In some ways, retirement represents a return to the “real me.”
In my childhood and young adulthood, I was naturally inclined to shyness, quiet, and observation. Rather than joining groups of people or chiming in on conversations, I tended to stay on my own and listen covertly. I avoided attending social activities and putting myself in situations where interaction was necessary. I would “parallel play” my way through daily life- perfectly content to work side-by-side with others, but preferring to not collaborate.
At one point, I considered that I might actually be agoraphobic since there were some days when I literally could not leave the house to go to school and other times when I drove to a party or event, but could not make myself go inside. Then, I realized that agoraphobia was not my problem. It wasn’t open spaces of which I was afraid. It was people.
It wasn’t that I couldn’t communicate with people or even that I did it badly. In fact, I have always been good at putting my thoughts into words, both in speaking and in writing. I also have decent empathy with others, good intuition about what the other person is thinking or feeling (must be all that listening over the years!) and a nimble ability to choose communication strategies likely to appeal to and engage the other person. I just always kind of chose not to do so, except with people with whom I had long term positive relationships. I used to say I have a slow emotional transmission. It takes me a long time to get into a relationship gear and then I find it almost impossible to let go of that gear when it is time to part.
Once I started working, my natural sense of duty kicked in. It struck me that it was my responsibility to take the lead when communicating with customers and employees. I worked for a federal agency from which most people would be happy to never hear. Customers were often frightened, upset, and irate, often for good reason. It was my job to help them feel better and more comfortable dealing with their issues. As I advanced in the leadership ranks, I recognized that it was my job to communicate well and to create an environment where my employees could feel safe and thrive. I once heard that my job was basically to hold conversations and I think that was probably correct.
As time went on, I made conscious efforts to use the communication skills and personal qualities I possessed in all my interactions. I tried to “pretend until I was” outgoing. While it got easier to pretend and sometimes I even thought I might be achieving outgoingness, I don’t think I ever actually got there. I often enjoyed who I was when I pretended to be outgoing, but it took a lot out of me. I was successful in doing the things that would make me appear warm, outgoing, approachable, trustworthy, and confident in my communication. It was my job. I did it. I did it well. I was exhausted.
Now that I am no longer working, I have reverted to my natural preferences. As much as I looked forward to joining the book club in my new community, I have somehow not found the time to attend any meetings. When trying to arrange for vendors or contractors to take care of things around the house, I try very hard to find a way to accomplish my task by email. When our new next door neighbors invited us to a Christmas party at their home, we went out to dinner first and “stopped by” for only half an hour or so. I only managed that because I thought it would be rude to decline the invitation. When I go to the water aerobics class, I don’t fold into the little groups of two or three that form in the pool.
I am finding this opportunity to slide back into observation mode to be very restful. I am enjoying the blissful silence of my own thoughts, the absence of my frenzied mind spinning around trying to succeed in my charge of advancing the flag of conversation. I listen and horde the little nuggets I hear inside my brain, turning them over and admiring them in the safety of my quietness.
Still, this welcome isolation does have its downside. I feel a bit removed and apart from my surroundings and community. I have no sense of “belonging.” I initially thought this might be the age difference between me and most of the people around me, but I think it might be more my retirement from forced extroversion.
The other day, Max asked me if I missed work at all. I replied that I didn’t miss work, but that I didn’t feel like I “fit in” anymore. He asked a very insightful question, “Do you want to?” Obviously, after over 30 years of basically communicating and forging relationships for a living, I know what to do to create those connections for myself. I suppose when I want to fit in badly enough, I will find my niche in the relationship networks in my new life. I recently offered a piece of advice to one of the women in the pool who I heard talking about her upcoming trip to the Grand Canyon. I volunteered to help with the photography for the community’s new directory. I will probably go to the book club when it starts again in the fall. I have started to make friends.
In the meantime, I will enjoy the quiet and the nourishment I get from the enduring friendships that had their genesis in my working years. These “forever friendships” were not dependent on the very intentional strategies and techniques I practiced to push myself into appearing outgoing. Those friendships teach me that my natural self, with all its introversion, is enough. I’m enough to fit into the hearts of those people I love.
So what do you think? How do you forge new relationships in a new life? How do you balance friendship and introversion? Please share your perspective by leaving a comment. In the alternative, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for letting me fit in with you!