What Doesn’t Kill Us Makes Us Stronger

As we wrap up this Foreign Service thing, I find myself contemplating the contradictions in my life. Like being very good at moving while actually despising moving. Or having an “unconventional” resumé despite having been incredibly busy for 25+ years. Or being a hypothyroid cold weather hater who somehow ended up posted to three freezing Central European cities. And so on.

One of these contradictions is being an introvert in an environment that largely favors extroverts—or at least requires a lot of extroverted behavior. I have sure learned a lot about that over the last 29 years.

Many extroverts thinks that introverts don’t like to socialize, or don’t like people. They may even think we’re weird. That’s not the case. We aren’t weird, and we like people just fine. We just often find them to be a lot of work!

Now, consider how much time is spent in the Foreign Service either meeting new people, making new friends, or briefly socializing with complete strangers. None of this is actually easy for anyone, of course. That is one reason that the Foreign Service/expatriate lifestyle can be so stressful. But I think it is safe to say that it is all the more difficult for introverts.

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As an introvert, you need to know yourself. What you need, and what stresses you outIt’s not about what you can do. Most introverts can impersonate social butterflies when necessary. Many actors are actually introverts! It’s about balancing the cost of those performances with your own mental health.

When we first went overseas, I did not understand why I didn’t enjoy the chance to “meet new people” at receptions. I knew the word “introvert,” of course, but in 1989 I couldn’t exactly Google for more information. My extroverted FSO spouse already thought it was weird that I didn’t like these events, and so he was at a loss to explain my absence from them.

Eventually, I understood that these diplomatic mixers were just plain tiring for me—especially when we became a family and I decided to stay home with the kids. If I were an extrovert, I might have jumped at the chance to dress up and have an adult conversation in the evening. But I really needed to read a book after the kids went to bed. Alone. And so that’s what I usually did.

Few people in the diplomatic community really care about spousal attendance at receptions anymore, but at the time, some (including my husband on occasion) thought I was not a properly supportive spouse. To avoid conflict, I didn’t deal with the problem as straightforwardly as I should have. I would put off a decision on an event until it was too late to get a babysitter, for example, instead of just firmly saying “no thank you.”

A large official event is a challenging and tiring mental task for which I have to work up an energy level that I may not be able to maintain for as long as the event lasts. In fact, I might find it a lot harder to be “diplomatic” as the evening wears on because I’m getting tired and cranky. So, I might leave undiplomatically early. (It’s better that way, trust me.)

Typically for an introvert, I just don’t get a lot out of small talk or superficial relationships. So, whatever “charge” an extrovert might get out of the simple act of socializing at a big event is lost on me. There’s just no payoff there for all the hard work.

There is a difference between the necessity of making small talk with a person who may become a friend, and a person who is only talking to you at all because of your spouse’s job— and who will wander off as soon as more useful person walks by. Now that is a superficial relationship.

As a spouse, I’m not actually paid to attend receptions. So, I am expected to perform an activity for which I am completely unsuited, for which I will get no credit, and for which I receive no compensation. Probably while wearing uncomfortable clothes. Can’t imagine why I would not be excited about all that!

Some recommend the wine solution. There’s no doubt that a glass (or three) of the grape can make a command performance easier. But I prefer not to put myself in the situation unless absolutely necessary.  I have attended exactly one big reception at my current post, and that was because my husband asked very nicely. My days of being unpaid arm candy have been over for some time now. Best quality of life decision ever.

As an introvert, you have to set the boundaries that work for you. You might decide (as I did) that official dinner parties are manageable, but big receptions are asking too much. Whatever “rule of thumb” you come up with and politely enforce is bound to be better in the long run than avoiding the subject!

There remains another challenge for the introverted trailing spouse: the necessity of meeting new people at any post. That’s not so bad. Yes, it is also a job, but we get “paid” for the effort with new and interesting friends. On our own terms, and at our own pace!

When I arrive at a post, I look for social situations that I am comfortable with. Introverted doesn’t always mean shy, after all. I just prefer smaller groups and engaging in activities while socializing. Playgroups and other kids’ activities worked pretty well for this years ago. Nowadays, I join groups and take classes. Eventually, I get to know the people in those activities and classes. It’s just that simple. (And not at all weird!)

Being an introvert doesn’t mean that I don’t like people. It just means that I like to choose my own people!

So, find a comfortable way to put yourself “out there” socially. For some, that means volunteering, or signing up for classes. For others, it means getting a job. It doesn’t matter which method you choose, if you are doing what you want to be doing, the personal connections will follow. Just give it a little time.

It may be difficult to be an introverted trailing spouse, but we do have one clear advantage—particularly these days, when EFM jobs are scarce. We may sometimes be lonely, but we are hardly ever bored. After all, we’re the kids who could entertain ourselves for hours with sticks and rocks! Until the friendships “click” at post, we’ll be going a whole lot less crazy than the extrovert who is climbing the walls without a job.

So, there’s that. And, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Right?

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56 comments

  1. Had to keep asking myself if I didn’t write this exact piece about myself, right down to the cold-hating, hypothyroid bit. Seeing a fellow introvert survive for so long gives me hope I’ll get it down one day. 🙂

    Liked by 16 people

    • Trying to explain that different is not wrong it is just different and telling me that a large party will bring me out of my self! but a large or small gathering does allow for small gatherings of one to one where the introvert who can listen actively can help the fellow introvert or the most extreme extravert to express the thing that matters to them.
      A past vicar at the church I attend decided those with leadership roles should all go on to a Myas Briggs personality assessment. When we later meet to have a team assessment we were given our results three members of the team had similar results to each other two of us had exact opposite results therefore we were partnered up to discuss how this affected us. First response oddly as I am an introvert I said no wonder I have always been frightened of you to which he replied no wonder I always felt I need a hand book to work you out. We then talked about our areas of similarity our beliefs. Using the notes we had been given we agreed that we both had areas of strength and weakness which we could use to help each other. From that point on we not only became friends but also had a deep respect for the different strengths found in each other.

      Liked by 7 people

  2. I feel similarly about going back to America. It’s inevitable that we will go back and there are many things I miss, but when I’m back I’m sure I’ll be a bit homesick for Britain as well.

    Liked by 11 people

  3. I can defiantly see both sides of this (I think) but at the same time, being introverted is foreign to me. I do find people tiring at times but at the same time, I just love crowds. I don’t really go to social gatherings to meet anybody, I just like the energy. But I do see how it can be equally overwhelming for at times I loathe having to initial conversations or jump in a group to keep on the ball, but usually once I do, I have a blast and may even come out with a new friend. Maybe my perception isn’t what most of you are actually feeling, but in ways it feels like a similar and relatable experience from what i’ve read here.

    Liked by 10 people

  4. Thank you for sharing this and helping some to grasp and understand how it feels or what it is like to be a “introvert”. I particularly don’t care for the labeling, but it is what it is right? What spoke to and about me was the working up the energy to truly just deal with people! That is the truth! It takes alot out of an introvert to do so at times. Comfort has to be established and that means time spent, and nowadays seems like everything is fast forwarded so rarely is the time spent. That and because most are afraid of “wasting” time. Again, thank you for sharing even some of my madness as I can relate🙂

    Liked by 10 people

  5. This post makes me realize that it’s not wrong to be an introvert.

    I am currently looking for a place to intern, and everyone (mostly teachers and supervisors) keep saying that I have to be an extrovert to get a job. That kind of turning me down, and I began to get anxious about every single thing I always do. But your post shows me that I don’t have to change myself to meet people’s expectations. I will keep on trying, and I will keep on being myself.

    Thank you for the great post, right at the moment I feel down. : )

    Liked by 14 people

  6. It indeed gets very weird sometimes.. I feel embarased in situations where I had to put myself up. Ironically I do not feel bad about puiblic speaking, but intractions with people is not my cup of tea.

    Liked by 9 people

  7. Lovely piece. Earlier in my career, I did find myself in a job that required so much socializing, networking and visibility which was totally overwhelming for me. At the time, I too did not quite understand how to take care of myself as an introvert and this adversely affected my work. In the end, I ended up leaving that position and organization completely.

    At the time, I blamed myself quite severely for not being able to handle that position. But as we learn more about introversion and as information becomes more available, I understand better why it was so overwhelming for me.

    Thanks for sharing. Great ideas too for ways that we as introverts can get out there.

    Liked by 10 people

  8. Yes, yes, yes! I agree so much about the importance of knowing your limits/boundaries. I am an academic librarian, and instruction is a big chunk of my job. I enjoy teaching college students, but when I’m setting up my schedule of classes, I’m very mindful to have no more than three per day (or just two, if at all possible). Otherwise, I can feel my energy start to fade and my effectiveness as an instructor definitely goes downhill.

    Liked by 9 people

  9. So Nice to know I am not the only one! “I just don’t get a lot out of small talk or superficial relationships” I worked 20 years in public service, but I never got the small talk. People want to talk about themselves but never ask about you or really care.

    Now I work from my home selling pet supplies online. I still talk with people but not so much small talk and I get out into the world everyday with my dog at the dog park. People who we all have one thing in common, dogs.

    I think if people talked more about what really matters or about things of substance I would be better able to talk with them.

    Liked by 9 people

  10. I can relate! I like small gatherings and being with people…. but large social functions are very difficult. When I do have to attend, it IS exhausting. Thank you for capturing how you feel so well. It’s nice to have company.

    Liked by 10 people

  11. Over here being an introvert is just advertising to get picked on 😑off course we can camouflage ourselves BT in d end revealing Ur true self in this unbalanced society only does harm either ways a wonderful article love it!!!!

    Liked by 7 people

  12. Thank you for sharing your article .Being introvert is just a part of ones personality.But there is more to it.I really like your sense of humour.I usually used to feel a little like this when I went to other country.

    Liked by 7 people

  13. You’re so on point! It takes one introvert to know another. The thing is- majority of introverts aren’t shy at all as you rightly stated. Some actually come off as extroverts when they put their minds on it to socialize. Truth is- it’s tiring. A lot of people don’t get why one might prefer a good book, a quiet time, to meeting friends- making new ones, chitchating at a social gathering/parties. I don’t even bother explaining myself to anyone. Lol. It actually takes a while for an introvert to realize what works or not, for him/her. Thanks for this lovely piece- author. It was a wonderful read.

    Liked by 11 people

    • I am not in the role of spouse but I often have to attend functions for work. It’s dreadful. I usually make a point of seeing everyone I need to see – as quickly as possible – and then I go for the Irish goodbye. I have also learned how to smile like I care and that seems to go far for many people: No conversation required

      Liked by 3 people

  14. I used to consider myself an extrovert but in the last couple of years I have retreated, people are a lot of work, I agree. They can suck the good right out of you. Kudos for you for knowing what you need and being kind to yourself!

    Liked by 4 people

  15. I agree that being an introvert doesn’t mean we don’t like people or social settings per se. For me personally, being an introvert means I don’t behave around strangers the same way I behave around people with whom I’m comfortable.

    But that ice can always be broken.

    Liked by 5 people

  16. I appreciate your perspective on being an introvert in a relationship with an extrovert. My husband tries to be understanding when I turn down invitations to join him at work functions but I know it is disappointing to him. I wish it was easier for me to deal with groups of people in high energy situations. He gains so much energy from being around crowds of people while I am completely drained.

    Liked by 5 people

  17. I found this article inspiring and easy to relate to. I’m very much an introvert, and have also always struggled with various ailments, some of the mind and some otherwise…but I’ve learned how important a “safety net” can be, and am trying to learn to look at things more positively. I truly hope to use my past to push me forward. You’ve given me a bit more courage, so I thank you!

    Liked by 3 people

  18. “Being an introvert doesn’t mean that I don’t like people. It just means that I like to choose my own people”
    And I usually entertain myself with sticks and rocks. That is very similar to who I am 🙂
    This is really good.

    Liked by 5 people

  19. Great point! Being introverted is not appreciated in China too, especially in the family environment I grew up. I was a quiet kid and that really worried my parents. When I joined the work force, I tried so hard to remove the impression of me being an introvert and that really tired me up. It took me a long time to accept who I really am. Your article speaks to me! Thanks for sharing it!:)

    Liked by 4 people

  20. Love it. I reject the label of introvert but I know those traits describe me.

    Youve included powerful advice. Personally I will work more on:

    “So, find a comfortable way to put yourself “out there” socially. For some, that means volunteering, or signing up for classes. For others, it means getting a job. It doesn’t matter which method you choose, if you are doing what you want to be doing, the personal connections will follow. Just give it a little time.”

    I’m exiting a stretch where I had no friends because I lived in a bubble of too much quiet time.

    Thanks for sharing. Awsome writing and advice.

    Liked by 3 people

  21. Well.. I consider myself to be an “ambivert” which is a person who’s both an introvert and an extrovert. So, basically I have been on the both sides of the story.
    As an Extrovert – I have been all chirpy, talking to almost any person I encounter with because a part of me loves it.
    But the introvert one would have rather sat in her comfy pyjamas at home with a book orwatching friends rather than attending any gathering or sth. So basically..
    I loved your article because like everyone, I could connect to it too.. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  22. Oh my word! I can totally relate. I was in an all girls boarding school for 6 long years and I had one of the worst experiences ever. Sticks and stones may break my bones but nothing they aren’t going to do anything to my confidence and my drive…Thank you so much for this.

    Liked by 3 people

  23. I really enjoyed this . I love social functions and being able to get out and talk to people and in that way I am extroverted . But I am also very introverted and I need my own space to rejuvenate . Spending too much time around people can physically drain me ,especially if I haven’t been balanced and ensured that I have had time out from people on my own . Again a great read !

    Liked by 3 people

  24. I think the labels introvert and extrovert oversimplify things. I can talk to most people (although there are some I try to avoid) but am always happy with my own company, reading, writing articles and stories or listening to music. And the think I’ve missed most since I became disabled is not being able to take long, solitary walks over the moors of northern England.

    Liked by 2 people

  25. Thank you! I am an introvert myself and its hard to be yourself without seeming aloof, or to explain to someone that its nothing personal, when you don’t want to attend social gatherings. I think its great that you found what works for you. This was a great read for all people including those that are extroverted because it gives them a peak into what it feels like to be an introvert!

    Liked by 2 people

  26. Oh my, how on the spot for me! It’s true, it’s not that I don’t like people, I like to choose my people. Get-togethers just exhaust me. I find it difficult to engage in small talk. My supervisor tells me I’m to the point & would do better to use more words. Not easy.

    Liked by 2 people

  27. This truly spoke to me. I have found that with recent self-reflection and that I am indeed quite introverted. It might come as a surprise to the people who don’t really know me but to my family and close friends, I really identify with what you are saying. You need to know yourself. I am still figuring that out every day but I’ve found recently after moving to a new city that I want to do fun things and be around new people but I hate not being “myself” around a new crowd so I spend a lot of time alone before a big day of being around a lot of people! I am thankful for you to put my similar feelings into words!

    Liked by 3 people

  28. I really like this. Especially the line “It’s about balancing the cost of those performances with your own mental health.” Most people fail to realise that you need a balance in many aspects of your life. Your mental health is important so thank you for touching upon that.

    Liked by 3 people

  29. I love this! I myself am pretty much an introvert too, though I do love people! Which is something most people don’t realize – that introverts actually love people, too 😉 It’s just how you said, being around people might be a little too difficult sometimes… 🙂 and I do enjoy my alone time.

    Liked by 1 person

  30. Thank you for posting this. I don’t like big crowds, I also prefer smaller groups and socializing with real people. But I don’t exactly call myself and introvert.

    Like

  31. Exactly!! Few people have been exposed to my introvert side long enough to even know it exists!! Part of that is being a listener. People LOVE people who listen to them. I suggest “How to Win Friends & Influence People”. For me the name of the book could have been “How to Navigate the Extrovert World”. Lol

    Like

  32. Wow!! Here I was thinking I was alone or is was just my anxiety or just me being a snob. Turns out I am just an introvert. This was a great read. ❤️

    Like

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