This is What I Realised About Social Distancing As A Typical Introvert

Growing up, more often than not, I heard people commenting on how shy, quiet, and soft-spoken I am — be it at school, at a new workplace, even in the family. 

Every time, it felt as though they were genuinely concerned about me not going out and meeting people often enough, not speaking up enough, not acting assertive and decisive enough. I would do things way out of my element to prove that I was capable of being as extroverted as the next person and, if I really tried, one day, I would actually become one. 

I entered competitions, became the class president, went on a summer trip with complete strangers, even performed solo on stage at age eleven. Surprisingly, I sailed through those challenges splendidly. For once, I felt accepted and celebrated. 

However, during adolescence and early adulthood, I found myself even more antisocial than I had ever been as a child. In a world that rewards people for being outgoing, sociable, and outdoorsy, for a long time, I continued pushing myself forward while feeling unfulfilled, forced, and outcast.

One summer day, I came across Susan Cain’s TED talk titled “The Power of Introverts”. For a moment, hundreds of flashbacks went through my mind, from all those years battling the social standards that make people like us feel compelled to be “rowdy”. I finished her book “Quiet” within a week. 

I realised that I didn’t hate socialising at all; it’s just that I’d been going about it completely wrong by forcing myself into meeting people rather than savouring the fun in personal connections and meaningful conversations. 

— Ha Bui

By then, I knew I had to accept my introversion as a gift, not a curse, and I had the right to choose staying in on a Friday night over hanging at a crowded local pub into the late hours. But, as it turned out, I realised that I didn’t hate socialising at all; it’s just that I’d been going about it completely wrong by forcing myself into meeting people rather than savouring the fun in personal connections and meaningful conversations. 

Anyway, as I started to make peace with who I am and my social calendar, the coronavirus pandemic hit. Every day, around the world, social distancing recommendations and lockdowns are announced. As someone who is perfectly happy with not leaving my flat for an entire weekend, I can’t help but feel as though my way of life would suddenly become the norm for millions of people in the foreseeable future. 

Is this a bizarre exaggeration of the world where everyone lives like an extreme introvert? Will I get on as if nothing changes? How difficult will it be for the extroverts to cope? These questions stayed at the back of my mind for days, so being the research-minded person that I am, I began to collect evidence.

Let’s start looking at the introverts.

I am an introvert, my sibling and the majority of my close friends are also introverts, many of my colleagues are none other than introverts. In fact, a third to a half of the world population are introverts. Surely, we would be having a great time now. Well, that is quite true, at least for a while. My social distancing period started off with an amazing sense of freedom (unbelievable, I know) and calmness. 

After weeks of frequent travels and social gatherings for Christmas and two New Year’s in a row, I was overjoyed to finally spend the weekend by myself, getting out of bed late and spending the rest of the day cooking, reading, or going on a Netflix marathon. My body was rested, my energy was recharged, and my mind was refreshed. Familiarity felt comfortable and I was happily living my quiet life away from the bustle and hustle.

Three to four weeks after I practiced social distancing, the situation got severe in the Western world. By the time people in my town were advised to work from home and avoid pubs and restaurants, I had already got accustomed to living with minimal social contact. A ‘soft’ lockdown now would seem nothing more than an inconvenience.

When I talked with my incredibly introverted sibling and best friend, as I suspected, they described the exact same sentiment. We all talked about how we’d been preparing for this all our lives and how refreshing it was to be treated as a role model by society, then we had a good laugh.

Meanwhile, those I know who have more extroverted qualities seemed to have a harder time coming to terms with their new way of life. Just like how introverts gain energy from solitude, extroverts get theirs from having company. A life-long habit is hard to break overnight, and no longer being able to do the daily things they enjoy can be frustrating.

Two weeks into self-isolation, my slightly extroverted friend nervously told me about how she started talking to herself and that breaking her frequent meet-up schedules was slowly driving her insane. I wonder, how much worse could it be for someone who is extremely extroverted? 

How ironic it is that I’ve spent so much time and silent effort trying to be like an extrovert — be outgoing, be the life of the party — only for the world to turn upside down into a living nightmare for extroverts. 

Perhaps this came at just the right time as an opportunity to achieve justice for all the introverts who have, at least once in their life, been told that the only way to prove themselves and succeed in life is to be something they’re not.

That said, once I asked myself about how I was finding the experience, reality immediately hit me: I wasn’t living the dream either. 

After the honeymoon of the first few weeks, as soon as panic and tension escalated with the multiple lockdowns across Europe, I started feeling anxious and stressed every day. News headlines were particularly negative, but even things unrelated to the pandemic like texts from family and friends and work issues could spiral into emotional turmoil more easily than usual. 

If introversion is ever a curse, it must lie in the way we over-analyse and overthink everything to a much greater degree than our extroverted counterparts do. 

We are often able to mute the little voice in our heads by occasionally getting outside, doing something active, and talking to people. When such coping mechanisms are disabled, we have no choice but to eventually internalise our thoughts and worries. They build up and drain all the positive energy we get from being on our own in the first place. 

I was determined to find a common solution to my friends’ problems and mine, once and for all. Who knows how much longer we’ll stay in this state? Well, these lemons certainly won’t turn themselves into lemonade.

If anything, my many years as an independent and single introvert have taught me a thing or two about keeping myself entertained and healthily engaged with the world.

As I dug hard in my memory archives and asked what truly made alone time satisfying and valuable when I was a child, I had an idea. It all came down to the way I regulated energy within me and exchanged it with the outside world, just like how oxygen feeds my blood cells and organs then carbon dioxide is released into the air every time I breathe.

First thing first, sticking to a balanced routine is the key to staying sane and productive. 

For me, it means doing things that make me feel good — be it baking, writing, growing my plants, or sometimes allowing myself to be lazy and unwind with an old movie. It also means doing things that are good for me such as reading and learning, eating healthy, maintaining consistent sleeping patterns, and exercising. 

Indoor hobbies come naturally to me as an introvert, but what if a hobby is impossible to do indoors? Even though I’m not an expert in that area, I believe in people’s ability to get creative and improvise under restrictive circumstances. As the Greek philosopher Plato once said, “Necessity is the mother of innovation”. 

The second principle that I discovered for a sustainable life in physical isolation is about staying connected with people, mentally and emotionally. 

This is as relevant for extroverts as for introverts. It’s also the fundamental factor that changed my attitude towards socialising. After all, humans are social creatures, however introverted or extroverted we are. Meaningful conversations, whether they’re exchanged in person or through technologies, have the power to keep us close, comforted, and hopeful of the day we meet in person again.

One final thing I’ve learned about rising above difficult times is how crucial it is to stay in tune with my thoughts and emotions. 

I learned to listen and talk to myself. Yes, that’s exactly what my extroverted friend thought was insane, but it’s not insane at all. It’s about absorbing emotions, putting a name to feelings, and understanding triggers even if that means going through the same monologue multiple times. That way, I could handle negativity before it handles me. 

For all the worriers out there, it’s easier said than done. It can’t be forced onto a person and it takes patience and practice, but once you do it long enough and it becomes auto-pilot, I promise, everything will become lighter.

As I reflected on my own current state of life, I again went over the questions which got me here. The truth is: the situation is extraordinary, devastating, and uncertain, no matter where we are on the introversion-extroversion spectrum. 

Physically separating ourselves from our circles and communities is against human nature, but we all have a responsibility to help stop the spread of this pandemic and, fortunately, we can do it in healthy and loving ways.

As much as I believe in a cure for the disease emerging from scientific research soon, I have faith in a cure for our fear and frustration with being isolated — a cure from within. Now is the time to embrace solitude and master the art of being alone.

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