Monday, August 8, 2011

Lonerism: the Misunderstood 'Condition'

Matt Kailey is a transman living in Denver, Colorado, and an author, public speaker, and trainer on transgender issues. He blogs at Tranifesto. In his ideal world, no one would be equal to anyone else – everyone would just be equal.

Imagine this - more than 100 people packed in a conference room intended for 40, holiday music playing, a couple dozen private conversations creating that “crowd buzz” background noise, and everyone lining up to load their plates with ham, turkey, and other pot luck items before squeezing into one of the chairs around the room's perimeter and settling in for the office “holiday party.”

If this sounds like a lot of fun - the more, the merrier, after all - then you're probably not a loner. It's not surprising - we're a minority, statistically speaking.

Supposedly, about 25 percent of the population scores as introverted on the Myers-Briggs personality-type inventory, and in this case, introvert does not mean quiet or shy - it means people who get their energy from being alone and inside themselves, as opposed to extroverts, who get their energy from other people and the outside world.

Introverts need hours - maybe even days - alone to recharge from a hectic schedule or a major social event. They have a few close friends and don't mind doing things alone. Even so, there's still a difference between an introvert and a loner. And while I would bet that all loners are introverts, not all introverts are loners.

I am both of these things. And I have found that “lonerism” is about as misunderstood as transsexuality, and often as curious or contemptible. Wanting to be, needing to be, and usually preferring to be alone on most occasions is seen as pathetic at best, and is frequently interpreted as either snobbish or antisocial. I am none of these things.

When people discover that I am spending Thanksgiving or Christmas alone, they usually feel very sorry for me - pathetic, they think. And they invite me to come to their own family celebration. It's not that I don't appreciate the invitation - I do. It's very thoughtful. But I prefer to be alone. My “more-the-merrier” friend finds this extremely puzzling and somewhat sad. I'm not sure that she'll ever be convinced that this is my preference, not a situation to be pitied.

When I'm at a function and move away from the crowd, people wonder what happened - a snob, they think. But they're wrong. I'm not “stuck up.” I don't think I'm better than anyone else in the room. I just need to move back - there's too much noise, there's too much conversation, there's too much stimulation. I'm overwhelmed and I can't think. Not thinking is not conducive to good conversation, so either way I lose. I appear to be a snob.

“Antisocial” is an actual psychiatric diagnosis (and one that I don't have), and it has to do with disregarding the rights of others, living outside of the law, failure to honor commitments and job responsibilities, and indifference or lack of remorse for hurting someone.

I have been called antisocial on several occasions in my life by people who don't know what it really means. I am actually pretty much the opposite of antisocial. I care a great deal about the rights of others, I feel horrible when I have hurt someone, I take my commitments and responsibilities very seriously, and I certainly follow the law in most instances. I have spent most of my adult life in “helping” professions - social work and teaching. Antisocial has horrible connotations that I don't like being associated with - but it continues to be bandied about by people who don't understand a loner mentality.
I don't know if “lonerism” is biological or environmental - nature or nurture. As a child and a teenager, I would come home from school and go straight to my room - to play, to sit, to read, to think. I needed to get away and be alone.

My sister, who was born of the same parents and grew up in the same household, is just the opposite. When she was young, she would come home from school and plop herself in the living room, where she could tell everyone about her day and be in the middle of all the action. Even today, as a middle-aged adult, she can't stand to be alone. So I don't know where it came from - I just know that it's some type of trait that has never, and likely will never, go away.

I almost got written up at work for taking my food away from the holiday-party madness and back to my desk to eat. This was quite a few years ago, and I no longer work there, but my supervisor told me at the time that my “antisocial behavior” would go on my evaluation. It didn't, and I think I would have had a legitimate appeal if I had been marked down for not being able to handle the crowds.
But in any office situation, and in almost all social situations, my “lonerism” is usually completely misunderstood, and most often seen as a negative. And that's unfortunate, because I'm already battling the negatives of transsexuality. “Transsexual loner” might just be too much for people to bear.

(If you're in the same boat - although, as a loner, you would probably want your own boat - there's a great book I read a few years ago called “Party of One: The Loner's Manifesto” by Anneli Rufus. You'll think it was written just for you!)