I’m an introvert and I like being alone. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want friends, which is why is was so painful to believe for much of my life that no one really liked me.
To anyone who knows me, that will sound absurd. Even in high school, the most melodramatic and lonely period of my life, people were kind. Despite being the class nerd, cheerleaders said hi to me in the hallways and no one ever made me feel bad about being smart. Then again, they didn’t invite me to parties or the social clubs at school either.
My mother had to cajole her co-workers with sons to provide dates for dances. I was a logical kid and the data seemed clear. People might be polite, but I didn’t have any real friends.
I would love to tell you these kinds of insecurities ceased after the hormonal surges of high school and college, but they didn’t. They persisted. For years I wondered why I couldn’t get closer to people, why I always seemed to be an outsider looking in. I felt awkward at large gatherings, where tables seemed to fill up without me and my attempts at jokes often fell flat. I was jealous every time people from the office decided to get together and didn’t call me.
When I went through real traumas in my life, like the death of my mother or the failure to conceive through fertility treatment, I wasn’t sure who to turn to. I felt like sharing my troubles with others would be a burden, an idea only strengthened when few persisted to inquire on my well-being beyond my obviously superficial answers.
Paradoxically, my Christmas card list was getting out of control. I was sending out close to 100 cards and counting. When my husband and I moved to Washington DC, we bemoaned that we hardly ever had a free weekend, because we were constantly entertaining friends who were in town on business. And then it happened. Someone called me their best friend.
What?! And then…someone else did too. I really didn’t know how to react, since I still didn’t think I really had friends, much less best friends! I tried to go along with the act, but I soon discovered I was pretty miserable at it. As an introvert, I didn’t have it in me to make frequent telephone calls just to chat or attend after-work get-togethers. I became a social flake.
My dream of friendship had “finally” come true, and here I was making up excuses as to why I couldn’t attend a birthday party!
By this point, I can admit I have friends. Lots of them. But I still wasn’t sure what had caused the turnaround until I attended my 20 year high school reunion. There’s nothing quite like a reunion to force you to do a little introspection. The fact I could even attend at all was a miracle, since I hadn’t kept in touch with anyone in the subsequent decades. As one classmate told me, “Do you know how many Jennifer Allen’s (my maiden name) there are on Facebook? I finally decided if you wanted to connect, you could find me.”
And then the proverbial light bulb went off. When was the last time I had reached out, seeking interaction? I had been so absorbed in deciphering everyone’s friendship intentions, I had failed to step beyond my own emotional borders.
The friends I had accumulated were almost all from work, when I could just relax in my professional persona. Even still, I often failed to live up to my end of the bargain. I remember a former roommate saying in her Christmas card, “I really thought when we both became mothers, we’d be closer.” She said it without reproach, but I could feel the hurt in her words. It seemed that if there was anything standing between me and closer friendships, it was, well, me.
Several years ago I wrote a poem entitled “Letter from a Poor Correspondent,” in an attempt to explain my bad habits. Originally published in the literary journal New South, the final stanza ends with these words:
And now, as I finally write to you
of the forest fire I refused to flee–
the porcupine that charged the yard,
his back a hundred separate sparklers,
the trees that groaned with the gravity
of the situation–I wonder if
my words still smolder, if you,
like those beetles that navigate
by heat and flame, might be transported
across time and distance to smell
the clean ash of starting over.
You see, that’s the great thing about friends. They’re nearly always willing to give you a second chance (or in my case, a fourth or fifth). I’d like to start over. I know I don’t have the capacity to be really close to a hundred people.
So my plan is to just pick five and start writing those old-fashioned letters, something my introverted self can commit to. Am I up to being someone’s best friend? I still don’t really know what that means. But I know I can be better.