When Your Ideal Self Isn’t Your Real Self

I can remember the moment it first crossed my mind that I might be an introvert.

It was my 25th birthday, and I was hiding under my covers in the middle of the day in the flat I shared with my boyfriend (now husband).

“This,” I thought to myself as I shoved in my earplugs despite the flat being empty, “this right here is not the behavior of someone who thrives on social contact.” We’d had friends over for my birthday lunch—close friends, whom I loved dearly—but, as usual, once my visitors had left, I’d felt a desperate need to be alone. In the dark. In complete silence. So Steve took himself off to the gym as I took to our bed to recharge.

“Perhaps other people don’t need to do this,” I considered, lying completely naked beneath cool sheets in an effort to lower my temperature. It increases the moment a guest arrives. My skin turns pink when someone steps through the front door and glows ever more brightly throughout their stay until I’m positively fluorescent by the time they leave. That day had been worse than usual—the double whammy of birthday pressure and making lunch for 10 guests in our tiny flat had sent me radioactive. For the last hour of my party, I was counting down the minutes until I could retire to my bedroom to stabilize. That’s how it feels—like I need solitude to normalize, to feel myself again.

“Perhaps other people remain a perfectly ordinary temperature in company,” I mused in the darkness, fanning my pits. “Perhaps they even enjoy their own birthday parties. Maybe they like making small talk? Maybe other people don’t hide in the fruit aisle when they see an acquaintance in the supermarket? Perhaps they EMERGE FROM THE BANANAS TO SEEK OUT CONVERSATION?”

I chortled to myself at such a bizarre concept before dismissing the idea as ludicrous. Other people were no different. We all found socializing stressful. We all took refuge among the raspberries. Or so I continued to tell myself for another five years.

I was desperate to be an outgoing, gregarious, and uninhibited extrovert, and I could find evidence to support my case. I loved performing on stage. I was happy to stand up at book festivals and talk about my novels. I could hold my own at a dinner party, and I invited people over to my house all the time. Never mind that I was apprehensive about it for hours beforehand and had to hide under the duvet once my visitors had left. When people were right there in front of me, I was a pretty decent host. And that’s what counted, right?

It was the same at school. Secretly, I preferred to stay in and read than go to any sort of party, but—boy, oh boy—once I was AT the party, I was FUN. I made quite sure of it. I didn’t feel as if I had a choice. So yes, I flirted and danced and chatted with the best of them, though my voice didn’t carry as well as other people’s, and I always felt as if I had to yell over the music to make myself heard. The effort was tiring, and my head often throbbed while I pretended to laugh at a joke I’d missed because my brain was floating above the scene, analyzing it, telling me what to do next to appear more sociable. I was rarely caught up in the moment; that happened at home, with my stories, either reading or writing them. Fiction felt more real to me because in some way my social life was a lie.

I could only keep up the pretence for a few hours at a time. At university, I’d turn on my shower without getting in to convince people I was in the bathroom so I could have a break from socializing. When I moved to London, I’d secretly nip off to the cinema after work so I could delay my return to the flat I shared with friends. In the office of my first job, I’d spend my lunch breaks locked in the disabled bathroom reading The Lord of the Rings to avoid the canteen. When traveling the world with my husband, we’d shun other backpackers because making small talk with casual acquaintances would have burst our beautifully serene, newly-wed bubble. Besides, I was writing my first novel at the time. Spending hours on end with my characters was infinitely preferable to socializing with strangers—not that you would have guessed it had you met me in a youth hostel in South America. I worked hard to hide my introverted nature, even from myself.

For the first 30 years of my life, had you asked me where I fall on the introversion-extroversion scale, I’d have answered, “Right over there with the hardcore extroverts.” So what if I was a little quiet behind closed doors? In public, I was friendly and confident and determined to put on a show. But that was precisely the problem: it was all for show. In my head, being sociable was synonymous with being a competent human being; to admit I found it difficult was akin to telling the world I was in some way defective. Inadequate. Less than. This was what I’d been taught, after all. And so I pretended…until I couldn’t pretend anymore.

In my late twenties, I suffered with anxiety and depression, exhausted and deflated from the failed attempt to live up to the ideal version of myself I’d constructed in my mind. I simply couldn’t do it a second longer. The gap between the Annabel I presented to the rest of the world and the Annabel I was inside was too wide, and I had to do something to bridge it. So I saw a therapist. I meditated. And I read. It’s taken a huge amount of painful effort, self-compassion, and re-education, but now I can honestly say I’ve let go of any sense that I “should” be anything other than who I am.

So, no. I’m not an extrovert. Not even close. I am a proud, full-blown, hide-behind-the-bananas introvert. And that’s absolutely fine by me. Because for every one thing my introversion makes difficult, I am rewarded a thousand times over by the things it makes easy. My introverted nature allows me to be a patient and empathetic listener, to be moved deeply by poetry and nature and art, to sense the atmosphere of a room or the mood of a loved one, and to know instinctively how to act.

Strangely, it enables me to be a better public speaker and a more considerate host because I’m acutely aware of other people’s boredom levels. My introversion means that I’m happy to travel alone and that I’m self-sufficient, a thinker, and a dreamer with grand plans. It causes me to seek out silence, solitude, and the spiritual. And above all, it enables me to write—my greatest passion.

My latest novel, Silence Is Goldfish, is about a 15-year-old introvert called Tess, a girl happiest on the periphery, “a Pluto in the solar system of life” with a father who’d prefer her to be “a Mercury.” She spends her life wearing her “personality like a clown hat”’ to please other people until she discovers a devastating family secret that renders her speechless. The story is about how she learns to find her voice—her true voice—and to accept herself as the introvert she is.

It’s something I’m learning to do too. For my birthday this year, at the wise old age of 34, I finally had the guts to organize the sort of celebration I might actually enjoy: I booked myself into a spa hotel and spent 24 blissful hours in complete isolation. My temperature remained a perfectly normal 37 degrees Celsius.

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  • Nicola Robb

    This is such a beautifully written piece, it has inspired me to search out your novels. I identify with your story so strongly, she says propped up in bed with a pot of tea beside me and the curtains still pulled having sent a message to say I won’t be coming to the weekend event I’m meant to be at. I was conflicted and uneasy about going, though once I meditated on it I realised I was attempting to do right by others rather than taking my own needs into account. Ah, such blessed sweet relief to let go of the guilt and take care of myself by doing what nourishes and nurtures me so I have the energy to return to work on Monday feeling refreshed and revitalized.