What happens when an introvert volunteers?

Welcome to “It’s OK” Friday: Our random, sometimes funny, hopefully inspirational stories of trying to make a difference.

We know that volunteering can help your community and your career, but what if the thought of having to socialize keeps you on the couch? Here, our social media and editorial intern Aaron shares how he overcame his introversion and volunteered.

Bad first day at a new job? Networking event gone awry? If you have a story to share, email Aaron at aaron@idealist.org.

Photo credit: Lurin, Shutterstock
Photo credit: Lurin, Shutterstock

I’m here to help, but please don’t talk to me…

After two months of self-directed pep talks, I volunteered with the new food delivery service at my church. The work didn’t scare me: packing grocery bags of pre-selected foodstuffs and delivering them to people who couldn’t go shopping themselves. It wasn’t indifference that kept me on the couch those two months. What held me back was the thought of socializing with the other volunteers.

That realization, aside from making me feel like a terrible person, was a relief. I could have just been lazy, or even worse, apathetic. I was relieved to discover that I simply didn’t want to talk to people (though that is one of the joys of volunteering, I’ve been told). Of course there’s the potential to network and make new friends with common interests. But I’m a self-diagnosed introvert and have always been anxious about meeting new folks, let alone building relationships with them.

However, my conscience won out as volunteering is an important way to help the world. Even if the thought of working with a ton of new people was draining, what mattered most to me was helping my community in a tangible way.

So I showed up one dreary Friday in April.

The delivery room looked like a miniature grocery store, the walls lined with ground and instant coffee, canned tuna, multigrain bread, and fruit. I stood stiffly in the corner of the room, fiddling with the gloves in my pocket, waiting for directions. Volunteers began filtering into the room: older women with gray hair tucked neatly into their headscarves, some young men who looked about my age but were speaking German, and Father Paul, the guy in charge of this operation.

I knew if I wanted to make this work for myself, to get the most out of the day and not be a complete Darryl Downer, I’d have to con myself way into positivity. I focused on the “why-am-I-here” instead of the “how-do-I-feel-here.” To quote the Scottish author George MacDonald, it was time to “heed not thy feelings, but do thy work!”

In the first hour, the other volunteers and I stuffed grocery bags filled with foodstuffs from various people’s shopping lists. Once we loaded up the bags, we put them into shopping carts, organized by building number. Father Paul then broke us up into teams to deliver the goods.

Two of the older women and I took two shopping carts to the projects a few blocks away from the church. Up to this point, I had managed to keep the socializing to a minimum. I dispensed a few curt nods, laughed at several overheard jokes, and even introduced myself to someone! Despite what felt like an overwhelming triumph of willpower, my social anxiety didn’t lessen in my avoidance; I began to see that interacting with my fellow volunteers was a part of the “why-am-I-here” too.

So we started chatting, talking about our lives and how good the work was we were doing.  They even smiled and nodded through some stories I’m sure were terribly dull, specifically the time I learned that fingerless gloves don’t keep you warm when it’s snowing out. As the conversation flowed, my introversion receded, like it was never there.

Making friends isn’t so bad at all.

I’ve been back to volunteer a few times since then and the initial desire to keep to myself has waned. It’s something to cherish now, socializing with new, interesting people who care just as much about helping folks as I do. Once I forced myself through my discomfort, everything got a little bit easier.

With that said, I still don’t dilly-dally when it’s time to volunteer. There are too many books and quiet park benches that require my immediate attention. Harry Potter isn’t going to re-read itself!

Have a funny, maybe awkward story of doing good? Send it to Aaron for our next “It’s OK” Friday at aaron@idealist.org.

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    • April Greene
    • August 16, 2013

    As a professionally-diagnosed extrovert, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to relate to this story, but I totally am! Aaron hit the nail on the head for everyone in new situations, I think: breaking the ice sucks, but once you’re in conversation, the awkwardness evaporates. A good reminder for anyone looking to branch out.

    Thanks for a fun story, and for doing great volunteer work!

    • Allie
    • August 17, 2013

    Hi Aaron,
    A good article overall. Though I’m still confused why people think introversion (or extroversion for that matter) is something to be diagnosed with. It’s simply a temperament and our society has led us all to believe that one is preferable to the other. Also social anxiety is not the same as introversion and one does not equal to the other. Extroverts can have social anxiety and introverts could very well not have it but simply need time to ‘recharge’.

    This is a great TED video by Susan Cain who wrote the book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking”. Highly recommended.

    • Erica
    • August 19, 2013

    I’m an introvert and I’m very gregarious. I make friends easily and love interact with people. Being an introvert doesn’t equate to social anxiety. Social anxiety can appear to be or increase introversion, but introversion is truly just that when I’m in a loud, clamorous place full of people, it feels a bit draining. My public speaking skills are strong and I know how to rock my audience. I don’t understand the world’s misconceptions about introversion and extroversion nor do I understand the misunderstanding that social anxiety is the same or runs alongside introversion. None of these things are true. I manage my teams with confidence and I manage myself with determination. My day doesn’t get me down if I have to sit around in a meeting or be put on the spot. Regardless, at the day, week, month, year… I am an introvert. 🙂 Great, writing, btw. I don’t want you to feel scalded by the introverts who are like, “Hey, this is how it is.”

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