If you barely know me, you probably know me as the girl who crazily flies around a room and talks to every single person in it. If you know me better, you would know that such sociability is not only occasional but also superficial and that really I am an introvert who prefers to spend most of my time alone in my room doodling while listening to eccentric Korean rap or making out with Netflix.
How I came to love spending time alone dates back to my childhood, when I was known as the wimpy crybaby. Looking back, I think I just had a lot of feelings about everything, and the kids around me did not know how to react in any way other than making fun of me. When my parents proposed the idea of me moving to America to get a better education, I was excited to leave everyone. Little did I know that the new language and culture barrier I would face only meant eating alone at lunch.
When I called my dad for advice, his answer was “independence,” the strength to embrace the solitude. Because he and Mom were often in Korea for work, I could not rely on them. Nor could I rely on my “friends,” who disappointed me, leaving me when I tried to open up to them. My only option was to learn how to take care of myself. I had to stop crying in front of others and suck it up.
I was bitter, but I was also proud of my independence. When the kids around me formed circles and gossiped about hot seventh-grade scandals, I jotted down my darkest secrets in a personal diary. When they giggled about their exclusive inside jokes, I made my own. When they went to the bathroom together, I proudly peed alone. Day by day, I felt more invincible in the fact that no one could betray nor disappoint me because I was not emotionally attached to anyone. Independence became my religion.
Surprisingly, when I stopped reaching out to people, they came to me. In high school, I became known as “that kid,” with an eccentric sense of fashion and humor; I guess I was likable in the way that a weird YouTube channel attracts subscribers. I made sure, however, that I did not make commitments to friendships. I floated around, leaving friend groups spontaneously so I wouldn’t have to worry about their leaving me. Even in my freshmen year at Wesleyan, I made sure that I never “lost” myself to a group of people.
Contrary to what I expected, the floater life became increasingly exhausting. Perhaps I was lonely; I was longing to form deeper connections with my friends and I could not. Perhaps I was frustrated; when interacting with people, I frequently felt as if I was observing them more than engaging with them. A thick wall existed between me and other people.
I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by some of the most caring people in the world, but I could not easily break down the strong wall I had built. And what was truly nasty about that wall was that, now, I seemed to be the one who was hurting others by keeping my distance from those who were genuinely reaching out to me. The wall, now unnecessary, burdened me.
Breaking down the wall between me and other people has taken some serious guts. Being alone in my own world is so safe because I know that I can deal with my own emotions. But being able to open up to other takes trust—that they will not abuse it, but instead handle it with care, as if holding a baby.
After all, aren’t we all babies deep down? We try to act tough and applaud anyone who is “strong” enough to hide their mushy emotions and block their tears in front of others. But why do we have to grow up and avoid showing our emotions to our friends? Do we really grow up?
Vulnerability and dependence are signs of courage rather than weakness. Don’t get me wrong: Dependence does not mean leaning on people only when you need them. Dependence and independence do not have to be mutually exclusive, and we need both. We need to be able to stand alone by ourselves, but we also need to know how to lean on someone even when we can stand alone.
We might be perfectly fine walking alone—and in fact are better off doing so—but we can still consciously choose to walk with others. Of course, it is a trade off. When you walk with others, you have to adjust your pace, losing the speed and efficiency that you had walking alone. But who cares? You will be empowered by the connection and love you feel. And at the end of the day, is that not what really fulfills us and brings us true joy, more than personal feats we accomplish alone?
To be honest, I still sometimes question whether I can ever fully break the wall that sometimes seems to be permanently ingrained in me and truly connect with others. But despite all doubts, I believe that it is all worth taking the leap.
Feel free to disagree with me, because I know that I would have a month ago. Of course, everything is solely based on my personal experience, because that’s what I’ve got. But I encourage you to at least ask why, in our culture, we care so much about independence to the point that lonely has become the equivalent of tough. Are we avoiding deep relationships for fear of being vulnerable? Being able to cry in front of other people is much braver than being the tough lone wolf. Take the plunge.