If you’re familiar with English idiom, you’ve probably heard the phrase “drawing someone out of their shell” before. If you do a search on it, you’ll find numerous examples of people asking how to accomplish this act with someone they consider shy or introverted or awkward. What’s interesting if you look at those results is how they’re primarily from the point of view of someone who is more socially engaged trying to make another person more like them. There just aren’t that many shy/awkward/introverted people begging to be drawn out of their shells by someone else.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t people who want to be more socially engaged, of course! My best friend Maggie was a very extroverted person who also had a hard time connecting with people and ached to be better at socializing. I gave her a lot of advice over the years, which she used and eventually loneliness was a much rarer experience for her than it had been.
This was me the introvert helping the extrovert be more socially engaged.
Because it turns out the situation is not that I’m not coming out and socializing more because I’m in desperate need of rescue, but because I just don’t particularly want to most of the time.
The imagery of the idiom is this: You want to interact with a turtle, but it’s inside its shell, closed up tight. You lay out tantalizing treats and wait. When the turtle feels safe or hungry enough, it pokes its head out and nibbles. Maybe if you’re slow and careful, you can even stroke its head without it hiding again. Success! You’ve tricked an animal into interacting with you when it had no desire to do so.
You shouldn’t trick people into social interactions they haven’t agreed to and yet people who view themselves as rescuers do it all the time, perhaps not even realizing a boundary has been crossed. They unexpectedly Skype call the introvert and it turns out there are a bunch of people just outside the camera’s view listening in and adding their own commentary. They show up at the introvert’s house without warning at ten at night or early on a Sunday morning. They say they just have to stop for a moment at a party and then keep the introvert there all night long because they have the keys to the car. They view these things as fun surprises and so can’t comprehend why anyone would complain.
And in my case because I have anxiety that’s especially acute with social situations, it goes beyond the differences between an extrovert and an introvert. Unwanted social contact feels like an attack. As far as my panicky brain is concerned, this is on par with being kidnapped and on the verge of death. Instead of laying out a nice slice of tomato and waiting for me to pop my head out of my shell, it feels as though you’ve shoved your hand inside, grabbed hold of my head, and are yanking furiously while shouting, “IT’S OKAY, LITTLE TURTLE! I’LL SAVE YOU FROM THAT SHELL!” Completely ignoring the fact, of course, that the shell is part of me and I can’t be separated from it.
People who want to engage more with others are usually eager for assistance. They aren’t sitting passively, waiting for someone to trick them into interacting. Listen to what people say. Pay attention. If someone wants to connect more with others, they’ll probably tell you if you’re willing to listen to them. Recognize that other people are people, not reptiles you have to coerce with bait, and that they all have rich inner lives. Pay attention to the hints of those inner lives and show an interest in what you see, and also be willing to back off when they start drawing up their boundaries. If they ask for advice, offer what you can, but only if they ask. Give them reasons to trust you and they’ll get over a lot of their awkwardness and fear on their own.
If they don’t? Unless you’re a licensed therapist and this person is your client, it’s not your place to try to do anything more than simply be a friendly, trustworthy presence. We can listen, we can support, but you can’t be your friend–or random-woman-on-a-bus-who-you-decided-needs-to-smile-more–‘s therapist.
And if someone never tells you they want more social interaction? If you win their trust and they actually tell you that being around lots of people makes them nervous, or exhausted, or just isn’t appealing at all? Don’t shove your hand inside the shell.
Note: An extroverted friend pointed out to me that she’d find the rescuer behavior horribly obnoxious as well. I figured as much, but can only write from my own perspective. To clarify here: I’m writing exclusively about people who are trying to “draw someone out of their shell” uninvited and not about extroverts. Being extroverted doesn’t mean someone ignores boundaries.