone of introversion, it’s important to understand that introverts experience their environment and react to stimuli very differently than their extroverted counterparts. While talking about issues or being around supportive people might seem like the best medicine to an extrovert, introverts tend to gain the energy to cope with their struggles through low-stimulus activities like spending time alone, listening to music, and writing. Understanding and respecting these differences is crucial to being there for an introvert.
When I was friends with an exceptionally outgoing college classmate, she would insist on prying me out of my shell whenever I resorted to alone time to cope with difficult circumstances. She would confront me for shutting down and not allowing her to give me the help she thought I needed.
Once, after I told her that I had received some particularly bad news, she invited me to participate in a student activist protest. She assured me that being around the group of inspiring young firebrands would help me get over my sadness, but spending hours in the school’s administration building with a bunch of fired-up political activists would’ve surely drained what little mental resources I had at the time. Yes, my extroverted friend genuinely cared for me, but her understanding of care was the furthest thing from palliative.
Like my friend, you might be wondering how you’re ever supposed to know if your introverted friend wants you to reach out and help or give them space. The easiest way to know is to check in and give them the opportunity to tell you what’s best for them. If you notice some behavioral differences or you know something difficult has happened in their life, reach out, remind them that you care, and ask them what they need. Even if it might not help them to talk or hang out, it never hurts to remind someone that you care. Down the line, they may welcome the chance to open up to a supportive, trusting friend.
The best way to be there for your introvert is to go to them. Be proactive and observant; don’t sit around waiting for them to call — because that’ll probably never happen.
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