“He was always seeking for a meaning in life, and here it seemed to him that a meaning was offered; but it was obscure and vague . . . He saw what looked like the truth as by flashes of lightning on a dark, stormy night you might see a mountain range. He seemed to see that a man need not leave his life to chance, but that his will was powerful; he seemed to see that self-control might be as passionate and as active as the surrender to passion; he seemed to see that the inward life might be as manifold, as varied, as rich with experience, as the life of one who conquered realms and explored unknown lands.”
― W. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage
It’s often difficult to explain the sudden withdrawal an introvert or ambivert experiences when he or she has committed to a social gathering, yet, at the moment of leaving their safe place called home, suddenly imagine a thousand, a million, different reasons why it isn’t going to happen. Our intentions are of the highest caliber when we agree to such events months or weeks in advance. We can even imagine ourselves finally showing up with a smile and the attitude that we will make the best of our interactions. Then dread begins days ahead of time, and by the time the actual event arrives, we’ve worked ourselves into a state of despair, knowing that we’re not going to make it this time. And we are fearful that our friends will give up on us this time, that they will take our absence personally — an affront to their social sensibilities and good intentions — perhaps forgetting that our aversion to social events isn’t about them at all. It’s about our inability to bring ourselves to come out of our cocoon.
Holiday season is the hardest in this respect. We know we’re going to be expected to emerge from our intensely insular world and interact. We field the invitations bravely, with an uncertain smile. We don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Yet we know, deep inside, that we’re bound to anyway, unintentionally. Because on the day we’re expected, we realize that we aren’t comfortable with the very idea of interacting with people we barely know, understanding that we’d be expected to participate in social niceties with others — which we abhor — and know that the social pressure to be “on stage” if only for a few hours is enough to kill our souls. And so we make our apologies as best we can, cringing inside, imagining that we can actually hear the disappointment floating in the air, emanating through the telephone circuits, seeping into our minds. Yet, it’s who we are. And who we’ll always be.
This season has been no different for me thus far. When I awoke yesterday morning, knowing I had committed back in July to a friends’ family dinner, I also knew with certainty that I wasn’t up to it. It’s a visceral feeling, like I’m coming down with the flu. The committment, made in earnest during the summer months, was suddenly like an invasive virus to my system. I knew that I would hurt some feelings, but also knew that it would be near impossible for me to attend.
Sometimes I wish I could warn people of this aspect of my character and personality. Not that I view my introverted nature as something to be apologized for…but I do know that feelings get hurt and disappointment colors my relationships with those whom I never wish to harm or hurt. How does one explain the fact that the physical/emotional/mental toll such gatherings takes on us is like a sledgehammer to the soul? And doubly so if we’re unprepared and force ourselves to follow through?
I can say, “It’s not personal, I promise,” knowing that it very much will be taken personally, regardless of our best intentions otherwise. Because we’re all human, and we all have feelings that get stomped on occasionally, intentionally or not. And it hurts. We want so much to save others from that pain, yet we’re fated to do it again and again.
For me, such social interaction takes several days to get over. And while that might sound like a harsh judgment against the people with whom we might interact, it’s really the simple truth. I awake the morning after with an actual, physical hangover (no, I don’t drink). My head pounds, I’m nauseous, and feel like I’ve been run over by a tractor-trailer. Several times. Some years it’s been so bad after forcing myself to attend a holiday gathering, that I had to call in sick to work two days in a row. I felt like all the skin had been scraped from my body, leaving nothing but exposed nerve endings and raw flesh. That might sound melodramatic, but it’s not. It’s merely the intensity of our experience.
I can only imagine what it’s like for others of a similar sensibility. Each year, I vow not to accept any invitations whatsoever because I know the holidays are an especially intense trigger for me. Yet, I find myself committing over and over and over. It’s like a compulsion. And I always mean well when I accept, and feel horrid when I must beg off. Yet memory seems to fail me year after year, and there I am again, accepting invitations.
What are the holidays like for you?