After getting back from Chicago a couple of weeks ago, I had to take some time to re-settle into my skin. As much as I love being at conferences, meeting and getting to write with new people, it’s also a challenge for me as an introvert – spending a lot of time with other people drains my energy. I want a better word than that – because it sounds as though that means that being with other people was a wholly negative thing, and that’s not the case: just because I’m introverted doesn’t mean that I don’t like and need to be with other people sometimes! But what it does mean is that my energy stores are not fed by spending time with other people, as is the case with extroverts. After a lot of social time, I tend to need time alone to replenish my energy stores, to get back into some kind of deep connect with all the different parts of me.
Our US culture tends to privilege extroverted qualities: we like gregariousness, friendliness, folks who are comfortable in a crowd – we like people who make decisions and act, who are outgoing, who appear fearless. Introverts are also often called ‘loners,’ and loners are consistently miscast as isolated, deviant, brooding and mentally ill (and, of course, mentally ill is generally offered up as a negative characteristic, despite the fact that many, many, many of us struggle with depression, PTSD, anxiety, and other neurobiological and psychological processes that keep us away from a whole-bodied and comfortable engagement with everyday life). Most folks who have committed crimes of public terrorism are referred to by the press as loners. The loner isn’t trusted: ours is a pack-based society. Who wouldn’t want to run with the crowd?
I read a great book many years ago called Party of One: The Loners’ Manifesto – I found this book toward the end of my first marriage, when I was trying to understand why I wanted to be alone all the time. Maybe it wasn’t just the depression, or the trauma aftermath. Maybe there was something else going on for me, too. I used to describe myself as having ‘people overload’ when I spent too much time with others, either in large or small groups or even just too much time with one other person: I would get cranky, short-tempered, and feel physically out of sorts; my skin would feel like it wasn’t hanging quite right on my body. What I often did to ‘right’ myself again was to write – which meant, of course, that I’d be alone for a period of time, just me and the notebook and the cup of coffee. I would have time alone driving to and from the coffee shop, and during that couple of hours of transit and writing practice, I would begin to feel my whole self emerging back into my skin again.
Are you like this? Have you felt guilty about it, too? I used to feel terrible, like it meant that I didn’t want friends, or didn’t want to be with my lover – but I’ve come to understand that being introverted doesn’t mean those things. I tend to partner with folks who are more extroverted, and who have different energetic needs than I have. It’s a powerful thing to learn the language for these internal experiences. When I tell my sweetheart that I need some time alone, I’m not saying, “I don’t want to be with you.” I’m saying, “I need to replenish my energy stores so that I can be more present with you when we’re together.”
There’s a physio-emotional transition that occurs in me when I’ve been alone enough to get ready to welcome time with other people again. There will be a kind of urge or ache that rises up to the forefront, a little wave of loneliness or longing. I used to criticize this about myself – what’s the matter with you, Jen? Can’t you decide what you want? As though I had to always and only want either to be alone or with others. Isn’t it ok to be both/and?
I’m still learning to pay attention to these energetic rhythms, and how to best offer myself what I need in the moment. If I feel guilty about wanting or needing to spend time alone, I often engage in behaviors that don’t actually feed me (like watching too much television); if I spend too much time with others, after I know I need to take a break, I tend to start feeling like I’m wearing a plastic face.
Allowing myself to be in my own rhythms is the practice for today – one I’m still learning. One I’ll maybe always be learning. Maybe you’re practicing this, too. Be easy with yourself, ok?