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What Happens When An Introvert Volunteers?

A road sign.

We know that volunteering can help your community and your career, but what if the thought of having to socialize keeps you on the couch? Here, our social media and editorial intern Aaron shares how he overcame his introversion and volunteered.

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I’m here to help, but please don’t talk to me…

After two months of self-directed pep talks, I volunteered with the new food delivery service at my church. The work itself, which would consist of packing grocery bags of pre-selected foodstuffs and delivering them to people who couldn’t shop for themselves, didn't scare me. It also wasn’t indifference that kept me on the couch those two months, prior to beginning my new role. I soon realized it was the thought of socializing with the other volunteers.

That realization (aside from making me feel like a terrible person) was a relief. I could have just been lazy, or even worse, apathetic. I was relieved to discover that I simply didn’t want to talk to people (though that is one of the joys of volunteering, I’ve been told). Of course the potential to network and make new friends with common interests is appealing. But I’m a self-diagnosed introvert, and have always been anxious about meeting new folks -- let alone building relationships with them.

However, my conscience won out, as volunteering is an important way to help the world. Even if the thought of working with a ton of new people was in itself draining, what mattered most to me was helping my community in a tangible way.

So I showed up one dreary Friday in April.

The delivery room looked like a miniature grocery store, the walls lined with ground and instant coffee, canned tuna, multigrain bread, and fruit. I stood stiffly in the corner of the room, fiddling with the gloves in my pocket, waiting for directions. Volunteers began filtering into the room: older women with gray hair tucked neatly into their headscarves, some young men who looked about my age but were speaking German, and Father Paul, the man in charge of the operation.

I knew if I wanted to make this work for me, get the most out of the day, and not be a complete Darryl Downer, I’d have to trick myself into positivity. I focused on the “why-am-I-here” instead of the “how-do-I-feel-here.” To quote the Scottish author George MacDonald, it was time to “heed not thy feelings, but do thy work!”

In the first hour, the other volunteers and I stuffed grocery bags with food from people’s various shopping lists. Once we filled up the bags, we put them into shopping carts, organized by building number. Father Paul then broke us up into teams to deliver the goods.

Two of the older women and I took two shopping carts to the projects a few blocks away from the church. Up to this point, I had managed to keep the socializing to a minimum. I dispensed a few quick nods, laughed at several overheard jokes, and even introduced myself to someone! Despite what felt like an overwhelming triumph of willpower, my social anxiety didn’t lessen in my avoidance; I began to see that interacting with my fellow volunteers was a part of the “why-am-I-here” too.

So we started chatting, talking about our lives, and how good the work was we were doing. They even smiled and nodded through some stories I’m sure were terribly dull, specifically the time I learned that fingerless gloves don’t keep you warm when it’s snowing out. As the conversation flowed, my introversion receded, like it was never there.

Making friends isn’t so bad at all.

I’ve been back to volunteer a few times since then and the initial desire to keep to myself has waned. It’s something to cherish now, socializing with new, interesting people who care just as much about helping folks as I do. Once I forced myself through my discomfort, everything got a little bit easier.

With that said, I still don’t dilly-dally when it’s time to volunteer. There are too many books and quiet park benches that require my immediate attention. Harry Potter isn’t going to re-read itself!

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