I figured it was just me.
I didn’t really want to do the Bunny Hop with a bunch of fellow 18-year-olds I’d met — if you can call it that — only seconds before. I didn’t want to sing silly songs or participate in goofy icebreakers. I didn’t want to go to the freshman dance with its blinding strobe lights and deafening music. And I didn’t want to take part in any of the booze-soaked off-campus parties that were most definitely not college-sponsored or college-sanctioned.
It was the fall of 1985, almost 35 years ago now, yet this time of year I still remember it vividly: college orientation week, an experience I’d just as soon forget.
As Harvard University sophomore Eva Shang put it in her insightful article a few years ago entitled “To the Introverts of the Class of 2018″:
“If a modern Dante were to write The Inferno for introverts, specifically, he would probably paint a picture of something similar to opening week of college.”
The impossibly enthusiastic but well-meaning orientation leaders at my school, God bless them, were trying so hard. So hard. So hard to make us newbies, in our red new-student T-shirts with our red new-student folders, feel comfortable and welcomed, like part of a community.
But mostly I felt exhausted and overwhelmed, like I’d been beamed to the planet Frenzy and there was no escape from the group activities, or the group itself for that matter. No time to think, to breathe, to just simply be in this strange new environment, away from the family and familiarity of home.
It was all too much, way over the top. And so the events that had been designed to make me feel like I belonged instead made me feel like an outsider.
I figured it had to be me. Clearly something was wrong with me, and I was the only one thinking what I was thinking and feeling what I was feeling. Everyone else was having the time of their life, or so it seemed.
But I was mistaken.
As I’ve learned in the years since college, nothing was — or is — wrong with me. I was, and am, just an introvert, with tendencies and preferences that are simply different from, but not inferior to, those of extraverts.
Moreover, I now know that I wasn’t alone all those years ago. Depending on which statistics you believe, somewhere between one quarter and one half of us are introverts. So I wasn’t the only one struggling with stimulation overload. And I wasn’t the only one who would prefer to gravitate toward my own types of activities and build friendships my own way as the college years went on.
In fact, just the other day, College of William and Mary student Ethan Brown described his own orientation experience this way in his Flat Hat student newspaper column “Orientation Undermines New Student Adjustment“:
“By the first day of classes, I felt like I never wanted to talk to anyone again — I felt so depleted, and so emotionally exhausted, that I couldn’t imagine how I’d handle four years of being constantly ‘on.'”
Emerson College freshman Julia Tannenbaum put it like this recently (in a blog post she titled “Surviving Orientation“):
“[N]othing — not my single room, not my nightly phone vent sessions with my parents, not even The Great British Baking Show — could replenish the energy orientation had sucked out of me, like a vacuum cleaner sucking up the crumbs of a delicious homemade muffin (I really miss my mom’s cooking). It was so draining that at times, I worried I wouldn’t make it to the actual start of school.”
So it wasn’t just me.
And if you’re an introvert yourself, it wasn’t — or isn’t — just you, either.
If I’d had access to artices like Shang’s and Brown’s and Tannenbaum’s three-plus decades ago, I would have understood this a lot sooner than I ultimately did. It would have saved me a lot of confusion — and pain — if I’d simply had the chance to read sage advice like Shang’s:
“Don’t push it. There will be plenty of opportunities to make friends at any point in time — plenty of opportunities more suited to forming genuine connections than those initial weeks of mass introductions. Furthermore, don’t feel pressured to be social the same way everyone else is, especially if it isn’t your scene. You will not miss out on life or on college simply by taking a much-needed break.”
Shang’s advice applies to you, me, all of us who tend toward introversion. And it goes far beyond the college campus.
You’ll only “miss out on life,” as she puts it, if you try to be someone you’re not — instead of understanding and embracing who you really are.