How to Move Beyond Your Comfort Zone

Dear Social Introvert,

I am contacting you because of two difficulties that Im struggling to overcome. I have still not been successful.

I am a Master’s student, and I am living abroad. I am from Portugal, and now I study in the Netherlands. At school, I have difficulties with public presentations. The problem is that they always want people who can really “sell” and be extroverted. I try my best, but my words do not flow as quickly as my thoughts. I made a lot of sacrifices to come abroad, especially financial ones. I am afraid I wont find a job after this because of my communication skills.

The other problem that I face is being uncomfortable at parties. I do love my friends, but I refuse their invites to all-night events. They do not amuse me at all. I like to go for a nice lunch or a picnic together. I prefer to spend my time reading, playing sports, or knitting.

I hope you have some advice for me. All my life I have been making an effort to be more extroverted, but it is so tiring. It consumes my energy all the time just to be normal in society.

With respectful regards,

Struggling with Studies & Friends

Dear Struggling with Studies & Friends,

I want to tell you a story.

About a decade ago, I worked as an assistant for a television company. My boss was in charge of an awards show that took place only six weeks after I started the job.

My position required me to support my boss in any way I possibly could. If he was going to the awards show, I was going to the awards show. If he was going to the fancy after-parties, I was going to the fancy after-parties. Basically, I had to stand in a concert hall full of people I barely knew—in a role where I was still finding my footing—and make tons of small talk. Then, I had to go to a party with even more people I didnt know and make even more small talk. And, for the sake of keeping my job, I had to pretend that I liked it. Whats more, it was an experience that everyone thought I was so lucky to have.

This experience was my own personal nightmare. It was as if the perfect storm of social anxiety had formed to rain its wrath upon my head. I would have given it up in a second.

Ever since I read your letter, Ive been thinking about that night a lot because it was also a huge turning point for me. It was the night when I realized that the uncomfortable situations were never going to stop—because I was always going to be introverted and there were always going to be times when people wanted me to act extroverted. This issue was never going away.

Struggling with Studies & Friends, its so unfair.

Lets just put that statement out there. Its deeply, desperately unfair that we as introverts are constantly asked to act in a way that is contrary to our nature. Its unfair that our quiet input is often overlooked for that of the loudmouth who is shooting off their opinions front and center. IT. IS. UNFAIR.

But such is life. We must face it head on.

Before we get into the practical stuff, we must address your need to be normal.My darling, normal”—whatever that is—is probably the most boring thing you could be. In your short letter, I can sense that you’re already bigger and greater than normal.You sound like an eager student, a good friend, and an interesting sports nut, who could probably knit the cutest scarf with your own two hands. You picked up and moved to a whole new country, which is indescribably brave. You didnt stay put in your comfortable bubble—you sought out an adventure. You say all your life you have been trying to be extroverted, but I have to ask: do you want to be extroverted? It sounds like youve managed to put together an interesting existence without this label.

If there was just one piece of advice I could give my younger self, it would be to care much less about other peoples expectations of me. So what if there are people who wish youd magically turn into an extrovert? In return, you should wish theyd keep their opinions to themselves. That probably wont happen either.

Now, onto what’s practical and achievable!

Ive told you about that long-ago night because as hard as it was for me, Struggling, it was also the beginning of a big change. Its when I started to realize that if I was going to be thrust into those types of situations, I would need two things. I would need to a) take good care of myself and b) get some help. And thats what worries me about you, Struggling. It doesnt sound like youre practicing self-care, and Im not sure youre actively seeking out guidance. Sure, youve reached out to me—and for that, I am truly honored—but these words will only get you so far. What about those in your immediate vicinity?

Have you gone to your professors and told them what a trial public speaking is for you? Im not suggesting you weasel your way out of presentations or anything, but have you said to your teachers, This is truly difficult for me, but I understand its part of the learning process, and I want to get better. Can you help me? Do you have any feedback on my presentations or tips that might be useful so I can improve?Then, listen to what they have to say. My intuition is telling me that you may be suffering in silence when you dont have to. I find a sincere request for help is often matched with a sincere desire to share advice. Will you think about trying this? (If it doesnt work, you can write me a very angry email, and I’ll read every word. Promise.) Asking for help feels like youre putting yourself in a vulnerable position. I know you already feel that way, so this wont be easy. But being able to ask for help is a great gift, and its often one not many people care to learn.

I also find that studying people who seem at ease with these interactions can be incredibly useful. The same boss I mentioned above was quite skillful at speaking in public and at all the subtleties that come with managing human interaction in a work environment. I paid attention to what he said and how he said it. I watched him very closely and tried to emulate his actions. Over time, as I grew more comfortable, I found I needed to rely less on mimicry and could achieve the comfort that he had with others in my own, more authentic and unique, style. But that mimicry is a useful tool in a pinch.

And I know youre a smart person, so youll understand that I am not telling you to stifle who you are. I am being realistic and acknowledging that there are times when you have to be more extroverted than you like. During the times when you must extend yourself beyond your comfort zone to achieve a goal, its helpful to have a trick or two up your sleeve. (And extroverts have to do this too, by the way—periodically, they have to leave their comfort zones full of talking and switch to silence and listening. It’s a two-way street.)

As far as time with your friends, I dont think we need to address this issue quite so much. I think you are judging yourself very harshly right now and that judgement is bleeding over into other areas of your life. Why do you have to be at the party all night? Cant you go for a few hours? Whats the harm in leaving when youve had enough? This is where you start practicing self-care. This is where you start saying, Okay, I had a presentation this week, so I wont be able to go to any parties this weekend.Or, Im a little burnt out, but I can manage to stop by for a drink.This is where you start exploring balance. (Remember when I said balance would come up a lot?) Social interactions are not an all-or-nothing thing. Have any of your friends actually told you, You must stay at this party all night, or else!? You are the only one who is putting this pressure on yourself.

The night of the awards show was one of the most uncomfortable nights of my life. Ill never forget how it made my skin crawl or how many times I wanted to retreat to the bathroom and cry. But I will leave you with this thought. Most of our lives are geared toward achieving comfort. (I mean, when were binge-watching Netflix and ordering off Seamless while Amazon Prime delivers our household necessities, what else are we doing but mainlining pure, unadulterated ease?) And yet, its the uncomfortable experiences that allow us to grow. No one ever rolled off a day on the couch and said, Well, that was life-changing.

Consciously or subconsciously, you have chosen to have uncomfortable experiences that allow you to grow. Its why you decided to attend a Master’s program in another country instead of staying in Portugal. People who do such things are the types of people who turn into stellar human beings. You are the type of person whom people want to know because you have a desire to grow.

And you will. You will grow into a person who maybe never loves giving presentations but can capably manage them and a person who can say to their friends, Thanks for inviting me out. I have to go home now. See you tomorrow!This is within your reach.

Sending you all my best thoughts,

The Social Introvert

Have a question about a personal or professional relationship problem? Email the Social Introvert at [email protected]!