The Introvert Who Never Was
When labels overstay their welcome
I have something to confess.
Despite years of claiming the label, I’m not actually an introvert.
But, for most of my life, I truly thought I was.
In the early days of grade school, I was regularly overwhelmed by so many of the things that seemed perfectly normal to other kids. During recess, I laughed and played games with my friends. But then in class when my teachers called on me, my vision clouded over and my voice lodged in my throat. And when it was a day I knew I’d have to talk in front of the whole class, my stomach would wake me up early, churning and refusing to let me leave the safety of my bed.
But I wasn’t fooling anyone.
My teachers knew that, underneath all of it, I was nervous. Soon after, I began hearing the word introvert being used regularly.
Instead of rejecting the label, I felt reassured by it. Identifying as an introvert not only made sense, it also helped me understand why I had found myself showing up differently than so many of the kids around me.
Over the years, as I absorbed the label more deeply into my identity, it became a tool that, despite my discomfort, helped me meet the demands of my teachers when they refused to let me do what I actually wanted to do: crawl under the nearest stairwell with an inspiring book.
The introvert label helped me override my discomfort and show up publicly anyway. But the comfort it offered started feeling limiting by the time I entered high school. I began craving a fuller expression of myself: to feel freer laughing with a group of friends, to give a presentation in front of my class, to feel less self-conscious in bustling public spaces.
But when I found myself wanting to try behaving in new ways, a voice in my head would say, “Introverts don’t do that.” Whenever I began to speak up in front of a group, my introvert-story (which had evolved into my most controlling and clingy friend by this time) would gently nudge me, reminding me that I wasn’t that person. And then, I would revert back to the silent, smiling, supportive audience member.
I began to wonder if I had always been so quick to limit my self-expression.
One day, I asked my mom what I was like as a child.
“Was I always an introvert?” I asked.
She shook her head and laughed. “Not even close.”
My mom began telling me stories, but one in particular really surprised me.
“When you were about four, I struggled to keep up with you as you raced up to random people in the grocery store. You’d basically start interviewing them on the spot: What’s that in your cart? What are you making? Why?” She laughed. “People were charmed by you. Well, most people.”
It was almost like hearing a stranger’s biography.
Imagining that version of myself made me smile. I could almost remember being the child she was describing, but it felt so far away. Who was this person whose curiosity was so untouched by self-consciousness? I wondered. This child who didn’t give a second thought to how people might criticize his self-expression?
While I couldn’t completely feel everything she was describing, I couldn’t deny my desire for the carefree confidence that once came so naturally to me.
At this point, it became clear that my introvert-story was holding me back more than any of the qualities about me it supposedly captured.
I began wondering if I could truly be an introvert if I only felt like an introvert when other people were around.
Through college, as I got more in touch with my values and the impact I wanted to have in the world, I began testing my boundaries. I found they were a lot more permeable than I realized.
I found myself applying for, and landing, a public-facing leadership position at my university where I directed initiatives and managed a small team. This would have been unimaginable just a year before, but suddenly it felt like something I had to prove to myself I could do.
This decision set off a chain reaction of choices that, while sometimes panic-inducing, felt extremely enlivening.
I applied to one of the world’s most selective graduate schools. The high of putting myself out there overrode a lot of my disappointment when the rejection letter eventually arrived. I discovered that getting in wasn’t the point for me at all. It was all about leading with confidence and showing up.
Then, I was offered a freelance job opportunity—an amalgamation of writing, editing, and coaching work. Something I had never done and wasn’t even sure I was capable of. But someone else saw the potential in me. I didn’t hesitate to say yes, and then my business was born out of that moment of enthusiasm, unhindered by the introvert label.
Some time later, I felt an intense curiosity about joining the Foster writing community () as a contributor. There was no room for the introvert label in the decision, and inside I discovered countless opportunities to show up and be exactly who I am.
I started feeling, more and more, like the child who used to walk through the world guided by fearless curiosity. The child who knew that he could trust wherever his instincts led him.
I no longer identify as an introvert.
While some of those same behaviors still show up, and probably always will, I strive to meet them now for what they are, in the moment, without using a label to justify avoiding a new, possibly challenging experience. I allow curiosity to have a stronger, louder voice at the table than the low hum of my introvert-story.
While I’m constantly reminded that there are other labels I could instead identify with—like ambivert or, depending on who I’m being compared to, extrovert—I consciously choose not to.
Because if my identification with one label so powerfully restricted the freedom I allowed myself, then why wouldn’t the next label do the same?
My curiosity, freed from the restriction of the introvert label, seems to require just one thing to take the helm: for me to get out of my own way.
So I can no longer embrace a concept of myself that is, by definition, static.
That’s likely going to mean, moving forward, a clutter of discarded labels around my feet, which I will probably trip over from time to time. But without the added weight on my shoulders, navigating those obstacles becomes easier with each passing day.
So cheers to setting aside the labels that are no longer needed—and not rushing to fill the spot that is left behind.
Because that’s the space where our innate curiosity was always meant to play.
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