I’m a textbook introvert. Through and through. And that’s cool.
Except that years ago, when I was becoming religious, it was slightly less cool.
After I got the “easy stuff” down–like discovering G-d and restructuring my entire life and belief system–I found myself in a dilemma. Now I had to go ahead and actually be religious. Like, in public.
I knew that in order to really live and thrive as a religious person, I’d have to live among them, as them. I’d have to become a bona fide member of “the frum community.”
I was in a pickle. I could only integrate into the frum community by getting to know the people in it, and yet I cringed at the very mention of any social event that could help me get to know said people: a shul kiddush, a Shabbos table, or attending a wedding without simply darting for the door seconds after the chuppah.
While introverts may be bright, charming, deep, interesting, and a million other wonderful things, in casual schmoozing they do not excel.
I remember looking at my extrovert counterparts with a mixture of envy and disdain. They made it look so easy to integrate. Within months or even weeks, extrovert singles I knew seemed to have magically transformed from newbies to full-fledged community members, complete with connections to all the frum who’s who, and with a bopping network of friends to boot.
As I saw it at the time, there were just two possible ways out of my pickle: (1) push myself to act like an extrovert and die a slow death inside, or (2) do what’s comfortable and forever remain on the sidelines of the community. Both left much to be desired.
The dilemma was compounded by the fact that I was single and looking to meet my husband, which, at its bare minimum, demanded far more schmoozing, networking, and hustling than I ever wanted to do over the course of my entire life.
While I can’t pretend I’ve discovered a miraculous extrovert-for-a-day potion to make it all better, I can share the lessons I learned as I struggled, day after day, to bridge the uncomfortable divide between the person I was and the person I thought I needed to be.
Lesson 1: It’s not an all-or-nothing deal.
I didn’t have to – nor did Hashem want me to – sell my soul for the sake of social integration. I also didn’t have to – nor did Hashem want me to – go Marrano-style and hide out in my parents’ basement simply because it was hard to step outside of my comfort zone. I could be myself and also put on my extrovert hat when necessary. No inherent contradiction there.
Lesson 2: Put Hashem in the picture.
Better yet, remember that Hashem is the picture. I’ve consistently found that the more I put Hashem in the picture, the easier it becomes to find that space where I can be my introverted self, but also step out of my comfort zone as required. I try to remember that Hashem is the One who created me an introvert in the first place! He knows what my limits are and doesn’t expect the impossible. As long as I’m making a legitimate effort for the right reasons, I know that Hashem is taking care of the details.
Lesson 3: Push the envelope, but not by much. And then push it again.
Deciding to become an overnight extrovert sensation is a bad idea on so many levels. It’s much wiser (and no doubt more effective) to push oneself in minuscule areas over and over again. I used to set quotas for myself that were slightly beyond what I’d find comfortable, but still within what I could handle without spontaneously combusting. I’d make myself say yes to one in every three Shabbos invitations and make one shidduch-related call each week. Once I did my time, I would enjoy the rest of my week or month off, guilt-free.
Lesson 4: Go easy on yourself.
Most times, when I put on my extrovert hat, things go just fine. But every so often, something flops. A phone call to a shadchan gets awkward. The one other person I knew who was going to the Bar Mitzvah gets the flu, leaving me to convene with the wallpaper and the punch.
In times like these, I just pat myself on the back for being brave and then forgive myself generously. I tell myself all the reasons it’s not the end of the world. I remind myself of all the extrovert experiments I haven’t botched in the past, and even of those I have, and how I somehow continued living after them. Knowing that I’m okay just as I am eases the blow of an extrovert-moment-gone-sour.
Lesson 5: You can’t win if you don’t play.
Finally, I try to always remind myself of this gaming principle, so true across the board of life. I can remain in my introverted comfort zone my entire life, but is that what I really want? Playing the occasional extrovert has its drawbacks to be sure, but it also opens up wonderful and exciting opportunities. I ask myself: even if I never end up managing to integrate into the community the way my extrovert friends do, what have I lost by pushing my comfort zone? I’ve gained a deeper sense of my identity, my limits, and my dedication to my religious values. I might even feel a deeper sense of commitment and connection to Hashem. And that’s a win if you ask me!
These days, the discord between who I am and who I feel I ought to be is much less pronounced. Maybe it’s because I’m now, baruch Hashem, married and mom to two young boys, and, as any introvert will tell you, little kids provide the perfect excused absence from any social engagement. Maybe it’s because the frum community I now call home is a much more natural fit for me and I don’t feel I have to conceal parts of my identity to please anyone. Or perhaps, dare I even think it, the greater sense of ease and peace I now walk around with has something to do with the over a decade’s worth of character-building and inner-strength muscle-toning I did in my single years, treacherous though they were at the time.
To any other struggling introvert ba’alei teshuvah out there – and I know you’re out there – I’m with you! And I hope that somewhere buried in or between the lines of what I’ve written here, you’ll find something you can walk away with to help you remember that, like me, you can be a textbook introvert through and through, and you can be frum. And that can be cooler than cool.