An Introvert’s Guide to Friendship

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.

Image: radioher
53 Responses to “An Introvert’s Guide to Friendship”
  1. Jen,

    Great essay, Jen. I, too, am a borderline introvert parading as an extrovert (as is rewarded by the corporate world), and there are so many aspects of this post that ring true.

    I find that the relationships I am most successful with are those which don’t require constant maintenance. Those are the friends who I haven’t seen for a year or two, and where an email exchange followed by a good cup of coffee (when one of us comes to town) seems sufficient.

    The important thing I find, though, is that since most introverts require the ability to prepare for discussion, I need to brainstorm about what has happened in my friend’s life while we’ve been apart. Then I come prepared to do some good question asking. Otherwise I find myself floundering in the conversation department and then the guilt of being a boring/unfriendly/uninterested friend becomes somewhat paralyzing to the discussion.

    As you touched on, though, these relationships are great but cannot provide you with a security net for things like fertility, births, promotions, cross-country moves, deaths, etc. Those day-to-day friendships need to be maintained so that you’ve got a support when you need it.

    I wish you good luck with your friend-maintenance, and look forward to future posts on how it goes.

    • Aurian,

      That’s a GREAT idea to prepare for discussions. I’ve been thinking about why I have troubles connecting, and clearly one issue is that the situation is so stressful for me, I can’t think of things to talk about (when I’m with new people, not my friends). But your idea applies to friendships too, as you point out, because it helps you be a good listener, which is definitely one of the nicest things you can do as a friend.

      Thanks for the insight!

      Jen

  2. sing it, sister. my extroverted friends think that i’m “hiding out” or “being a hermit” if I don’t come into town (i live in a rural area west of Asheville, NC). they take my silences personally. i finally just started telling them- you know, i love you, i love spending time with you, and i don’t mean to hurt you because i won’t come into town to go to the bar. i do it when i have the energy, but when i don’t? i really wish you would just come sit on my porch, drink wine and listen to the birds…

    it takes some longer than others, but they’ve learned to love their little introvert, and that means coming to me more often and knowing that i don’t love them less because i’m content on my porch. ;)

    good luck!

    • Sorry I missed this comment. And such an adorable screen name too (I happen to adore my two very bad cats).

      That’s great that you could be open about who you are with friends and get them to accept it. One of my closest friends finally got to that point, but boy, it took years before she really understood it was me, not her.

      Always good to hear from happy introverts!

  3. OH my gosh WOW.

    It really is as if you peeled back my scalp and read my thoughts. Very recently I’ve discovered that I become quite the flaky twit when somehow, magically, someone gets close to me. I had a miserable and friendless adolescence and all I ever claimed to want was a friend. And yet as an adult I’ve had quite the share close friendships leading to “best friendships” only to have the relationship slip away because I would much rather sit alone, at home, than go out and do things, or even pick up the phone and call someone. And when I did hold onto a relationship I was only doing so because I felt compelled to: not because I actually wanted to. After a very long slump I’ve decided to actively pursue friendships with other women. I’m terrified of it. I’m afraid they will expect me to be just like other girls and want to get together for cocktails and happy hours and dinner parties and the like (things that scare the living daylights outta me). But I’m going to try. I’m going to get out there and make some friends, darnit. Because I’m only 25 and I don’t want to spend the next 25 years this way.

    • Mrs. Graves,

      This is, indeed, one of the wonders of the internet, no? We introverts can connect and realize that while we enjoy being alone, our emotions and desires are really quite common. All I can tell you is that if you read the comments, you’ll see we worry about others’ reactions probably far more than we need to. Honesty probably is the best policy. This post was my coming out party. :)

      Best of luck to you, and fel free to find me at my blog if you ever need online companionship or encouragement. Hugs!

  4. One thing I want to add (as an undercover introvert myself) is that it’s okay to realize that large gatherings and certain types of friendships and conversations just aren’t your thing. I had a hard time in college dealing with the loud frat parties and what I perceived to be superficial sorority clicks. For so long I thought something was wrong with me. Over the years, I’ve paid attention to when I am happiest. Yes, sometimes it’s alone with a really good book. But it’s also sharing a beautiful meal with a friend who has substantive things to share and who inspires me to share my truth. Not every friend you have will earn this honor. But count yourself lucky if you have even one or two.

    • Kat,

      You bet! It is okay to just not like the large gatherings, and an extrovert friend reminded me that such gatherings are often stressful for them too. Sometimes living up the extrovert ideal is a lot of pressure.

      And yes, I do count myself as extraordinarily lucky for having so many friends I enjoy sharing a meal with. Then again, I love to eat. LOL

      Thanks for the note, Kat!

  5. Amanda

    A little late to the party but this article is amazingly familiar. I could have written this! I was a loner in high school; had some friends but was by myself most of the time. My only friends in college were my roommates (captive audience); they are still my friends so I must have done something right. Since then my friends have been people I met through work (even my boyfriend). When my sister died I wondered why no one bothered to call me to find out how I was doing, was very hurt by that. I realized that I had not been the friend I wished I had. I love your idea and I think I’m going to try it. I very rarely write comments on articles but I just had to respond to this one. Thank you for writing this.

    • Amanda,
      I’m so sorry to hear about the loss of your sister, followed by the silence of friends. I understand how heartbreaking that must have been! But don’t take all the blame on yourself either–sometimes people, good well-meaning people, just don’t know what to say in the face of loss.

      I remember when one of my co-workers was unexpectedly in the hospital with an infection. One day she was fine, the next she was on death’s door. A group of us went to visit her, and I was unprepared for how terrible she looked. It brought up all the emotions of my mother’s death, and I couldn’t say a thing, for fear I would start bawling and consequently, make my co-worker feel worse about her condition. I’m sure everyone just thought I was an unfeeling oaf, but it couldn’t have been farther from the truth.

      I’m very glad this article touched you and I hope it helps you find the courage to reach out. For myself, I will admit I have been better, but not as much as I had hoped by this point. I know the hardest part is recognizing the problem, and then just being pleased I’m making progress at all.

      Feel free to send me a note any time if you need a little extra encouragement from someone who understands!

  6. John

    I’m an introvert, and the problem is…it’s tough, I’ve talked to people and helped them out with things and was nothing but nice to them. What do I get in return? I get no respect in return…maybe because I’m quiet, but I always wanted them to at least initiate a good conversation with me and get to know me a little. Well? People end up gossiping about me at work after all I’ve done for them, and it’s really made me depressed and self conscious. Is it my looks? Is it my body language that throws them off? GEEZ! I really don’t mean to piss them off, I’m just being myself.

    This is still happening to me today, and I just don’t know what it is? I’m a kind generous person, and I do have a sense of humor. I guess? The world is cruel like that.

    • Ah John, this is terrible to read. Sounds like you need a new set of colleagues, not a make-over. Seriously, look for a new place to work. Life is too short to spend it with soul-suckers. Come see me at my blog if you want help making a change.

  7. Gus

    Jennifer,
    Thank you for posting such a great essay. I too have felt the same way. I’ve always felt like the outsider every time I’ve been out with friends. This stems back to high school experiences. Just like you, I knew tons of people but still felt like I was the only one in school. Still to this day, it bothers me that I can’t be the friend that people expect me to be.
    Thank you again for the wonderful post and for letting me see that I’m not the only one that feels this way.

    • You’re welcome, Gus. Knowing you’re not alone is the first step. Now you just have to convince yourself everything is better than it feels. Maybe try a Sally Fields moment in the bathroom mirror. That’s always fun. :)

  8. Rosa

    Do you know you actually made me cry? The last years all of my friendships seem to “die” on me, specially after I had a pregnancy with extreme vomiting and could not reach out to people anymore. The only reason I could think of why this was happening was “It must be me”. Because why would anyone like me? I hate talking on the phone, I like to be on my own, and I don’t really do parties…
    So I got stuck in a circle, I was having the whole conversation in my head before I would call someone and it always ended with: why bother… they are not waiting for my call. But you made me realise I should reach out more, perhalps someone is, well not waiting for my call, but for my e-mail :)

    • Oh, Rosa. It’s such a tough time during (and after!) pregnancy. Your hormones were messing with your introverted head like nobody’s business.

      I’m so glad this post could help you see the value in reaching out. I would encourage you to tell people, or even just one person, you need help. Or you need to talk. It’s so hard to do. I started an Everyday Courage challenge series on my blog, and one of early challenges is to ask for help. I personally suck at it, so I thought maybe it would be easier to do together. Come join us if you’d like.

      Just know you aren’t alone, your friends really do love you, they just don’t know HOW to help. They’re probably worried you don’t love them! Seriously, it sounds crazy, but I bet you a mango I’m right.

      Hang in there, lady. Hugs!

  9. mrslaurafoster

    Introverted/extroverted just refers to where you get your energy from…

    Intorverted = you recharge your batteries by spending time alone

    Entroverted = you recharge by being with other people.

    I spent a long time feeling bound by my definition of ‘introvert’ when in fact we don’t have to be – I can still display typically ‘extroverted’ qualities while being an introvert.

    • Absolutely agree on the definition. And like you, most never realize I’m introverted because I’m so outgoing when I’m around people.

      But the fact that it is draining for me has unintended consequences. After lots of meetings at work, I didn’t feel like getting together with people on the weekends or after work. I’d agree to social gatherings, which sounded fun at the time, then flake out because I just couldn’t get myself motivated to go.

      This creates a weird spiral effect: people stop inviting you to events or calling on you, because they correctly see you aren’t interested. But when the invitations dry up, you interpret it as meaning they don’t like you. So the less they reach out, the harder it is to reach out yourself. And soon, that introvert is really quite lonely.

  10. Whitney

    Thank you so much for this posting, and I’m so glad for the comments afterwards. I never really had a model growing up for how to maintain friendships. I’m an only child, and my mom is an introvert to the point where she pretty much disdains friendships, so my parents never had anyone over and hardly went out except with each other. I never had much encouragement to develop or maintain a social life and certainly no model to see how others did it, and since I loved books and being alone to begin with, that suited me fine. Though I had a few friends in high school and college, I’ve always put almost all my social energy into my romantic relationships. However I ended up marrying an extrovert from a very warm, social family, and I learned that my experience wasn’t the norm–shocker! I’ve become much, much more social over the last 8 years as a result, and love it, but there’s still this core part of me that shies away from getting close, that flakes on invitations, cancels at the last minute, and finds that it’s more stressful than rewarding to be around 99% of people no matter how wonderful they are. For a long time now I’ve thought I must be just a horrible, antisocial person at heart, so it’s incredibly reassuring to hear I’m not the only one who’s ambivalent about having friends because of what it takes to maintain a friendship. I guess you can’t force yourself to gravitate towards those who drain you, but you can work to be a better friend to the few who don’t.

    • I honestly can’t imagine marrying an extrovert. Wow would that have been hard for me! I’m actually the social one in our relationship. LOL

      You are definitely not a horrible person. I can tell from your response how warm and thoughtful you are. Your husband and few friends are just super lucky to have you!

  11. Jane

    I never understand people who say “Oh, I never had any friends” or “I spend all my time alone,” yet they still manage to get married. I’m an introvert, and I force myself to go out, but I can never get close enough to someone to get romantically involved, let alone married. Seems to me if you can get married, everything else is cake in comparison.

    • It’s a good point, Jane! I hope this articles clarifies that while I did spend time saying, “No one likes me,” it absolutely wasn’t true. Not even a smidge. I think what many mean when they say things like that is that they’re suffering from low self-esteem, and they hope the other person will re-assure them.

  12. Sabrina

    This was great to read! I too have such a hard time thinking of things to say when I’m in a group (or even one-on-one). Sometimes I say things and later wonder ‘what the heck was I thinking?’ Or I will stutter or have a big gap in my thoughts which I’m sure makes me come across as ‘stupid’ or something! I have no real friends and would LOVE to, but just can’t seem to “fit in” with all the other ladies! I always seem to find ‘excuses’. ??? Wish someone would just take a good interest in me and “force” me to be their friend! (versus no one taking any interest and then me feeling like no likes me!)

    But it was nice to read all the comments above! I know I’m now alone!

    • Sabrina,

      I happen to be reading a book right now that discusses the assumptions and negative self-talk that people with social anxiety experience. The authors point out that most of the time, we fit in much more than we think we do. Our fears exaggerate and personalize reactions by others to the point they just aren’t true. They suggest the best thing you can do is just be yourself (although Ze Frank has a hilarious take on that advice…look up on YouTube). When you find yourself at some sort of social function, look people in the eye, smile, and make yourself an easy target for conversation. It might go more smoothly than you think!

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