How Being an Introvert Makes Sobriety Harder

When I was drinking, my husband used to say my mouth got bigger as the night wore on. He meant that literally and figuratively. When I was in my cups, I would make my way to the powder room frequently; it was a respite for me during a congested party or any event involving large numbers of human beings. While I was in there, I would reapply my lipstick and lip liner. By the end of the night, as I got drunker, I looked like a lesser Picasso: my enlarged mouth stark red, smeared and canted to one side of my face.

With six or seven Chardonnays under my belt, I’d also start to lose my reticence about speaking up in a crowd. Because it was unnatural to me, I’d tell overly explicit vignettes, argue loudly with my spouse or fall down prettily, dragging a tablecloth and food onto the floor like a second-rate magician.

My husband is my ex-husband now, and although my drinking and ghastly behavior at parties was not the reason for my divorce, it was certainly a factor. I have learned, during the two years I have been sober, that I used to self-medicate to deaden my extreme reticence to being in a room full of strangers. This is not an excuse — I will admit my alcoholism had a slew of causes — but trepidation toward my fellow man was one of the reasons I drank as much as I did.

How Being an Introvert Makes Sobriety HarderI am an introvert: card-carrying and unapologetic. Being an introvert presents some serious challenges to my sobriety. I can’t win. As a drunk I was a forced, ungainly party girl and sober I am ill-suited to any 12-step program that encourages group dynamics and the dreaded “sharing” of feelings among strangers. Let’s face it, introverts are the lefties of the recovery community and we need individualized treatment programs to deal with our special needs.

According to the article, “Nine Signs You’re an Introvert,” written by Susan Krauss Whitbourne, PhD, for Psychology Today, introverts have the following characteristics (I am paraphrasing):

  1. They enjoy time by themselves;
  2. Their best thinking occurs alone;
  3. They lead best when those who follow are self-starters;
  4. They are the last to raise a hand when someone asks for something in a group setting;
  5. They tend to keep their opinions to themselves;
  6. They do not seek contact with others;
  7. They prefer not to engage with people who seem angry or upset;
  8. They do not reach out voluntarily to their social circles and if contact is required, they are more likely to use email than phone;
  9. They do not initiate small talk with casual contacts.

AA Meetings Weren’t Made for Introverts

Think about this. The worst thing an alcoholic can do (other than drink) is to isolate: the very environment introverts need to think clearly and recharge. What is encouraged in every AA meeting the world around? The raising of hands; the garrulous recounting of past transgressions and current successes among casual contacts who are oftentimes angry or upset. This is the very setting introverts avoid like church on Thursday.

The other day a friend of mine said, “I have come to the realization that [your] not speaking in an AA meeting is a form of isolation.”

I was incredulous to the point of indignation. “Are you kidding me? I can’t just sit there? Why can’t I just sit there?”

“You should try to speak up. It will enhance your experience,” he said.

“No, it won’t.” I was beginning to rethink our friendship. It felt like he was telling me to, “Shut up and use the right-handed scissors.”

Because this is what I think every time I pull my car into the parking lot of a 12-step meeting: I have gone to hell and climbed back out. I have beaten a three-bottle- of-wine-a-day habit. Isn’t that enough? I do not want to go in there — not because I am defiant or resistant or uninterested in staying sober, but because I am AFRAID and because this is as unnatural to me as telling drunken stories at a party used to be. I HATE sharing. I am uncomfortable among strangers. I am worried that if I capitulate and try to talk I will sound foolish, or boring (like that guy who slouches in the corner and always monopolizes the meeting).

And then I think, Maybe I’m being prideful and I should do what my friend suggested to enhance my experience by plugging my nose, holding my breath and trying to speak up. But my guts are in my throat and I think there has to be another way for me to be part of the recovery community without this added stress.

And then I do what the Grinch did when he prepared for the Who-beration with nothing appropriate to wear. I look in the mirror at my hairy profile, run a hand over my belly and say, “OOOOH, AHHHH… That’s it. I’m not going.”

And more often than not, I drive away.

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    18 Responses to How Being an Introvert Makes Sobriety Harder

    1. Jewl August 17, 2015 at 3:28 pm #

      Thank you for writing this. I am an introvert & have struggled with the same feelings & thoughts. It is so hard to share in groups or understand how easy it is for others to share & trust. It causes such stress. Thanks again!

      • Marilyn August 18, 2015 at 11:40 pm #

        You are welcome. I agree that some of the most empathetic people are unable to understand my reticence for “sharing”. I am so glad I stuck a cord. Here’s to the people in the back row taking it all in and last to raise a hand!

    2. Blaire Sharpe August 18, 2015 at 3:03 pm #

      As an introvert in recovery for a long time now, I hear ya! There is a fine line between being an introvert and isolating, and it has to do with intention. It’s one thing to take needed space for your emotional well-being and to process information silently; it’s another thing to avoid people. There are many different personalities in recovery meetings – not all of which are extroverted. It’s the extroverts that are busy telling you how you should work your recovery, hanging out before and after meetings, and insisting that you speak up. Know that they mean well and are only sharing what works for them. If you go to enough meetings, you will find others, like you, who prefer a quieter, more introspective approach. Find one you like, and connect. Make it work for you, because the wisdom you will gain from listening to others is priceless. There are a thousand reasons/excuses for not going to recovery groups. Alcoholics are adept at finding those reasons. Set those aside and decide today that you will figure out how to make it comfortable for you. Your sobriety and your life depend on it. I wish you peace.

      • Marilyn August 20, 2015 at 10:17 am #

        Thanks for this – and you are right – it’s why I used the Grinch as a metaphor, I do make excuses for myself because I would rather hole up alone. I am exploring all kinds of meeting options in my area and I am sure I will find one that suits my needs (if I can get myself out of the house, and out of the car…)

    3. Dawn August 19, 2015 at 10:33 pm #

      Many introverts, including me, are in the rooms of AA. I hear you loud and clear. I am anxious every time I walk in a meeting. I continue to choose to go because over time I have made some really good friends, received more tools for my sobriety. I gravitate more towards the other introverts present. Plus, it’s part of my service work too, to be available for the newcomers because someone was once there for me when I once wanted to stop drinking. But this is just my opinion, my experience and what works for me.

      • Marilyn August 20, 2015 at 10:21 am #

        I hear what you are saying, but it is very hard for me to follow through consistently. I write a sobriety blog, and that is a forum for me to share my experience and some advice to the ambivalent drinker and those who are new to recovery. I do not mean to seem like Oz, behind the curtain spouting pearls, but it suits my temperament. I think if I found the right meeting I would feel more comfortable… Thanks for the comment.

    4. Rick August 21, 2015 at 6:42 am #

      I agree. I do not go to meetings for this same reason. I like to sit at home and be by myself. I resent the pressure I receive from professional and personal help alike, repeatedly telling me that I “need” to go to meetings, get a sponsor, “90 meetings in 90 days” and ensure that I do not isolate. It’s not that I don’t intend to meet people, but that I prefer to do it slowly, in my own time. I also hate the often negative connotations attached to the word “isolate.” I do not think isolating is such a bad thing. What is more, when I was using and drinking, I was often very social – going out all the time so I could have an excuse to use. I was overly-committed to social events, so I could always give myself an excuse to use. Now, what appears to others as “isolation” is, to me, necessary space and alone-time to recover and heal from a damaging lifestyle I kept up for so many years. Additionally, because of a past history of trauma, I struggle with connection and trust. The pressure to get a sponsor and “trust your sponsor” is detrimental to me, a person who has reasons to be lacking in trust. I dislike greatly the pressure to hurry up and force trust and connection, and I don’t think there is anything wrong with a person taking the time he or she needs to take. But the repetitive advice to do otherwise causes insecurity in someone already insecure by nature of the situation. It’s not helpful.

      • Marilyn August 21, 2015 at 5:45 pm #

        You know – this is a great comment. Thank you. And I still feel like I am being judged (even by those who love me and are non judgmental in other aspects) when I say I really don’t want to speak up. I also love the concept that we isolated far less when we drank to “fit in”. Thanks for checking in,

    5. Jeff August 23, 2015 at 2:23 pm #

      Hey Marilyn,

      I just wanted to say thanks for the timely article and my introversion is a hindrance in a different way for me.

      I had 12 years sober until a few years ago and have been struggling to get back. My introversion, although beneficial in many ways, is a tremendous hindrance in me getting sober now. I had to take the Myers-Briggs personality test in one of the treatment centers I went to. The psychologist said she has never seen an introversion score as high as mine. I am constantly “inside my head” thinking, ruminating, regretting, fearing…it’s literally like a Stephen King novel inside there. I work by myself on third shift where I do some of my “best” (i.e. worst) thinking. I am drinking now because my life is so unmanageable. And my life is unmanageable because of my alcoholism. I’m stuck in a deadly rut. I isolate and drink to forget the resentment I have towards my ex, my legal issues, my financial issues, fears, my ex-employer; I am drinking so I don’t have to think about these things and to shut my mind down.

      I got sober in 2001 the first time and spent many years in AA. I never had a problem with having a sponsor, working the steps, speaking in meetings (short and sweet), and service work. I am going to meetings now sporadically and stick to small ones. I am hoping something will stick and right now I just pray for the willingness to do what I need to do to stay sober a day at a time. I have started seeing a therapist and have reached out to old AA contacts. So, basically, I am relying on the fellowship of AA. And fellowship goes against every grain in my introverted mind.

    6. Helen August 25, 2015 at 8:38 am #

      Thank God for the extroverts! I can go to the bigger meetings and listen to some tears, fear, joy, and wisdom. I am a card carrying introvert who went to the meetings anyway and got this great sonsor. She is my lifeline. I don’t have to share in meetings. Now I will occasionally. I take a deep breath and jump. And my guts are shaking on the inside, but I feel better afterwards and I don’t die. Seventeen years sober this time. The first 3 didn’t take. I had to go to meetings to find my people, especially my female friends. Having a home group helped. And I am with this small group of women and we help each other stay sober. Online meetings and other resources help. I am an introvert who came to understand that my brain often lied to me and I needed to be around other people with a brain like mine to help me be honest with myself. I hope each person finds a way to navigate sobriety. I was uncomfortable for a long time, but I was sober. So I learned to accept it.

    7. Marilyn August 25, 2015 at 7:11 pm #

      I am so sorry to hear you are suffering. It took me a few times trying before sobriety stuck for me too. And meetings seem to be the best way to assure long term sobriety, but I find it very difficult to go. If I thought I were going to drink again, I’d do ANYTHING to stop – including public speaking and a continuous barrage of people around to keep me straight. I too am in my head a lot and I really enjoy being alone. It is only recently I have been vocal about my reticence to speak up and about my feeling that I shouldn’t have to if I don’t want to. Thanks for the comment and try again – you can always try again…

    8. Rick August 26, 2015 at 7:21 pm #

      As a gay man, I can totally relate to you, and to all the other comments. I may be quiet, but I observe a lot more than others perceive to be. I do get a lot out of a meeting, but the trick is getting there. I Sooo can relate. I tried the social butterfly approach, as I was told to break through the fears, but did’nt fit the “clique” I found it all superficial. I Dunno, I’m rambling now. just wanted you to know, I whole heartedly enjoyed your article. Can I have the sight to continue reading your blog? Regards, Rick

    9. Brock August 26, 2015 at 9:04 pm #

      Wow Marilyn thank you for this. I can SO relate to your article and the subsequent responses. Being an introvert myself and in-and-out of the rooms for about five years, I’ve always thought I was doing the sobriety thing wrong. I am still rather reserved in meetings and engaging in fellowship remains awkward. I feel vindicated. I am not alone.

      • Marilyn September 15, 2015 at 1:45 pm #

        Isn’t it funny how the first thing that comes to mind is “Oh oh – I did something wrong…” I think its interesting that no matter how many time I hear someone tell me it is without judgement and that alcoholism is a personal thing to be handled in your own way – I want to (for once in my life) conform! Thanks for the endorsement and find your own comfort level…

    10. Brian Cuban August 27, 2015 at 2:04 pm #

      I am sorry that happened to you There is no doubt that goes on in some AA meetings but but to suggest that as a rule anyone who does not want to speak will be forced to or shamed is absolutely ludicrous. There are good meetings and bad meetings. I am an introvert. I sat quietly for a month before I spoke and only when I felt comfortable. On one pressured me. Find a different meeting that more suits your personality.

      • Marilyn September 15, 2015 at 1:35 pm #

        Brian – I did not mean to say I was shamed or forced. Just that a friend was rather insistent and I FEEL forced and a bit ashamed. It was all myself. And there is no question I have not done the research needed to find the right meeting for me. Thanks for the advice. M

    11. Rebecca December 30, 2015 at 9:52 am #

      I just read this article and it immediately made me feel more validated and understood. I have such a hard time being in AA as an introvert. I struggle to go to meetings and “share and make myself vulnerable.” People have asked me to speak for 15mins and the thought of it sends to tears. I haven’t had a drink in over a year and half yet I have started to feel so much pressure from people in AA to speak up, sponsor people, share the gifts of the program, and share my experience more. The fact that I am being pushed by people to seek connection and not “isolate” makes me resentful towards AA. I don’t feel that the program is suited for everyone.

    12. Jeff September 17, 2016 at 3:02 pm #

      Two recurring themes I have noticed in 12 step programs are conformity and obedience. There is talk of doing what you are supposed to or the next indicated thing. There does not seem to be any room for being “different” yes I have addiction on my plate. But I also am a highly introverted insulin dependent diabetic. Not all people have the same phycological and medical needs. One size fits all is a misnomer in my opinion.

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