Many months ago, I was leaving a party held at a home in some exclusive and wealthy neighborhood whose name I cannot remember after a night of uncomfortably pounding seltzer waters and trying to conjure up a modest sum of charm from a well that had long gone dry.
I remember the feeling clearly. I’d been invited by an especially funny and magnanimous doctor who wanted to introduce me to his circle of friends. I’d thought of declining the offer to attend and flubbing some half-hearted excuse about “family matters that needed attending to”, but figured that he would see right through that and rightly dismiss me as a flake, ending our promising acquaintance then and there. I went, despite my aversion.
While I was there, having learned some hard lessons about the perils of mitigating my powerful introversion with alcohol, I committed myself to taking one drink. I thought I could launch an Olympian effort to cultivate the sense that I was a friendly, open, easygoing person with whomever I happened to run across that night.
Only half of that was a success. I did have one drink—a vodka soda with a splash of lime. It was easy for me to stop there, because I’d begun a rigorous training program, and my prudent anxiety about jeopardizing the progression of my physical fitness, paired with my worry that I might come off as too free-wheeling if I drank any more than that meant that self-control would have to be the order of the day.
As for cultivating an impression of my warm, easygoing nature? That was an absolute failure.
I’m kind, compassionate, deeply invested in others, and very loving. I am not warm or easy going. I am incisive, exacting, and hard to really know. I’ve been accused of being frigid and imperious more than once. I don’t try to be, but, well, I think I’m simply drawn that way. What’s more, it’s how I’ve survived a world that is constantly evaluating and prying at your very being.
I used to internally protest when I would learn from a secondhand source that someone had gathered the impression that I was not a particularly nice person—that I was icy.
“I’m not a generally cold person,” I’d think. “I’m just really shy.”
Well, no. A lot of the time, I’m definitely both. I spend a lot of time wondering about what other people think and how they feel (I do this, in many ways, for a living). I’m unnerved by their capriciousness and unreliability even as I endeavor to understand it with grace. I like to keep my fate out of other people’s hands as much as possible, because I understand how easily a person can break or discard (intentionally or otherwise) something as serious as a life—their own, and others.
Anyway, I listened to conversations but felt little urge to participate in them; the small talk about happenings in entertainment about which I knew little did not interest me, and while I was eager to make new friends in a city where I’d yet to cultivate any but those built up in my childhood, the draw of my habitual cold, aloofness toward strangers was too strong for me to overcome without the social lubricant of more liquor.
As I stiffly navigated questions about my work and how I knew the host (he was an extravert attempting, apparently, to adopt his latest introvert project), I felt myself growing only colder and more reserved. I preferred not to reveal too much about myself, and was thinking about how long I should stay before it would be appropriate to make an exit. I thought it was important to be there just long enough to seem grateful for the invitation, but no more than that, because a party filled with vibrantly social people would hold no quarter for a shrinking violet who shouldn’t have been.
Somehow, despite myself, I did make a couple of friends that night. An especially dedicated young, black television producer had spent much of the night encouraging me to pursue roles on screen, that I had a remarkable speaking voice, and that I could be a model if I wanted to. I did not tell him that I had been a model in another life—and that I’d cast that life away in favor of becoming a businessman, because I found the social conventions of the fashion industry as uncomfortable as I did this party.
I did tell him that I preferred to work behind the scenes, independently.
“I think the limelight withers certain people, and I include myself among them,” I said, or something along those lines.
I knew that well because, once upon a time in my life, I spent quite a bit of time on stage. I was good at what I did, but I never reached—or left—a performance engagement feeling good about it. After almost every show I’d ever played, I quickly retreated because the thought of having to talk to people after having displayed myself before them so brazenly made me feel sick.
All I could think during those moments was, “There are things I need to improve—and I need to escape!”
When I was leaving that night, he and his friends invited me to join them at another party in town. I graciously declined because I was tired… of parties, of trying to be comfortable in environments that I deeply disliked, and of forcing myself to adapt to a social openness that deep down—and perhaps to the surprise of many people who have known throughout the years—I find antithetical to the core of my being.
During the drive home, it occurred to me for the first time in my life that I could not survive a meaningfully shared life with such socially vibrant people. I could not navigate the openness of their worlds without being bruised, which I should have known for so much of my life before. Moreover, I did not want to. Not because I feared leaving my comfort zone, but because, for once, I thought that maybe I didn’t like to feel emotionally compromised after all. There is much that I prefer to keep to myself, and there are few people that I like to share unbridled, unmoderated emotional space with.
Months before, someone that I had strong feelings for told me that they felt that I was “holding back” from them, and from everyone else. Couldn’t I just open up a little bit? Couldn’t I be vulnerable by default?
I thought about that on the drive home and concluded that the answer was yes… I could do that if I felt that the circumstances were right. But so often they aren’t, and perhaps it makes little sense to pretend otherwise.
A while ago—I can’t remember when exactly—another friend I admire tremendously and might have loved at one point expressed their eagerness to go partying with me someday. I responded, but intentionally avoided any talk of plans.
I thought of the times that we’d done this before and realized that I had yet to come away from even one of those experiences feeling emotionally fulfilled, safe, or cared for (none of which was really their responsibility; I did not ask for this and they did not offer it). Instead, I felt insecure, exposed, wanting, and like I should have listened to my first instinct upon meeting them—that I would end up bruising my ego if I tried to live life in the way that they do, or tried to meet their expectations in any way.
I concluded that the likelihood of my going to a party of any kind, any time soon, was minimal—and, perhaps, that I should be happy about whatever emotional distance existed between me and this person. I would never be able to live life authentically or happily at their pace, or their method of navigating the world. To force the issue would only do me harm, ultimately.
There was a power in realizing this.
Finally, I could let go of wanting anything more than a polite correspondence with people whose life into which I cannot otherwise fit.
I could guiltlessly restructure the foci of my life around cultivating a private joy—and fully embrace what some part of me has always known throughout these years I’ve spent in perpetual travel, on the fringes of many lives but not really in the thick of them:
It’s quite nice to be extremely selective about your company and to otherwise stand alone.
Understandably, musings like this might indict me as a little bit self-absorbed. Somehow, I think I can survive that charge just fine.