By Olivia Rhodes
The world we live in expects far too much of us. This is something we all know to be true. The idea that we should somehow, miraculously, be able to balance successful studies or careers alongside a flawless exercise regimen, a niche hobby or two, keeping up to date with the zeitgeisty book or film of the moment, family, love, and friends is an impossibility which we can never quite let go of. We follow the it-girls on Instagram who swish around London in rented vintage outfits and perfectly bouncy blow-dries, surrounded by a horde of other women doing exactly the same. We lust after that life despite knowing that it is, literally and figuratively, filtered. This is all familiar – much has been said about understanding the highlight-reel nature of online life, but there is one aspect of it I can never quite shake, can never quite convince myself to be a construction.
Every time I open a social media app on my phone for a quick procrastination scroll, I see groups of people with arms entwined around each other, captions peppered with inside jokes, and stories bursting with reposts of countless birthday collages. For someone who has never been part of a solid group of girlfriends, it is probably the most painful part of social media. This isn’t a pity party, though, because I am far from friendless – I just do friendship a little differently. I can count on one hand the number of friends I would trust with anything: one from school, one from sixth form, and two I’ve met here at university. When it’s not 2am and I’m in the middle of an existential crisis, I remember that it’s okay. Like I said, friendship looks different for me, and it is here where I must confess why: I am an introvert.
In preparing to come to university, I tried to convince myself otherwise. I insisted I liked going out, and that now was going to be the time when I found my girl gang. I listened to Dolly Alderton’s Everything I Know About Love on Audible as I walked through the fields of my small hometown in glowing September evenings, thinking the indestructible female unit she described was waiting for me among the spires of the city I was soon to call home. I thought the pandemic within which I arrived in Cambridge would be a minor blip, and that in no time I’d be dancing the night away surrounded by friends I loved. University culture is extremely supportive of extroverts, with an incessant deluge of socials, swaps, pub crawls, and club nights to foster new friendships, even if they’re just for that night in the club loos, hyping up each other’s outfits. It was when I arrived that I realised things would be different.
I don’t want to give any airtime to Covid, but I have to admit it did put a spanner in the works in terms of meeting friends. I was, however, fortunate enough to be sharing a staircase with a lovely group of people, among which I found two best friends who I treasure deeply to this day. In the course of first year, as the world reopened, I seemed to find myself in something resembling the girl gang I’d anticipated. But it was a shock to my system when I found myself increasingly anxious before any social activities we’d do together, coming away desperate for some peace and my own company. This is not by any means to say I didn’t like those girls as individuals. Something changes, though, in a group as opposed to meeting with one or two friends: it feels more structured, like more effort is expected, and intimate honesty transfigures into vulnerability. All of this is, probably, in my head – but I’m sure that I am not the only one.
As an introvert, I thrive off time on my own now and then; after a busy week of supervisions and coffee shop trips, I look forward to an evening to myself. This isn’t selfishness, it’s self-knowledge, and it’s taken me far too long to categorise my needs in that way. Perhaps only in the last few weeks have I truly accepted that the expansive friendship groups I see online and in popular culture aren’t how I want friendship to look. I can’t say that the realisation has been an easy one, either – it feels like I’ve had to let go of an image for my future life that used to excite me. But with my handful of good friends, I have a trust in each of them that I know is unbreakable. They say that you have friends for a reason, a season, or a lifetime, and it’s a saying I know to be true. Friends come and go. They always have, and they always will, but the most important thing is that we nurture the few friendships that really mean something. If a friend makes you feel like it’s okay not to always be your most sparkly self, if you can just sit in each other’s company and feel at ease, and if your friendship withstands a busy couple of weeks only for you to pick things back up effortlessly, you’re onto a winner. Don’t contort yourself into extroversion, because changing yourself is ‘fitting in’, but being yourself is genuinely ‘belonging’.
Featured image: illustration by Alice Skinner