Don't Let Introversion Break Your Friendships

Are you at risk of letting friendships slip away?

Posted Dec 06, 2018

Roberto Nickson/Unsplash
Source: Roberto Nickson/Unsplash

The brutal truth is, I’m not the greatest friend.

I’m neglectful and run hot and cold on people, depending on where my head is at at any given moment. I don’t initiate plans very often and tend to forget birthdays. I’m guarded, not forthcoming with information or my feelings. I’m awkward with affection. And we all know how I feel about the telephone.

I can’t blame these friendship flaws on my introversion. However, they do interact with introversion in a key way: Because I don’t have a great need to be around people, I’m at risk of indulging my worst neglectful tendencies. I don’t do a great job nurturing my friendships, and I’m capable of letting them drift. You have to be kind of stubborn to be my friend.

A lot of the introvert power movement is about introverts proudly claiming their right to stay home, let calls go unanswered, skip the party, and prefer their cat. And I support all that 100 percent. I believe we should all be entitled to socialize as we choose, without shame.

But I also believe with equal conviction that social ties contribute to a healthy life. No man is an island, you’ve got to have friends, and people need people. But if people don’t take care of their relationships with people, then people might not be there when people need people. If you know what I mean.

I need friends. Down to my very bones. Both the longtime faraway friends I cherish and the close-by Friday afternoon cocktails-n-kvetching friends who help me get through the week. Both kinds can be difficult to hang on to. People move away, or worse. I have suffered friendship deficits over the years, when friends have moved on one way or another, and found myself looking around and wondering who nearby I would feel comfortable calling in an emergency.

Friends are necessary for a thousand reasons, and they require effort. It’s not a matter of earning your friends’ love, but of building and maintaining bonds of intimacy, so that they are strong when you really need them.

Long-distance friendships are especially easy to neglect for those of us with telephone aversion. Most of my interaction with those friends is via text these days, which is great. But still, during a rare phone call the other day, an old friend and I laughed until I cried, reminding me how limited emojis are compared to the richness of human-to-human communication—even one step removed, via the phone.

Introverts are good at some important aspects of friendship. We are attentive listeners and thoughtful responders. We’re choosy about friends so we’re loyal to the ones we choose. We keep most people at arm’s length but go deep with friends. I believe I always come through for friends when it counts. (Hope I’m right!) I will drop everything if a friend is in crisis, and even in no crisis, if I say I’m going to show up, I show up.

But I’m never going to be good at the little maintenance stuff—the Sunday afternoon phone calls, casual lunches, chatty emails. And I’ll probably always be a little catlike—showing up when I need attention, vanishing when I don’t.  I try to change, but it rarely takes in the long term. So I have to make up for my skittishness in different ways, to make sure I give my friendship enough nourishment to survive my neglect.

These are some of my basic rules for friendship. I pin them up on my mental wall from time to time, as a reminder.

Take the damn call. My good friends all know I hate the telephone and they don’t call without an appointment, for which I am grateful. If they do call, they probably have good reason and I will pick up. If I can’t pick up right away, I call back as soon as I can. Even more important, I make sure to reach out and schedule phone visits and treat them as seriously as if they were in-person plans. If we make a phone date for 3 p.m. Tuesday, I call at 3 p.m. Tuesday. Guaranteed.

Be uncomfortable sometimes. Just because I’m not entirely at ease in a situation doesn’t mean I have carte blanche to avoid it always. Sometimes I go to stuff that doesn’t sound particularly fun just because there will be a person or people there I want to connect with. It won’t kill me.

Express appreciation. I am not demonstrative or huggy, and I don’t always have a lot to say. Still, I try to make a point of explicitly expressing my appreciation to friends whenever I can squeak the words out. I’m not sure why it’s so difficult, I suspect that’s just me, but I do my best. Sometimes the best I can do is, “I appreciate you,” which is not exactly effusive, but I hope and think my friends know it’s my version of hearts and flowers.

Be vulnerable. This may be the most difficult one for me and anyone who has spent a lifetime keeping distance between the world and themselves. While introverts are often good at drawing other people out with our listening skills, we tend to be self-contained, keeping ourselves to ourselves. But when it comes to friendship, we have let the curtain down sometimes and reveal our complicated inner landscape, even when it feels embarrassing. I am always surprised and touched by how gracious and even grateful friends are when I reveal that which I’ve kept hidden. And nothing does more to enrich a friendship than the trust this requires.

You never need a friend more than when you need a friend. You want to make sure you have healthy friendships to support you through whatever life throws your way. Don’t let them slip away through benign neglect.