Extroverts are ‘energised’ by company, while introverts are ‘energised’ by time spent alone. Or so a little pop psychology would have us believe. But if that were the whole story, wouldn’t introverts like me just avoid other people altogether?
I do find social situations extremely awkward and tend to shun parties and other such gatherings if I can. If I can’t, I make my excuses and leave as soon as possible. However, I have recently discovered (after decades of haphazard adulting) that it’s actually possible for me to meet someone I know for a cup of coffee, or lunch, and for it to feel worthwhile. (This really is a completely new and experimental mode of interaction for me!) Yes, I get a bit nervous beforehand, and, yes, I can sometimes feel exhausted afterwards – especially if the other person is an extrovert – but I haven’t yet made a complete hash of things. I don’t think so, anyway.
Perhaps this is a taste of what it means to have friends – though I rather suspect there’s more to it than meeting for coffee once in a while.
Seeds of friendlessness
When I was in primary school, I spent most of my play times on my own, in my own imaginary world (where ironically there would usually be other people). Occasionally I’d be allowed to join in playground games with other girls (you must remember that I wasn’t seen as being one of them at the time). Most encounters with boys, though, were to be regretted, as I was bullied by most of my male classmates for most of those seven years. Some of those acts of bullying, had they not been perpetrated by pre-adolescent children, might even have been construed as sexual assault. Children can be very cruel to those they see as different.
In secondary school, I did eventually find circles of people who had common interests, but I wouldn’t say that I ever made deep friendships. There was a small group of fairly geeky boys I hung around with – I hope they won’t mind that description too much if they read this! We played computer games and went to the cinema together, that kind of thing. I also enjoyed opportunities to make music, partly because I loved (and still love) music, partly because most of the other people who played musical instruments were also girls, whose company I preferred … and partly because I could wangle the timing of my flute lessons so I would get out of (sex-segregated) PE classes. Music was an escape for me.
Not feeling that I had much in common with most of the boys I knew, I didn’t really make any effort to develop friendships with them. And by virtue of appearing to be a boy, I was more or less shut out of potential friendships with girls. From at least the last year or two of primary school, I had known that I ‘wanted to be’ a girl and that there were certain bits of my body that weren’t quite how I felt they should be. That marked me out as profoundly alone, not just in my school setting, but in the world, as far as I knew. I couldn’t tell anyone my secret. All I could do was spend my adolescence wishing for a magical transformation. And the bullying continued, right through secondary school – and even on into university.
I’m not sure whether my social anxiety and dearth of friend-making skills stem from these formative experiences or if I’d have been this way regardless. Sometimes I wonder how I’d have turned out if I’d been free to make friends with girls, as a girl. Instead, I made friends with boys, thanks to my protective male veneer – but without any understanding of ‘male bonding’, which I can only assume requires a less-superficial degree of maleness than I was ever able to muster.
Between my late teens and mid twenties, I had a handful of romantic relationships, most of them very short-lived, though one lasted a couple of years. The relationship with my wife (incidentally my only sexual relationship) has survived more than 20 years. These relationships, for as long as they have lasted, have been the most intense and truest friendships I have ever had. It’s as if I never considered that I might have the ‘energy’ to devote to more than one friendship at a time, so I saved what friendship energy I had exclusively for romantic partners.
Now that I reflect on that, and realise that my wife’s circle of friends isn’t really my circle of friends (though we have known many of them for the same length of time), I also realise that I don’t really have the kind of resilient support network around me that other people seem to have. And, given my (cishet) wife’s present lack of acceptance of my trans-ness, there’s a sense of urgency in finding emotional support elsewhere. Hence my recent tentative efforts towards cultivating friendships via the medium of coffee, despite my social anxiety and general ineptitude. A last-minute attempt to overcome my eggs-in-one-basketishness, if you like.
The inscription inside my wedding ring reads ‘Two are better than one’ (a slightly selective quote from Ecclesiastes, one of the most miserable books of the Bible). Perhaps many are better still. Time will tell.