Introversion is not synonymous with isolationism, nor does it magically make us immune to the weight of what is currently happening in the world.
“In our society, the ideal self is bold, gregarious, and comfortable in the spotlight. We like to think that we value individuality, but mostly we admire the type of individual who’s comfortable ‘putting himself out there.’ Our schools, workplaces, and religious institutions are designed for extroverts.”
—Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking
I don’t have more social battery now than I did before this pandemic. Truth be told, I have even less. People who aren’t introverts don’t seem to understand this though. Reminders keep popping up for me, almost daily, that people who aren’t introverts don’t actually understand what introversion is and many don’t value us enough as people to learn anything about it outside of the myths they’ve heard their entire lives.
Introverts hear these same myths and we often internalize them, unfortunately. Many of us grow up thinking that something is fundamentally wrong with us and the way that we naturally exist in the world, so we find ways to push ourselves outside of our comforts and even have our boundaries repeatedly violated for the sake of extrovert comforts. We do it on an almost daily basis—in academic, professional, religious, recreational, and otherwise social settings—because this world demands it as proof of morality, intelligence, competence, health, stability, and humanness.
On more than one occasion, college classmates said to me, after hearing me speak for the first time all semester, “Oh, I didn’t think you had anything smart to say”—and, of course, I often got low participation grades for not being able to speak up and engage in discussion in ways that align with the accepted rules of classroom culture. People have accused me of being scheming, untrustworthy, mean, rude, stuck-up, and bitchy because they’re put off by my private, cautious, and contemplative nature. “Hot and cold” is another term often used to frame me as someone without the ability to regulate my moods, because others have failed to understand my need for quiet time and personal space after long bouts of social interaction.
Because others have perceived me as aloof and unfeeling for my generally calm demeanor and lack of excitability, I have also been accused of being a robot, or an alien, or—at the very least—an emotionally detached, “not normal” human. I’ve been told I should see a psychiatrist because I don’t like large crowds and loud spaces, and this means my brain is surely broken and I can just be written off as a “crazy” person not worth anyone’s time. A guy once asked me what happened to make me an introvert and when I told him I was born one, he said that he could “fix that” for me. In my youth, there were even Bible verses thrown at me to address my “spirit of fear” and identify it as something “not of God” that could be prayed away, placing the onus and blame on me for not believing hard enough.
The list goes on, and it’s full of gaslighting, insults, ableism, and a multitude of other shitty notions from people who are constantly reaffirmed in their anti-introvert opinions by a society that celebrates extroversion. All in all, extroverted people and culture have never understood me and have always tried to make their lack of understanding into my burden. Even now, as we are practicing social distancing under quarantine, it’s more of the same lack of understanding. It just happens to look different.
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Introverts are not a monolith, but we generally become easily overstimulated. This means that social interaction drains us and we require time in quiet environments to recharge, and that time is usually spent alone. But extroverts need the kind of stimulation that so easily exhausts us, which is why they thrive in social environments and can more easily meet societal expectations for “normal” social behaviors. This is largely because our brains respond differently to the reception of dopamine; while introverts tend to be satiated by it quickly, extroverts need a more steady supply of it. We also have different thought processes and utilize different brain pathways to arrive at those thoughts and then mold them into forms of communication—which is why introverts often take longer to be able to articulate our thoughts and tend to communicate better through the written word, while extroverts often think out loud and nearly always have a thought on the tip of their tongue.
There are many reasons why we have different temperaments and disparate amounts of social stamina, and it’s easy to understand why this means that extroverts will have a very difficult time with many aspects of something like social distancing. They are starved for the kind of stimulation that is a normalized part of their daily life, and many of them don’t seem to understand that they have pretty much always had the privilege to embrace their natural temperament without being overwhelmingly ostracized for it. Nor do they understand that introverts have had to learn how to perform it for our own survival and to our own detriment.
Most introverts grow up being reprimanded and punished for our introversion, and we become adults in a world that rewards us when we perform extroversion. In her book Quiet, Susan Cain writes, “[I]ntroverts learn from an early age to act like pretend extroverts… Many people realize they’re actually introverts who’ve trained themselves over time. They’ve never fully felt right, because they’ve always been stretching themselves.” This stretching is a strain on our mental health and can warp our sense of self, but being at home, in our own space, is a reprieve for a lot of us.
Quarantine means that many of us, especially those who have not worked from home before, are unable to separate public work life from our private home life, which is a challenge on its own. It also means that bored extroverts with fewer outlets who don’t know what else to do with themselves are trying to extract energy from us even more so than usual, and some even become angry, annoyed, and guilt trippy when we cannot muster up the energy to interact with them as much, as often, or in the ways that they desire.
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I have developed skills over the years to help me deal with the everyday social expectations and demands that inevitably pull me out of my comfort zone and leave me feeling drained. There is always a coping mechanism to turn to, always something to help supplement my needs, always something to help me navigate stimuli in a way that makes it just a little easier, a bit more bearable, and helps me keep peace of mind. I just had to do the work to figure out what those things were for me. Introverts are forced to. It’s becoming more and more clear to me during this time that many extroverts have never had to learn how to do this for themselves. Unfortunately, that means that the rest of us are dealing with the side-effects of extroverts who are either currently on this journey and are experiencing its trials and tribulations or who are refusing to adapt altogether and are attempting to rope us into their discombobulation.
Everything feels heavier right now, and typically deep-thinking, overly-analytical introverts are being called on to help others process their emotions even more so than we were before this pandemic began. We so often find ourselves in one-sided friendships, and some of us are recognizing in this season just how many of the people in our lives have essentially been using us as free therapists, mentors, and life coaches. Our conditions under quarantine have only exasperated these issues, and nobody seems to be thinking about how this is affecting us and our well-being.
There’s a multitude of information for how people with active minds and bodies can stay connected, entertained, and stimulated with virtual content and at-home activities while quarantined. But I have seen very few acknowledge the need for introverts to prioritize our peace and strengthen our boundaries in the face of (ironically) heightened socialization during social distancing. We may have rich inner worlds and interior lives, but we are struggling, too. Introversion is not synonymous with isolationism, nor does it magically make us immune to the weight of what is currently happening in the world. Imposed isolation is exhausting to everyone, in one way or another, regardless of whether or not we thrive in the quiet.
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Introverts are never required to be readily available and accessible to others, even when we are choosing to do absolutely nothing. We are not here to entertain others who assume that we have nothing better to do because they think that all we do is sit around and stare at the wall. Our needs are not less important during social distancing just because the world is designed for extroverts.