Introversion by Sam O’Brien ’18

Before I was old enough to know the word “introvert”, along with its societal implications, I was its embodiment. 

I have been described as both outgoing and shy—in either case by people who know me quite well. I have, more than once, squirmed in discomfort at having realized that I’ve said too much, as well as for remaining suspiciously silent in a group conversation. Sometimes my shrill laugh reverberates across Frost library and other times I scare people off from  miles away with my trademark scowl.

I recall my introversion being a source of tension between me and my parents. For some reason, I keep turning back to this very specific memory of me lounging at the community pool with a stack of books beside me when my classmate, Stephanie, invited me to come play with her. I liked Stephanie, but the performance of “hanging out”––jumping in the pool, making a ruckus, etc.––was not necessary for me to enjoy her company. Had she, for instance, taken any interest in my stack of books, I would have been perfectly happy to lend her one of my favorites and read side-by-side beneath the hazy, late summer sun. We might have even periodically stopped to chat about the progression of our respective novels and this, to me, would have felt like a substantial bonding experience.

But I knew this wasn’t exactly what Stephanie meant when she said “play,” and before I could politely turn her down, I heard my mother respond for me:

“She’d love to, wouldn’t you Sam?” she said, daring me to contradict her.

          I knew there was only one correct answer to this question although at this point in my life, I still did not quite understand why. In hindsight, it seems quite obvious that my flamboyant and absurdly well-liked parents would have been grappling with what it meant to have a peculiarly, stubbornly anti-social daughter.

It was not until later, around the fifth grade, that I began to internalize the seemingly universal desire to be visibly and actively “social”.  The blissful, stimulating little world that I inhabited in my own mind was now beginning to feel lonely, simply because other people seemed to think it so. I had been prodded one too many times by my teachers, classmates and parents and could no longer put up much resistance. Once I got past my shaky, socially awkward beginnings , I became a social fiend. Bit by bit, I accumulated a female friend posse. I found that people seemed to hold you in higher regard if you had this particular hot commodity. The hours that I might have spent scribbling away in my diary I now spent in the ritualistic, performative act of “socializing”. This meant that every hour that I was not in school, I spent in someone else’s basement, prank calling boys, hacking one another’s’ Facebook accounts, and making music videos on a webcam. I was socializing almost to the point of mania. If ever a weekend came along in which I did not have set plans, my stomach would turn uneasily with the sense that “I was doing something wrong. And sometimes I did have fun. But more often than not, the allure of a cozy fire and Agatha Christie beckoned me from afar. Moreover, my parents were–believe it or not—now on my case about the exact opposite issue of my early childhood, claiming that I never spent any time at home with the family.

Thankfully, by high school, I leveled out. I had a stable group of friends that I did not fear would dissipate if I couldn’t “make it” Saturday night. And most importantly, I was now capable of finding genuine enjoyment in  my social life because after knowing my friends for years, it became deliciously comfortable and natural and I rarely felt the need to strain myself by trying to branch out.

Amherst has put my odd relationship with socializing to test. The sheer prospect of small-talking my way to newfound relationships after having been complacent for so long was absolutely petrifying. I reacted by adopting the rather manic mentality that I just had to endure a high-anxiety period of of forging close relationships, and then I could relax. Thankfully, I was successful and found myself in a female friend posse whose ostentatious close-knitted-ness uncannily resembles my female friend posse at home. I also found a sense of home on North Second Floor. I was rarely lonely as a first year, and for that I consider myself exceptionally lucky.

Somewhere along the way, through tireless practice and occasional overexertion, I’ve realized that I actually do like talking to people. I like conversations almost as much as I like letting my inner dialogue subsume everything else. I love getting to really “see” other people in all of their glorious three-dimensionality. At this point, I practically live for that delicious moment of mutual recognition––“you’re a person too!”––with vulnerabilities and dumb unrealistic fantasies and a messy inner psyche and everything else. I crave the “deep” and the “personal” and the “complicated” so much so that sometimes my willingness is jarring and comes off premature. And I get it—not everyone is as willing as I am to open up and shed tears in Val on a Tuesday morning. The problem for me is that I still feel inept when it comes to dancing around the liminal space of acquaintanceship. Despite the fact that I was raised by the master of casual chit-chat, smalltalk still feels icky and forced and even hurts a bit like the gooey polite smile that’s been plastered on my face for far too long. Digital conversations have the same effect on me; I’ve downloaded and promptly deactivated my Tinder not once but six times out of sheer discomfort. I am the first to exit the room before the generic conversations run dry.

As a sophomore, it seems that  campus has grown smaller and the amount of faces I am vaguely familiar with has grown exponentially, yet the amount of people I feel deeply, intimately comfortable with has sort of plateaued. Though it seems to have plateaued, the smallness of this campus forces me to be regularly surrounded by people who I “sorta know”—people that I could have/should have bonded with, but that I had perhaps missed the boat on entirely. A new anxiety struck me: each of these vaguely familiar faces was actually a lovely, insightful, three-dimensional human that would become a lost opportunity if I did not pursue a friendship.

After all these years, taking the initiative with people I do not feel extremely comfortable with still requires a vigorous effort on my part. I still find it challenging to focus on real-life dialogue when my inner dialogue is incessantly, oppressively loud. On a good day, I might smile and appropriately say “hi [insert name here]” to a good fifth of the people on campus. On the worst of days, I keep my eyes glued to the ground and pray to all that is good and holy that I do not have to interact with anyone beyond my innermost circle. It’s not because I am an angry misanthrope, but because it is work—impossibly challenging work at that. I genuinely appreciate when others take the initiative because it momentarily absolves me of this sense of responsibility I carry at almost all times. Sometimes it is completely exhausting to be surrounded by individuals that I could talk to, yet the terror of it feeling unnatural and awkward stands as an insurmountable gap between us.

I suspect I am not the only one. In which case, let’s converse.

sobrien18@amherst.edu

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