Why Social Isolation is Surprisingly Difficult for Introverts

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Are you an introvert or an extrovert? Are you sure?

If I told any number of acquaintances or family members that I was an introvert, I have a feeling many of them would laugh. Sometimes, I laugh off the idea, too.

While we have various ideas of what the personality types mean, especially since Myers Briggs seemingly took over the pop-psych world, Susan Cain, author of the bestseller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, says it comes down to how you practice self-care. “Introverts recharge their batteries by being alone,” she writes. “Extroverts need to recharge when they don’t socialize enough.”

I don’t present as an introvert. I often hang out in groups. I tend to be loud at parties. I’m quick to laugh. I frequently introduce myself to strangers unprompted, and numerous numbers in my phone are from people I’ve met once or twice with the promise of hanging out again soon. Even so, I don’t think any of those hangouts has ever happened.

Sometimes, if I’ve been out all day with people or gone to two social engagements in a weekend, I feel like I can’t go to another one. I need time to read. I need to do yoga. I need to sit by myself and think. Otherwise I start to feel anxious or cross or just not quite like myself.

If any of this seems familiar to you, it’s possible that you’re an introvert passing as an extrovert, or that you’re an extrovert who shares many characteristics of an introvert. If that’s the case, I’m willing to bet that isolating yourself during the coronavirus pandemic has been particularly hard on you.

Counterintuitive, no? An actual legal decree saying you must keep yourself away from other people seems like an introvert’s dream. And maybe it is for some. But for me and plenty of others, it’s been challenging in a way that’s difficult for friends and family to understand.

A lot of this is my fault. If you present as something that you’re not, people may have trouble accepting what you actually are. In fact you may have trouble accepting what you actually are.

In her book’s introduction, Cain suggests that there are far more introverts than it may seem. “Depending on which study you consult,” she posits, “one third to one half of Americans are introverts—in other words, one out of every two or three people you know.” (Emphasis is the author’s.) Further, she writes:

If these statistics surprise you, that’s probably because so many people pretend to be extroverts. Closet introverts pass undetected on playgrounds, in high school locker rooms, in the corridors of corporate America. Some fool even themselves, until some life event—a layoff, an empty nest, an inheritance that frees them to spend time as they like—jolts them into taking stock of their true natures.

How’s a global pandemic for a life event?

Here we are, with about 80 percent of the U.S. under orders to stay at home. That would seem to give a potential introvert plenty of time to discover their true nature.

However, I also can’t remember a time in our cultural history where there’s been more of an emphasis on connecting with those around you.

Over the course of the past two-plus weeks, I’ve found myself emotionally exhausted in a particular way I’ve never felt before. At first, I chalked this up to the obvious: Society has changed, these are unprecedented times, people are dying and most of us our helpless to stop it, many of our incomes have been slashed or disappeared, we don’t know when things will get back to “normal.” To state this colloquially: Shit is scary! Still, these factors don’t fully explain everything I’m feeling.

Strangely, in this time of isolation, I’ve found my presence more in demand than ever before. Endless news reports tell us that remaining connected is the most important thing we can do right now. Social media is full of screenshots of FaceTimes and virtual happy hours. Zoom has become a verb, and the video conferencing company’s stock is one of the few that’s soared, gaining 58 percent year-to-date as of mid-March while the rest of the market plummeted. The founder’s net worth has also soared—to the tune of 2 billion extra bucks. (Nice work.)

On a minute-to-minute basis, my phone dings with texts and emails from friends or family wanting to know how I am or to share a news link or a meme or a photo of their dinner. I have a daily Zoom conference call that sometimes goes on for hours with a group of friends that was added to my calendar every day for four straight weeks (these are my ride-or-dies, but still, the visual of that many appointments made me feel anxious). Any fiction reading series that I’ve ever attended has sent me an invitation to attend virtual author talks, and I’ve set “dates” with some friends to attend. Fitness classes are live streaming, seemingly not for me but at me.

My calendar is weirdly full, but I also can’t rely on my old stand-by I’d-love-to-but-I’m-busy excuse to graciously decline any of these interactions.

I understand this all means I am very lucky, not everyone has a strong social safety net. I’m probably supposed to be gratitude journaling about it. But, sometimes, instead of seeing these check-ins as people I love wanting to know how I am because they care — as I rationally know is the case — I can’t help but interpret the messages and invites as demands. Though it embarrasses me to admit it, I’m emotionally exhausted by it and want to be left alone.

One of the outlets I often use for this, my writing practice, is an activity I’m starting to feel may be rude. Everyone’s kind of around at the moment, yet here I am, trying to get away from people. I am self-employed and always work from home. But now that most of my circle is working from home, too, the rules for daily interactions have drastically changed. I feel like I’m always on call. And as I listen to other people’s experiences and fears and worries, I feel like I’m absorbing all that extra anxiety, too. I haven’t been able to tune out, to deeply connect with my own brain, to turn my feelings and experiences into something that makes sense to me.

The other day while I was listening to the radio, the DJ said, with hope and gravitas in his voice, “We are all alone, together.” But I found myself thinking, “Actually, I kind of want to be regular alone.”

What can we do?

For one, it probably makes sense to stop hiding how we’re feeling. On one of those daily calls with my group of closest friends, I told them more or less what I shared above. Turns out, some of them were feeling the same way, too.

One of them shared how she’d had a long call earlier that day with people she went to high school with—acquaintances that she hasn’t talked to in a long time. While that’s partly enjoyable, it’s also partly exhausting—especially as catch-ups like these become regular occurrences. As she put it, she had reached the end of her weekend, she had no idea where it went, and she was very tired. Pretty funny when you can’t even leave your house.

In that way, the old social media rules should probably still apply. It’s fun and good and helpful sometimes, but if you’re attached to Instagram and Twitter and Facebook and video chats all the time, even in the time of a pandemic that calls for physical isolation, it’s just as likely to make you feel insane or anxious or depressed.

Another friend on that phone-side chat shared a link to a Harvard Business Review article entitled “That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief.” Its author interviewed David Kessler, who cowrote On Grief and Grieving, the book that introduced the world to the five stages of grief. (He recently wrote a follow-up, Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief.) When the author asked Kessler what people who feel overwhelmed with their emotions right now should do, he suggested it was grief (more details on that at the link), and that they should start calling it such. In part, he said:

When you name it, you feel it and it moves through you. Emotions need motion. It’s important we acknowledge what we go through. One unfortunate byproduct of the self-help movement is we’re the first generation to have feelings about our feelings. We tell ourselves things like, I feel sad, but I shouldn’t feel that; other people have it worse. We can — we should — stop at the first feeling. I feel sad… Fighting it doesn’t help because your body is producing the feeling. If we allow the feelings to happen, they’ll happen in an orderly way, and it empowers us. Then we’re not victims.

I suppose the same applies to feelings of introversion—whether or not they’re grief-related. It’s time to name them so that we don’t become victims of them.

As with anything worthwhile, it will, of course, be more difficult than it seems. “It makes sense that so many introverts hide even from themselves,” Cain, the Quiet author, writes. “We live with a value system that I call the Extroverted Ideal — the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight… We like to think that we value individuality, but all too often we admire one type of individual — the kind who’s comfortable ‘putting himself out there.’”

This pandemic has already revealed plenty of truths about society. Use the time as an opportunity to present a new truth about yourself: Come out of the introversion closet. Tell people you’re an introvert. Share the news proudly. Tell them you need time alone to recharge. Put your phone in the other room for awhile. Turn off news alerts. Tell your family you’re happy to talk to them, but you want to schedule a time for later when you feel up to it. Or tell them you’ll text them updates but you actually don’t want to chat right now.

If you’re still embarrassed or feel strange about it, reframe the conversation. Part of taking care of ourselves is sharing how we feel. And if we, as introverts, clear the space we need for ourselves, it’s only then that can we be there for others.

Magazine Publishing Veteran | Bylines with WaPo, WSJ, Marie Claire, Us Weekly | Founder of Shirley Books https://shirleybooks.substack.com/subscribe

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