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The Age of the Introvert

The silver lining of the quarantine.

"Honestly, quarantine has been good for me. I used to be so overwhelmed by everything. I've always been called an extrovert, and I thought I had to be on 24/7, always out and running around. I didn't feel my needs. I never realized how toxic it was."

This was a 17-year-old patient's response when I asked if, for her, there had been a silver lining to quarantine. She then added that her friendships had become much stronger and closer because everybody had stayed put over the summer.

Yes, depression and anxiety rates are up—and for good reason. The list of things people have to worry about these days is endless: health, jobs, finances, school, politics, climate change, the future in general. The pandemic has left no part of our lives untouched.

And yet, most of my patients have expressed relief, one way or another, that the world is no longer moving at such a frenetic speed. They point out how nice it is not to fret about what to wear every morning. They enjoy exploring their neighborhoods and take comfort in not needing to show up at yet another office party or social event. Others talk about how wonderful it is that they no longer have to worry about not getting invited to some event.

Young people particularly express relief at no longer "having FOMO (fear of missing out) all the time." Older people say that they no longer feel that the world is rushing by them. Somewhat counterintuitively, many feel that since the beginning of the quarantine period, they participate more in life—since their families now have more time for them, and their friends make more of an effort to connect.

The ease with which so many people slipped into their new quarantine routines is, I believe, an indication of how profoundly we all needed a break. It was as if there was a collective sigh of relief that it was now not just socially permitted but required that we all step off the treadmill of daily life. A couple of weeks into the lockdown, another young patient summed up the sentiment to me: "It's as if my inside world is finally in line with the outside world."

Most of us live a chronically extroverted lifestyle. In our society, extroversion is validated and praised. From early in their lives, children who speak up and eagerly engage in social activities are viewed as well-adjusted and on the path to success. The quiet, introspective child, on the other hand, is continuously admonished to “participate more” and be more social. But a society that favors one mode of being so strongly over another is intrinsically unbalanced.

One of the side-effects of the enforced slowing down of the COVID-19 era has been to become more aware of this imbalance. In our government-mandated seclusion, many of us have gained a new understanding and appreciation of our actual needs—and the value of introspection and solitude.

And as we hopefully move toward a post-pandemic world, we should make an effort to consciously preserve this new understanding of ourselves. If we don’t, we will waste this opportunity to envision and bring about a better world. And even more importantly, we will condemn ourselves to having to learn the same lessons all over again in a different context, since our intrinsic imbalances and dysfunctions won’t just disappear.

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