February 27, 2016 by Julia
I forget sometimes in the hustle of daily life that relationships are where it’s at. If I start to wonder, at the most depressing point of the day around 4:30 or 5:00, when everyone’s getting cranky and tired and the sun is casting those orange, nostalgic rays as it goes down, what is the point? I now remind myself that it’s time to connect with someone I love. That’s it.
People are not something to rush through so I can finish up my paperwork or go clean the bathroom. The paperwork and bathroom are things I rush through so that I can be with my people. I get it mixed up, sometimes.
Of course I know that being with friends or family is more fun than wiping around the base of my toilet. But as an introverted, somewhat anxious mother to young kids, my default goal is: Find a little space and time to be alone, without a list of unfinished tasks plaguing me. So I shave off minutes of time here or there with my children, friends, husband in order to wipe down that toilet base. Just so that I can read in bed a little at night with peace of mind.
But although I need those moments alone, and I guard that time fiercely – it’s not nearly enough.
And therein lies the struggle of every introverted, anxious, shy, over-analytical, etc. etc. person who is drained by too much social interaction, but still can’t live without it because, duh, we too need and want people in order to be happy. How do we maintain our relationships without burning out? How do we protect our own little plot of space without feeling guilty for needing it all to ourselves on a regularly scheduled basis? How can we continue to be good and kind to others, without feeling burdened by all the parts that feel too much like work to us?
I’ve been trying to cherish my relationships more, and make them easier for me.
At one point a few weeks ago, as I was worrying needlessly about someone else’s issue, I suddenly realized: it’s not my job as a friend to fix this. It is my job as a friend to be a good friend, which means all I have to do is care, listen and be myself. The concept of separating social tasks into two categories – “my job,” and “not my job” – is incredibly liberating to me.
A few examples:
A friend asks me to come out for coffee at the last minute. I am actually free but had planned to read or write for the afternoon while Dennis watches the kids. I like the friend’s company and I care about her, but I am plunged into near-despair over the possible loss of my alone time. I don’t do well with spontaneous social events and haven’t had time to mentally prepare or psych myself up for it.
But I fear that if I say no, I am being a bad friend. After all, it’s just coffee, and I am not busy with anyone but my self. (These are very real thoughts that I’ve had on a recurring basis, whether they are in reaction to a dear old friend, or a half-aquaintance. It has nothing to do with the person in particular.)
Not my job: making sure my friend has the perfect afternoon.
Not my job: lying about why I’m busy so that I don’t hurt her feelings.
My job: caring enough about my friend to ask how she’s doing, and based on her answer, making plans later on that day (giving myself enough alone time, as well as time to mentally prepare for socialization, don’t laugh at me…), or later on in the week, depending on whether she needs to talk, or was just looking to hang out for fun.
My job: being honest with my friend about my plans, even if I worry that it’s not a good excuse for saying no.
There are multiple benefits for such honesty, like – you don’t have to keep track of what you’ve told different people. (Transparency is so much less stressful.)
You also open the door to greater closeness with your friend, if you show them who you really are. You give your friend permission to bail out or be a flake if she needs to, without concern that you will disapprove, because let’s be real, we’ve all done it.
And last but not least, what kind of shitty friend wants you to come out even if you dread going out at that particular moment? Let’s give our friends the benefit of the doubt and assume that they want us to hang out because we literally want to – not out of obligation.
Another scenario: My friend has habits or traits that seem less-than-desirable to me. Sometimes these habits affect me, but it goes beyond that. I start to think about how her life would be better if she would just quit doing this, or start doing that, or essentially change the way she’s approaching things.
(If you’re a friend reading this, I’m not writing about you, okay? I’m writing about Susie. She doesn’t follow my blog. Which clearly is one of her many bad life choices.)
Anyway, this is another thing we all do, even the less controlling types among us. It must be part of our nature to think we know how to improve upon other people’s temperaments or choices. It’s not kind, though, even if we go down that road with good intentions.
I certainly don’t want my friends seeing me as a quivering mass of foolish problems. I will tell them what my problems are. Hopefully I will figure out solutions to my problems, as we talk it through, like you might in therapy.
So if I am for whatever reason stressed out by my friend’s issues and am thinking I should show them the light or solve their problems for them, I would do better to remember that is not my freaking job, lady.
And thank God for that. Because I have enough on my own plate, here. My job in most relationships is to accept the other person as is, in hopes that they will do the same for me. It’s simple. If I start to think I know better than them, I just remember all the times I’ve struggled, or will struggle, and take it from there.
Last scenario: I can’t tell what my friend means by her last text or email, and I’m worried I’ve offended her. In fact, I worry all day. The mental effort of trying to read between the lines exhausts me. After all of this, I still have no idea if she’s upset or if I’ve merely imagined myself into a worst-case-scenario tizzy.
My job is not to imagine what my friend really means. In this age of constant written communication, which is usually composed while multitasking or distracted, there are too many ways to misunderstand or jump to conclusions. I have to let the guessing games go, and just assume that my friend is okay unless she is telling me otherwise.
Don’t get me wrong – if I’ve actually behaved badly, then it is my job to apologize and try to make it right. I’m also not saying we should ignore major hints that someone is upset – social interaction isn’t always going to be clear or direct, as much as we try – but I can’t allow myself to stress about things like a lack of response to a text. That delayed or brief response may or may not have anything to with me. We all have super busy days where we just can’t get back to someone. It’s not personal.
By the same token, I shouldn’t treat every text I receive as an emergency and thus burn myself out. If we’re all going to be part of this New Texting World, we just have to agree to relax about texts, and agree to call when it’s really important. I’m trying to relax, lately. Part of my job is to protect my own peace, so that I have enough to give when it’s really needed.
Back to my point, which as usual I’ve been figuring out as I go along here.
I’ve gotten much better about cleaning my bathroom weekly, and I feel better because of it. Making time to clean helps in general. But that clean toilet is not the point. The clean toilet merely supports other points, but can never be enough, in and of itself. Enough-ness lies in protecting my alone time without defensiveness or guilt, but also remembering how much I need people in order to be happy. If I follow the push and pull of my spirit, I can take care of myself as well as others, without letting myself or my loved ones down. It’s possible.
We know full well the joys of being alone, but I must remind myself and my fellow introverts why all the work of being social is worth it:
With others I can be silly and passionate about stuff in ways that I can’t quite achieve by myself. How often do you laugh by yourself?
Nothing can touch the near-mystical communion of when two people or ten people are sharing their truest, best, worst selves with each other.
And we can’t survive without each other. When we are lost, we must reach out for a guiding hand or die. Nothing will bring us out of the fog like that person’s pulse, the warmth of his lifeblood reminding that we still care about people, if nothing else in that dreadful moment. And they care about us.
If you haven’t arrived at a truth that contains hope, it’s not the final truth on that subject.
So go ahead and be alone, quiet and loud spirits alike, because that is good. But don’t let anxiety distract you from your people. Hang on for the dearest parts of life.