The first time I really noticed I was different was when I was in high school. I was a dancer on the high school’s award winning dance team. I loved performing. I loved participating in discussions within the structure of a classroom. But when those same people whom I enjoyed so much in school or on the dance floor asked me to hang out on the weekend, I always made some excuse not to join. I liked those people. I wanted to partake in social festivities. But every time I would end up in that large room full of people, I felt uncomfortable. I’d always end up by myself, standing in the corner or sitting in a chair in some stranger’s living room with the hustle and bustle going on around me. After my many refusals to socialize or one too many awkward experiences with me, people stopped inviting me out. While part of me felt relieved, another part of me felt sorry for myself. I never was able to put my finger on the problem. I wanted to have the same “fun” experiences as everyone else, but at the same time, I never wanted to join the crowd.

I struggled with this through one semester of college, where overwhelming dorm life got the best of me, and I dropped out. The feelings of inadequacy were suffocating and depressing. I thought maybe a change of scenery would be beneficial. So, like every normal well-minded 18-year-old, I decided to take up a friend’s offer and buy a one-way ticket halfway around the world to Israel. My friend (who was more like an acquaintance) was from there, and he assured me that I would be able to “redefine” myself in some ways. Over the course of the trip, I didn’t really figure anything out about myself other than what I already knew—I didn’t fit in. After that failed attempt to reinvent myself, I moved back to the United States feeling more defeated than ever.

I made another attempt to fit into a mold when I joined the U.S. Army. I continued to wrestle with myself and my inability to connect to a majority of people. I was good at my job as a photojournalist, but always preferred to work on my own and at my own pace (which seemed to be faster than everyone else’s). While on a deployment, my insecurities were finally physically wearing on me. I spent a lot of my time crying in the showers or taking long walks around the base while my battle buddies were having unit barbecues or other gatherings. That’s when I realized that it might be time to see a therapist: my social anxiety was causing me severe depression—not because I didn’t enjoy being alone, but because I couldn’t be just like everyone else.

After a few years of confiding in a professional and working through my inner turmoil, I was able to figure out a few things:

First, I realized that my thirst for quiet and personal reflection wasn’t as damning as I thought. I was able to accomplish going to school full-time online while also working full-time. While my peers were out at the clubs on the weekend, I stayed in researching and doing homework. I finished my bachelor’s degree in English in just over two years.

Second, I realized how important my family is to me, my dog included. While I didn’t necessarily want the social experience, I did want the comfort and companionship that friendship so often brings. My dog, Thor, became my saving grace, and my family became my support.

Finally, I realized that my introspective tendencies didn’t make me worse than anyone else; they just made me different. And there are plenty of people like me. It’s just hard to meet them because we don’t exactly congregate at the local pub in our free time.

Toward the end of my six-year military career, someone recommended a book to me. I read Quiet by Susan Cain, and it rejuvenated my spirit as I found myself completely ecstatic that someone was able to see the worth and value in what and who I am. I am now in my late 20s; I am a high school English teacher; and I take pride in knowing that the students who come through my classroom door will not only tune into their social skills but be encouraged to nurture their quiet and self-contemplative skills as well. I love getting up in front of a group of people and sharing my ideas. But I also feel completely drained after doing it.

I now look forward to my quiet evenings and weekends and don’t force myself to be burdened with the thought of missing out on the latest social experiences. My husband is understanding of this as well, and I’m thankful that we both seem to enjoy the quiet in our lives. I am more secure and confident in myself than I’ve ever been. It took me over a decade to get here, but now that I am, I wouldn’t substitute any of my qualities to fit into any mold anywhere.

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