There's nothing like going away with your friends for seven days to bring out your inner introvert.
It sounds nonsensical, especially after the loneliness of 2021, to leave the city with your mates for a week and then want to spend hours every day in solitude. Maybe lockdowns have finally tipped my "extroverted introvert" scale to the latter sensibility. I don't seem to really like being around people anymore.
Picture this: a beautiful holiday house in rural Hawke's Bay. Ten friends spending all day together, lounging by the pool, lunching at wineries, drinking from midday until the sun goes down. The days all blend into one; a Tuesday is as good as a Saturday because time doesn't seem to matter. There are also no responsibilities, no reminders of home.
And then there was me. Hiding alone reading a book under a tree. Going without meals to avoid barbecue-side small talk. Walking for hours on end in the bush alone in the name of exercise. Skipping off at 10pm every night to go to bed while others partied on.
Naturally, everyone around me kept asking what was wrong. Was I depressed? Was I not having as much fun as everyone else? Did I not like the crew I was staying with?
None of which was true. I was having a great time being alone. There was action around me, but I was an observer, not a participant. I didn't get drunk or sunburnt or engage in hours of endless laughter. Instead, my inner introvert was nourished by the works of Christopher Isherwood and Stephen Fry; by 10-hour sleeps and lone hill runs, one-serving smoothies and bathroom face masks.
I initially struggled with immense guilt about removing myself from the group. After four months alone last year, couldn't I be a team player for seven short days? Would it kill me to push past the discomfort of being around people all day, every day, and just be social?
Then came a realisation. This was my holiday too. The version of me that others have in their head is not my responsibility. I was down south to recharge and reflect. As an introvert at heart, solitude is the only way I can achieve that. To engage fully with people day after day would be to drain my energy. I couldn't face the pandemic trilogy feeling tired from the outset – I needed to empty that boiling pot that was my 2021 soul, and finally feel like I wasn't overflowing with every new stressor.
So instead of feeling shame about my obvious introversion, I embraced it. I told my friends something had happened to me in the past year and now I struggle to be in groups of people. I recognised that we reward extroverts socially through increased likeability, so decided that I didn't need to be liked or to impress. That show I can put on, that extroverted song-and-dance that everybody thinks is the real, "happiest" version of myself? I didn't have the stamina for it this trip around.
Then I discovered a new mantra. I will stop apologising. I will stop feeling bad for wanting to preserve my energy. I will relish in my introverted side instead of pushing it away. I will not overcommit.
I don't normally have the luxury of being a wallflower, but for one whole week, I feel like I faded into the background in my own search for replenishment. The resulting state is, as fellow introverts can imagine, quite blissful. I am relaxed and alive again. I'm actually more prepared for (small doses of) being extroverted, because I don't feel like a burnt-out candle struggling to stay alight.
Reversing my past script that extroversion equals good, and introversion equals bad may still take some time to get comfortable with. We tend to think extroverts are more successful and enjoying life more. Fundamentally, this isn't true – some of the most outgoing people I've met have also been the most miserable on the inside.
What does make you successful, on the contrary, is knowing who you are. Accepting the parts of your personality as yours. When I retreated to the poolside alone one afternoon and was asked, "Lee, is everything okay?", I finally found the perfect answer. "Yes, of course," I replied. "I'm not in a mood, this is just who I really am."