“When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, we are not pretending, we are not hiding—we are simply present with whatever is going on inside us. Ironically, it is this very feeling of authenticity that draws people to us, not the brittle effort of perfectionism.” ~Maureen Cooper
Most people in my life would call me an extrovert, and I often refer to myself with that label as well. On the surface, I appear friendly, talkative, and enthusiastic, and those characteristics became part of my identity at an early age. I enjoy being around other people and value my interpersonal relationships.
I also participate in a variety of social groups and remain connected to friends near and far despite our busy schedules. I have often attributed my love of people to the fact that I am an only child who always wanted to spend more time with kids my own age.
Despite my friendly nature, I usually felt drained after social interactions, especially when they involved large groups of people. I dreaded small talk, mingling at parties, and attending events where I was the only new person in the group.
For example, my anxiety was sky high when I met my husband’s large group of close friends for the first time. I felt intimidated because they had all known each other since preschool, which automatically made me feel like an outsider. As a child and young adult, I tended to avoid situations where I felt uncomfortable, preferring to focus on the environments and people that I already knew.
Even in familiar social situations, I still often came home feeling depleted. I enjoyed myself during these events but required a lot of downtime to fully recover and feel like myself again. This reaction confused me because I thought extroverts craved and felt energized by social interactions.
I struggled to classify myself because neither introvert nor extrovert truly matched my personal experience. I often felt torn between wanting to attend social events and worrying that I would feel exhausted afterward. These conflicting desires prompted me to explore the reasons why being social fed and depleted my soul at the same time.
This journey would hopefully allow me to develop a deeper level of self-awareness and learn how to take better care of myself. As I paid more attention to my thoughts, feelings, and behavior at social events, I noticed that I was hyper focused on how I came across to others. I wanted to be liked, make a good impression, and be viewed as fun.
I frequently wondered what people genuinely thought of me, including friends that I had known for years. I also worried a great deal about others’ feelings and wanted to make sure that everyone was having a good time. As the host of parties or gatherings, I went out of my way to ensure that the house was spotless, the food options were plentiful, and the environment was comfortable.
I avoided choosing group activities out of fear that people would not like my decisions and from a desire to be known as the “easy-going, chill friend.” Even when I wasn’t the host, I found myself studying everyone’s reactions to see if they were happy and had their needs met fully. I made it my responsibility to take care of everyone even though no one asked me to be the superhero.
If someone wasn’t in a good mood or a conflict arose, I immediately intervened to be the peacemaker or crack a joke to lighten the mood. I also did my best to keep the focus and attention away from me. I acted like an interviewer, asking other people endless questions and rarely sharing about my own life.
I hated any silence within the conversation and would quickly fill it by bringing up a new topic or giving compliments. I began to realize that even my closest friends didn’t know much about me because I was so guarded with them. My fear of boring others, seeming conceited, or talking too much prevented me from being honest and authentic.
For most of my life, I thought these behaviors were typical and even smart ways to be a good friend. I wanted others to accept me and enjoy being around me, but my ways of accomplishing these goals left me exhausted at the end of the day. Upon realizing how I navigated social interactions, I chose to examine why I needed these techniques and how they affected my view of interpersonal relationships.
Up until this point, I believed that my behaviors were simply proof of my strong social skills, compassion, and emotional intelligence. I also assumed that most people thought and acted similarly to me because it was so natural and automatic in my life. In reality, my behavior involved coping strategies that I had developed from an early age due to an intense fear of being left out, disliked, and alone.
I came to learn that as an empath, I needed to set emotional boundaries to prevent myself from becoming depleted. A healthy empath holds space for another person’s emotions and experiences without making it their responsibility to fix, save, or protect the person. In order to be accepted and liked, I became a chameleon who adapted to any environment, didn’t speak up, and focused on pleasing everyone else at my own expense.
In doing so, I didn’t allow people to get close or learn about the real me. My outward focus on how everyone else was thinking, feeling, and acting left me exhausted and overwhelmed because I took on their problems as my own. I remained fearful to share my true opinions, make any decisions, or take up space in social settings.
Fading into the background felt safer, easier, and more comfortable to me, but it didn’t allow me to relax and be fully present. I constantly scanned the environment for any issues, working to please others and control what people thought of me. On top of that, I made it a priority to appear easy, effortless, and relaxed so that no one would see my internal struggles.
I didn’t want to appear stressed, tired, or unhappy because I could possibly be viewed as “needy” or “too much.” My hypervigilance only intensified when I was around new people because I desperately wanted to make a good first impression and earn their validation. After a social gathering lasting only a few hours, it was no wonder that I felt so drained and needed to recharge.
I began to realize that while I do love people and enjoy interacting with others, these situations would be more fun if I slowed down, checked in with myself, and focused on being truly present. I needed to practice turning the spotlight on myself for the first time, making choices and doing activities that worked for me.
When I allowed other people to manage their own feelings rather than jumping in to fix, save, and protect them, it freed up more time and energy for me. I also allowed myself to open up and engage fully in conversations, sharing small details at first and allowing other people to carry the conversation. These behaviors showed me that it was safe to take up space and let people get to know me.
Instead of blending in and always going with the flow, I could practice offering my opinion, choosing a restaurant or a movie for the group, and turning down social opportunities when I was tired or uninterested in the outing.
I knew that I needed to take these steps slowly because they would require courage, and I didn’t want to give up out of overwhelm. I also begin learning to trust that people wouldn’t abandon or reject me for speaking up and setting boundaries.
And if I did lose friendships or people didn’t love everything about me, I could handle that reality and survive. My mantra became “I am not for everyone, and that is okay.”
Since that time, I have made strides toward relaxing, being present, and releasing control, allowing myself to “just be.” Some days and situations are easier than others to practice this new mindset. But now that I have self-awareness and understanding, I can more easily catch myself when I engage in people pleasing behaviors to earn love, praise, and acceptance.
I pause, take a deep breath, and remember that I am allowed to take up space, that I deserve to have fun and be myself, and that my needs, feelings, and opinions matter. In doing so, I enjoy social interactions, even with new people, more than I ever did. And that has made all the difference for a social butterfly like me.