Friday, 8 May 2020

For introverts, lockdown is a chance to play to our strengths

Time to think and be creative, and without too much socialising, is an introvert’s ideal environment. We talk to some of the people thriving under lockdown

Yesterday morning I spent an hour doing a jigsaw puzzle, followed by a game of Scrabble, fortified by tea and scones. For once, there was no one I had to see and nowhere I had to be. The way we live now has split us in two. For introverts, it’s largely business as usual. But for my more extroverted friends, who are clamouring for Zoom calls to fill the gaping hole the pub has left in their lives, it’s a deeply testing time.

I’m an introvert, which means I need time alone to recharge. This doesn’t mean I hate socialising, but it may well mean I will feel stressed and fatigued if I’m not left on my own for a while afterwards.

On the flipside, extroverts are energised by time spent with other people and are often, though not always, more outgoing. In the 1960s the German psychologist Hans Eysenck suggested the reason behind this difference lies in our environmental sensitivity. Introverts need lower levels of stimulation to reach their “set point” of social arousal than extroverts, leading them to seek an escape into quiet solitude sooner.

So it makes sense that we introverts are finding lockdown easier than our extroverted counterparts. They are struggling to reverse their behaviour, which I sympathise with – I can’t imagine what it would feel like to suddenly have to live life the other way round, with the government forcing me to socialise relentlessly. The thought of having to meet and talk to new people day and night without the possibility of withdrawing alone to recharge my batteries makes me feel nauseous.

‘I feel so much more confident in my own space.’ Illustration: Nathalie Lees/The Observer

Natasha Tiwari, a psychologist with a practice in London, agrees that self-isolation plays to an introvert’s strengths, but notes the importance of recognising that introversion and extroversion exist on a fluid scale. It’s natural to find things tough, however you identify. “Introversion and extroversion are not binary concepts,” she says. “Many of us flick between them depending on our mood, environment and the people surrounding us. The key is to work out how to attain the right balance in your lifestyle to support your mental health.”

For once, there is no guilt about wanting to stay at home
In his 2011 paper on introversion, the American psychologist Jonathan Cheek argued that there are four main types of introvert: anxious, restrained, thinking and social – though overlap is normal. Anxious introverts struggle with shyness, often avoiding other people. Restrained introverts can enjoy socialising, but will stay in their shell until they feel comfortable. Thinking introverts are happy around others but are prone to daydreaming, and social introverts enjoy meeting friends but prefer to do so in intimate groups.

I fall mostly into the last camp and always have done. I socialise one-on-one where possible. I relish a deep and meaningful conversation, but find the small-talk element of big gatherings tedious. You’ll find me on the dancefloor, but I won’t be asking 20 different people, “How’s work?” Being a social introvert means I am missing the injections of real-life connection that I carefully thread through my diary every few days. Technology isn’t quite doing it for me; it feels too frenetic.

I’m living with my extroverted mum who has been enjoying regular “prosecco hours” on Zoom, the soundtrack to which goes like this: “Where are you? Turn your camera on! Oh, there you are! Cheers darling! Oh, you’ve gone again! Unmute! Unmute!”

I downloaded the Houseparty app, opened it up and immediately a friend’s face popped up to say hi, entirely unannounced. The horror has stayed with me.

Cat Archer Underwood, 36, a brand consultant from Hampshire and an introvert, is learning more about herself. “I’ve had moments of utter peace, watching my husband and four-year-old daughter pottering about in the garden,” she says. “But I have been surprised at how I am feeling about the prospect of more weeks of this. I am dreaming of hosting barbecues, having a house full of laughing children and seeing people who aren’t quite friends but are more than strangers. I may be choosier about the events I force upon myself in the future, but I’ve learned that this introvert needs to party sometimes, too.”

Others further along the introversion scale are finding their daily life has barely changed. English teacher Ellie Grout, 29, from Bristol, is one of them. “Self-isolation is similar to my normal experience,” she says. “The difference is that, for once, there is no pressure to arrange social events and no guilt about cancelling plans when I realise I want to stay at home.”

Introverts like to have their own space to process their ideas

Hardcore introvert Jessica Pan, 34, spent a year living like an extrovert while writing her 2019 book, Sorry I’m Late, I Didn’t Want to Come. She lives with her husband Ian, a “solid ambivert”. Both are working from home and appreciating the slower pace of lockdown life. “I don’t believe any introvert actively enjoys being locked in their home at this time of anxiety,” she says. “But I am finding pleasure in the small things, such as reading more, cooking slowly and doing pilates. I’m trying to embrace this new normal and live in the moment.”

Jemma Broadstock, 24, a virtual assistant from Derbyshire, is hopeful this lockdown will reveal the often overlooked strengths of introverts and help erode what Susan Cain, author of the 2012 bestseller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, dubs “the extroverted ideal”.

“Business is thriving for me,” she says. “The idea of networking events has always felt overwhelming, but now people are holding them online and I’ve been finding new clients. When everything goes back to normal, I hope employers will offer more remote-working opportunities, as I feel much more confident in my own space. I am able to make valuable input when I would normally stay quiet.”

Cain, a former Wall Street lawyer, went some way in challenging misconceptions that introverts are always shy, serious and aloof with nothing much to offer. In her book she extols “the man of contemplation” in a society that has “always favoured the man of action”. Yet nearly a decade after its publication, extroversion is still considered a model of success, especially in the workplace where what Cain describes as “the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha and comfortable in the spotlight” prevails.

Working in an open-plan office, taking part in daily meetings, public speaking and networking are all activities that are geared towards the extrovert’s need for stimulation, while introverts struggle to make themselves seen and maintain their energy reserves.

Our response to the coronavirus pandemic means that society has changed overnight, reshaped to suit a more introverted way of being – one that is rarely permitted – of thriving in a quiet setting, having time to think and be creative, and having control over how much socialising you do. No social experiment could have gone this far in modelling a way of living designed almost exclusively for introverts. It may just show employers that, as Cain says in her 2012 Ted talk, “when it comes to creativity and leadership, we need introverts doing what they do best.”

“There is zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas,” she says. “And I mean zero. We could all stand to unplug and get inside our own heads a little more often.”

Tiwari hopes that this episode of upheaval will cause a long-term shift in working culture that could not come soon enough for introverts. “Introverts often enjoy having their own space to process ideas and work undistracted,” she says. “The lockdown is proving that working from home and being in one’s own space is not to the detriment of wider business interests and can, in fact, lead to a boost in productivity and wellbeing.”

Tiwari believes that extroverts and introverts can cope with this strange time together, so long as they respect their differences. “Being one or the other doesn’t preclude you from sharing interests and being cosy together,” she says. “It just means that you may need to be extra conscious of each other’s needs. Extroverts may be surprised at how much they enjoy this quieter time, while introverts may find themselves craving the company of others. Don’t overthink how you label yourself. Follow your intuitive sense for what you need right now.”

(Source: The Guardian)

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