We all have secrets we want to keep hidden away from prying eyes. I know I do. I have a secret that I’ve never talked about before. It’s something I don’t share, because I don’t share easily. It’s a weakness, and I don’t like to show weakness.
I’m an extroverted introvert.
Just hear me out: I believe our society favors extroverts beyond all reasonable comprehension. This has left many introverts feeling like they can’t be productive, or they’re not as good as other people.
Take me, for example. I was never the popular kid on the playground, I wasn’t ever picked first at sports, I didn’t have girls swooning over me, and I certainly never had the best grades. I wasn’t bad at any of those things either—middle of the road, average Alec, mediocre. That’s how I felt for much of my high school time. It’s how I perceived my own existence. But I definitely wasn’t unhappy; in fact, I was a pretty happy kid. I look back on those years fondly with happiness. I have a very kind, caring, and inclusive family; but I wasn’t very good at making friends, I didn’t want to make friends. I was happy doing my own thing.
Here’s the catch. Anybody who knows me, doesn’t recognize that description as the Alec they know—probably not even my family. That’s because I quickly learned that our high-strung society doesn’t want you to be alone, it doesn’t want you to be average, and it certainly doesn’t encourage you to be yourself. To cope with these expectations, I created an extroverted façade.
Some time around heading to college, I decided I needed to make a change. I had moved to a new country, I was getting a new start, and I was determined to be the best “me” that I could be. I wanted to quit being the popular kids’ friend, or the third-wheel on a date, and I wanted to be the popular kid with the girlfriend, and the good grades, and everything else that went with that package. I learned to channel my inner extrovert and I learned to put on my happy face. I learned how to fake confidence. I buckled down in school, and I cut down on my sleep so that I could attain the grades I believed I needed to be successful. I presented a new “me,” a me that appeared to flourish in the company of others, that loved being the center of the conversation, that oozed confidence and dated frequently. If you have gotten to know me in the last 4–5 years, especially in Utah, then that is the Alec you recognize.
And for a long time, I was successful at it. I had lots of friends, I dated plenty, I was financially successful, I learned how to get people to like me, and I learned how to climb the hierarchy because of it. I got the high-paying jobs at BYU and I got the important callings at church. People knew me as the confident extrovert, the guy who is comfortable talking in large groups and going to job interviews, the guy who can do what he wants and succeed at it. But, you see, it was all a lie. I faked it. Really, deep inside, I crumbled and I broke. The longer I pushed this external image of myself, the more people expected this new extroverted me—and the more pressure I felt to live up to this artificial standard.
The truth is, I hate talking in large groups. I hate being the center of attention, I hate being photographed, I hate talking to people I don’t know, and I hate being put on the spot. I hate celebrating my birthday, and I hate making decisions. But I just kept burying those feelings deeper. Unfortunately, this lead to endless amounts of burnout, anxiety, and sometimes even depression. I boiled like a pressure cooker and eventually I burst.
I didn’t cut myself a break. I failed to create balance in my life, and I allowed my social façade to swallow my entire life. When an introvert decides not to participate in an activity, people say things like, “Oh, that’s just So-and-so, he prefers quiet time.” My true self had been repressed so deeply under my daily mask that when I now opt to not participate in an activity, people look at me weird, they think something is wrong with me, or they think I just don’t like them. It isn’t true, though. It’s just that I’m now learning it’s okay to just be myself, and I want to do my own thing. I don’t want to do things just because that’s what people do. I only want to do things that I want to do.
Nobody truly knows who you are. They only know the person you put on display.
I’m not alone in this. There are forums and blogs of people that feel just the same way. While it can indeed be helpful to channel our extroverted selves in our work lives, friendship circles, and family lives every now and then, many of us have failed to set healthy boundaries. We often feel as though we must masquerade through our day, exhausting huge amounts of energy in order to excel in school, in our careers, or in our life ambitions.
But externalizing a false self identity only causes inner hurt and anxiety. So next time you envy the popular kid, or admire the guy with the important church calling, or praise the woman who seems to have her life so together, remember that maybe, just maybe, that person is faking it and just wants to be left alone for a while.