Hell is People at Breakfast

It’s almost the end of January and the return to college is approaching like a very fast, very clichéd and very menacing freight train.

I love college (Roth, A., 2009). But actually, I do. I love living in a place filled with engaging, exciting individuals. I love being constantly pushed to be better and challenged in my views.  I cherish seeing these people every day.

So why do I feel like I’m in some grainy Western movie, gagged and struggling whilst I’m tied to the tracks?

The idea of 300 people (most of them friends) returning to our big, soviet hothouse for the new academic year is weighing on me. It’s a dark, inexplicable cloud of anxiety and no power of positive thinking (“It’ll be fine!”), reasoning (“You KNOW you like college”) or self-flagellation (of the “Drink a cup of cement…” genre) can get it to disperse.

I am more frightened than a first year.

Recently, a small and quite baffling sliver of light managed to illuminate a source of my irrational anxiety. It found its way through my preoccupied mind and shined its dust-flecked beam upon a small and scrunched up shred of paper; a memo doggedly ignored, pushed to the furthest corners of my deskbrain.

And what, you ask, did this hallowed piece of paper read?

“You are an introvert”

Did you resist the urge to gag?

If you have the same notion of introversion as I did, you would also recoil from that adjective.

I understood it as one of two unflattering things:

  1. A slightly patronising term for a shy/socially inept individual, whose best friend is an avatar.
  2. An arrogant, self-promoting term used to placate the egos of the less charming, confident and engaging among us.

I also took issue with the definition of the term. The characteristics attributed to an introvert did not fit my idea of myself. I am a bookish, yes, but this seemed to be the extent the term was applicable. A penchant for Penguins does not disqualify me from also enjoying parties, engaging in conversation or venturing into the sunlight.

However, as I read I became aware than testaments of self-confessed introverts, of which are although at times accompanied by sickening dollops of self-love, really were strangely soothing.

Introversion is deeper than personality. It is not a choice. It is not an attitude. It is not an aversion to fun. It is, and the scientists will back me up on this, a physiological difference in the make-up of our brains. It has been shown that introverts have slower and longer neural pathways.  “Where extroverts thrive from contact with people, introverts are tired by it.” They require solitude like oxygen. Time alone allows introverts to recharge and recuperate.

This was where college and I came to clash. I do need time to myself, I do get grumpy when I am in the presence of people for too long, I do pursue closer relationships with fewer people and my small talk (with apologies to anyone with first hand experience) is abysmal. All classic, diagnosable attributes of an introvert.

My issue is that society overwhelmingly prefers extroverts. A “people person” is likely to be livelier, more fun, more confident and outgoing. However this fails to recognise that introversion is not mutually exclusive with these traits. Introverts just require more time, intimacy or fewer people to let them show.

College is the perfect storm for the introvert in denial. Time to myself, something I desperately crave, is disturbed by niggling thoughts of what I should be doing, silence at the dinner table by nagging thoughts of what I should be saying.

And where I use to seek being alone, I began to seek people for fear of being lonely.

An introvert who is “over stimulated” (not my own words) will struggle to appreciate the best parts of college. Anxiety and mental exhaustion mean the in denial introvert is getting quantity, not quality, from their social interactions.

They will seem distracted, may be hard to hold a conversation with or, the worst of the social sins, be awkward. And if not, they are probably just a very good actor.

So how do you, the in-denial introvert, learn to thrive at college?

The answer comes, and I’m only guessing, in revaluing introversion and recognising your own needs.

I am hoping, come D-day or O-week as some call it, that learning to like being alone again will mean that when I do, finally, venture out into the world beyond college, that I enjoy what I see.

**This insight, if I’m less self-indulgent, actually came from a TedTalk titled The Power of Introverts by Susan Cain and an article “Caring for your introvert” by Jonathan Rauch at the Atlantic.