An Introvert’s Tips to Building Community
Connecting to others is good for your mental and physical health!
When I first moved to the Bay Area years ago, as part of a general physical exam my primary care doctor asked me how I was doing in terms of having a “community.” I wasn’t sure that I heard her correctly and asked her to clarify. She said, “community — do you have a sense of belonging in your neighborhood or with a group?” I had, in fact, not connected with a community at that point, and I was quite moved that one of her standard questions was to ask about my psycho-social well-being. As a psychologist, I value well-being but don’t expect others to see its importance in the same way. How did she know that a significant part of my well-being was related to a big transition to living in a new area? (Unfortunately, this wonderful doctor who cared about my whole being moved out of state a year later.) Even as an introvert, I still craved connection with others and feeling like I was part of something beyond my immediate family. I felt the effect of not having a community during a tough transition, which happened to involve a stressful work environment — I was more stressed, sad, angry, and lonely.
Why is community important?
Research has shown the benefits of belonging and social connection across the lifespan — social engagement, relationships, and social support result in better mental and physical health outcomes as well as individual and community well-being (e.g., Nicholson, 2012; Price-Robertson et al., 2017; Roffey, 2013; Wulff et al., 2015). At a basic level, having a community means feeling connected to others. This connection can be based on any number of shared things — space (e.g., neighborhood), values (e.g., volunteer work), experiences (e.g., parenthood), interests (e.g., sports), and/or humanity. One key characteristic of this connection is for it to be meaningful on some level to the people involved. Simply being in a crowd to be around people could be more of a distraction from — than connection with — others.
At that doctor’s appointment, I realized part of why I felt unhappy was that I was missing community and that I would feel better as I settled into the area and made new friends. However, making connections would take time and effort on my part. As an introvert, I knew firsthand it takes energy to meet new people and to connect with friends regularly. In fact, when my first child was ready for preschool, my husband (and fellow introvert) and I discussed how we dreaded having to get to know other parents and feeling like we had to be friendly for our child’s sake even though we aren’t terribly social people. The reality was that we did get along with some people with whom we found we had things in common (lived in the same neighborhood, went to the same college), and we realized we didn’t have to be friends with everyone although we were all friendly with each other. We ended up seeing families at different classes or sports activities around town and naturally connected as our paths crossed in multiple ways over a period of time. Experiencing the benefits of connecting with new people and families has helped me push through my instinct to resist being social with people I don’t know.
How does one even start to build (or continue to develop) community?
- Start small — build one-on-one relationships. Create regular working sessions with a fellow classmate/academic/solo entrepreneur. Find a walking buddy from your local mothers’ club. Ask a parent at your kid’s school to coffee.
- Identify interests that you feel motivated to pursue — hiking meet up, pottery class, ukulele jam session, spiritual community (e.g., church, temple or meditation center), etc.
- Be patient — not every effort will result in a lasting connection. Perhaps you didn’t quite click with the walking buddy or your new friend moves away; try another person or a different activity.
- Be persistent — this is related to being patient in that you will probably have to make multiple attempts over time before connecting with people. When you feel discouraged, take a break and do your own thing for awhile and be okay with it.
For instance — one of my inclinations is to carpool whenever I can — 1) it’s a nice way to connect with others, 2) it’s environmentally friendly! 3) it’s efficient (I like efficiency quite a bit), and 4) it feels nice to give and receive. I got to know a coworker much better when we started carpooling, and my family has built stronger relationships with families we carpool with for various activities. It’s not always easy to initiate social contact, but I enjoy helping out and gather that other people enjoy helping also, so carpooling has been a nice vehicle for connecting (did you catch my pun?).
Of course, not every effort pans out — take the time I went for a walk with someone from a mothers’ club (we arranged this purely based on an email list-serve interaction), and during the walk I figured out she knew this person I had an unpleasant interaction with in my last job (can you say “awkward?!”). I didn’t ever try to meet up again lest she figured it out (I was vague about whether I knew this person or not — I’m sure I was really smooth about it too).
Bottom line — building a community for yourself is healthy for you! It can take some effort and time, but the payoff is in your favor in terms of physical and mental well-being. My doctor’s question about community reminded me to take time to build community for my well-being, and over time I have seen how I have benefitted from investing in community for myself (and my family). I encourage you to take a small step towards building more community for yourself starting today.