- Many introverts found a surprise silver lining during COVID-19 in the respite from the difficult demands of everyday interactions with others.
- As the world opens up again, many people are feeling anxiety about returning to the sometimes difficult and often stressful social world.
- Both introverts and extraverts can use lessons learned during the pandemic to find a better way of socializing in the post-pandemic world.
Ishmael* is in his late 20s, works in the tech world, and feels awkward and uncomfortable in many social situations. “I’ve always pushed myself to be more sociable,” he told me. “I feel like it’s not good to always stay in my comfort zone, because that would mean never having any social life at all.”
Leticia* is married and has two dogs and a cat. “I like people,” she said, “but I don’t like socializing. I’m happiest when I’m at home with my husband and my pets. I prefer working in my garden to being around other people.”
Theresa* has never been married. “I have good friends, men and women, some of whom are my sexual partners. But I like my privacy. I don’t think I’ll ever want to live with someone else, and I don’t have any interest in being in lots of social situations. I’m lucky – I have found work that allows me to be solitary as much as I like and to have connections with other people on my own terms. I don’t go to office happy hours, and nobody gives me any slack about it.”
Each of these individuals privately calls themselves “introverts,” meaning “a reserved or shy person who enjoys spending time alone” (Merriam-Webster). For them, as for many others, the COVID-19 pandemic was (and still is) extremely difficult. But they each found a surprise silver lining in the respite from the difficult demands of everyday interactions with others.
Yet now as the world is opening up again, and friends and colleagues want to get together as they did before the pandemic, they each also find themselves struggling with anxiety about returning to the sometimes difficult and often stressful social world. As Ishmael* put it, “I didn’t realize just how stressful I found my life until I was ‘forced’ not to socialize.” A recent New York Times article suggests that Ishmael isn’t alone, noting that, “For some adults, the pandemic provided a glimpse into just how much anxiety they were experiencing on a regular basis.” One example reported in the Times article was of “Josh Bernoff, a public speaker and author who lives in Arlington, Mass., [who] said he was constantly stressed by traveling, figuring out where his next on-the-go meal was coming from and making socially awkward conversation with people he didn’t know that well.”
Introverts Learned to Pay Attention to Their Needs During the Pandemic
Psychology Today tells us, “Cultures differ in how they value certain personality traits, and America likes its extroverts; it rewards assertiveness and encourages people to speak up. Studies suggest that there are just as many introverts as extroverts, but they are less visible and certainly less noisy. First and foremost, introverts seek out and enjoy opportunities for reflection and solitude; they think better by themselves.”
As with most descriptions of personality, introversion and extroversion exist on a continuum, with most of us experiencing a mix of these characteristics. You might, for example, be full of social zeal when you’re with your family, but more withdrawn in group settings with people you’re less comfortable with.
What many of my clients are telling me, however, is that however they think of themselves, they’ve learned to be more accepting of their needs during the pandemic.
Leticia*, for instance, told me that she had realized that she did not need to worry so much about whether or not she was pleasing others. “I have begun to understand that I need quiet to think; and that makes a busy office a bad place for me. So I’m looking for a new job – one where I can work from home at least part of the time, and where I can have a quiet spot for working when I’m in the office.”
And Ishmael* said that he was thinking he didn’t need to push himself to go to parties anymore. “I’m really uncomfortable and probably because of that I don’t ever meet people at parties. So it’s a lousy way to socialize for me. I’d rather go out with someone one on one, even if I’m not so good at making conversation.”
On the other hand, as my Psychology Today colleague Sophia Dembling points out, “even for an introvert there is such a thing as too much social distancing.”
A Solution for Fears About Returning to Uncomfortable Situations
So while the ending of the isolation resulting from the pandemic is in many ways a relief, it has also been cause for concern, including what many of my clients are calling “fear of reentry,” that is, fears about returning situations in which interpersonal interactions stir up discomfort and anxiety.
There is a solution. As the world opens up again, one important takeaway from the pandemic is that you can pay attention to and respect who you are, rather than expect yourself to be someone you are not. Once you have recognized and accepted your own needs, you might find that you can stop pushing yourself to engage in activities that feel alienating to you. Accepting yourself can also make it much easier to do what one client said to me: “As I allow myself to take the time alone when I need it, I find that I’m able to engage in the social interactions that I want to engage in much more easily.”
In other words, my Psychology Today colleague Marti Nemko writes, many people will be less inclined to force themselves into social situations that they don’t want to be part of. What he calls “the New Normal will likely make life easier for the introvert.” But from what I'm hearing, the lack of social pressure may make life easier even for some extraverts.
Post-COVID-19, you may find that you have more freedom to be who you are – whether that means that you are an introvert, an extravert, or some combination of the traits of both.
*All names and identifying information have been changed to protect privacy
Buelow, B.(2012) Insight: Reflections on the Gift of Being an Introvert
Cain, S. (2013) Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. Crown
Sophia Dembling. (2012). An Introvert's Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World
Laurie Helgoe, Ph.D. (2012) Introvert Power by Sourcebooks
Merriam-Webster dictionary https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/introvert
Richtel, M. (2021) The U.S. Is Opening Up. For the Anxious, That Comes With a Cost.https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/17/health/US-reopening-anxiety-ocd.html…