The events of the past six months have given introverts the freedom to express themselves, and break away from a playbook where the default setting is loud. The result? An influx of energy and creative ideas.
But behind the banter lurked a simpler truth.
For – while introverts were likely as scared by the coronavirus pandemic as the rest of the world – the events that followed would sketch out the boundaries of a whole new reality. A reality which, for the first time, seemed more attuned to the millions of people who normally feel cast aside by their introversion.
“Lockdown, more than ever before, has really shown us how we live in a world wired for the more extroverted amongst us,” says Sara Tasker, an introvert, business coach and podcaster at Me & Orla.
“It’s just assumed that we all like the same things: noisy bars, face-to-face meetings, live events. Extroverts benefit from this: following these rules comes easily to them. Lockdown has turned the tables and given the introverts an energetic advantage.”
Pressing pause on loud and crowded
The introvert-extrovert personality construct is actually a continuum, and the majority of the people fall somewhere in the middle of it. But for those on the far end of the introvert scale, the “new normal” may be something of a misnomer.
For people who have spent their whole lives trying to make themselves more gregarious than they truly feel, it’s the old normal that is all out of whack. It’s just that we’re usually so busy living what psychologist Anja Stadelmann Wright refers to as a “chronically extroverted lifestyle”, we’ve forgotten to value anything else.
“Because we have more exposure to extroverts, by the very nature of their personality, we are more likely to link them with positivity and success,” says psychotherapist Alyssa Mancao, noting that pre-lockdown, she often worked with introverted clients who felt “bad” or “rude” for wanting to retreat from a noisy, hyperalert world.
Whether it’s the incessant ping of social media alerts, raucous team away days or crowded barbeques, our culture prizes loudness and a sense of always being “on”. It’s no surprise that introverts often grapple with what Sara describes as the “fear, shame and anxiety” that comes from trying to keep up with this playbook that’s been written and run by extroverts.
“I’m easily and quickly overwhelmed by the outside world,” agrees Sara. “It’s not that I can’t enjoy it – it just quickly reaches a point where it’s a bit much for me, and I need to retreat to somewhere quiet by myself to refuel.”
For Marie Ashdown, founder of Humble Crumb bakery, being an introvert means processing the outside world to a slightly different rhythm. “I rarely do anything on impulse as I like to mull things over,” she says. “And while I do love being around other people, I also love the quiet time in-between busy or social events.”
While many introverts like social situations, therefore, they simply don’t thrive on them in the same way that more outgoing people do. While parties and events can be draining, they find energy in the type of settings that sound uncannily like our collective experience of lockdown.
“I’ve always loved my own company,” says Sara. “For me, it’s always the easiest part of the day; no bra, no politeness, no outside input I’m forced to receive and respond to on cue […] I’m just so much more at ease and able to focus when I’m sat in leggings and an old T-shirt in the comfort of my kitchen!”
Whereas a pre-Covid era often left people like Sara, Beth and Marie feeling the outsider, the extraordinary circumstances of the past year have somehow levelled the playing field.
“During lockdown, I felt so myself,” says Beth. “I felt totally energised and bizarrely, my world expanded. I felt better immediately about having no plans, and I just kept getting more in my flow as it lasted.”
“Lockdown happened just as I was made redundant and when I was due to prepare the launch for my new business,” says Marie. “Whilst in some ways this couldn’t have happened at a worse time for me, I also felt a strange sense of positivity and relief. It allowed me extra time to really clarify what I wanted, with little pressure and less anxiety to have to share my ideas with the world and launch the business straight away.”
A moment of unburdening
It’s wrong to think introverts are inherently shy or antisocial, though. “Those who are introverted typically do not have the desire to be the ‘life of the party,’” explains Alyssa. “They may well enjoy large gatherings, but will perhaps be more inclined to interact with a small number of people, putting quality of conversation over quantity of people.”
In the same way, while introverts may be better-equipped to deal with solitude, “they still have a need for basic human connection and are also longing for interaction,” she says.
The difference with lockdown is that it allowed introverts to pick and choose the way they interact in a way that seems difficult to do ordinarily. As Beth says, “I tend to get overwhelmed, particularly in groups, and can’t order my thoughts. I go quiet and – very frustratingly – sometimes agree with things I don’t mean just because it’s easier than finding words to express my own truth.”
In many ways, social interactions under lockdown have played to the introverted person’s strengths of being reflective, compassionate and mindful of one-to-one interactions. Most of us have had more time to forge deeper connections minus the small talk, typically in settings that are remote or with smaller, more close knit groups.
“I’m 1000 times better at speaking on video than IRL – be it one-to-one, or to a group of 10,000,” says Sara. “I know a lot of podcasters have been lamenting having to record via Zoom and are longing to get back to face-to-face interviews, but for me the opposite has always been true. When both people are based in the everyday comfort of their homes, it’s easier to have intimate conversations, to open up to one another and be exactly who we are.”
For Marie, the rise of remote communication “has been a fantastic way to express who I really am comfortably”. “I find I’m able to push myself a little more using video versus real life,” she says.
Ordinarily, introverts often feel “drowned out” by others, too, with routines and norms that can feel emotionally draining.
“Being an introvert in an extrovert world is exhausting: all the small talk, the bright lights, the assumption that human connection is only valid if it’s face to face. It always feels a little like a performance to me,” says Sara.
“When I was younger, I’d force myself to raise my hand in meetings, to match the energy in conversations, to say yes to all the busy social engagements; knowing I’d spend the whole time wishing I was at home with a cup of tea.”
Lockdown and the stay-at-home focus that followed not only nixed this lifestyle (temporarily), it also took away the pressure for introverts to fit an extrovert mould.
“Being at home is always a retreat [from the pressures of everyday life], but something about being forced to stay at home has brought a whole new level of relief,” says Sara. “Lockdown gave introverts permission to indulge in being who we really are, and there’s a huge unburdening in that.”
Beth feels the same way. “I feel happier and calmer in my own company. Lockdown allowed me the space to read how I was feeling,” she says. “It allowed me to hear my own thoughts above others for once, and to notice my important relationships. I used the time to work out what I am really good at, too. I really think I will be able to be ‘me’ a lot more now.”
Freedom and creativity
The kind of solitude enabled by lockdown naturally lends itself to creative thinking; and this effect has been all the more profound for introverts riding high on a newfound sense of freedom.
Beth found herself brimming with ideas. Her lockdown projects include reviving a childhood dream to escape to nature in a campervan, and launching a website for her new business.
“It’s about being in the moment. You need to get off of autopilot and get into some slow time,” she says. “It’s hard to describe. Your perspective shifts and you sense energy rising all around you.”
Marie agrees: “This year people have had no option but to find things to do to fill the social void, which has opened up so much creativity.”
The ability to be more creative also comes from the greater sense of headspace and self-reflection that lockdown enabled. Whether introvert or extrovert, “it has shown many of us to look within and explore parts of the self that require nurturing and further exploration,” says Alyssa.
“It is important for us to learn how to sit with ourselves. To sit with our thoughts, feelings, discomforts, and vulnerabilities. Being comfortable with who we are looks like being comfortable with and learning to accept all of the parts of us, including the parts of us that feel uncomfortable, stuck, or unhappy.”
Because they derive energy from solitude and quiet settings, introverts may have found this process particularly rewarding. And it came into its own lockdown, with the absence of “noise” and performance pressure that quieter people normally find so distracting.
Yet, although introverts have a baseline that is more attuned to the process of self-awareness, it may have worked on the flip side too – with extroverts also finding a capacity for inner thought in the past few months.
“I feel that the crisis has allowed us to fully see the strengths of those who are introverted,” Alyssa says. “But it’s also allowed extroverts to tap into their own introversion.”
For Sara, the lack of an introvert’s usual stresses under lockdown means her life has ultimately enlarged.
“I can do a book event via Zoom and skip the exhaustion of travelling to another city and facing a sea of new faces,” she says. “Suddenly my capacity to say yes and take on bigger challenges has expanded dramatically, because I’m no longer jumping through the hoops set by people wired differently to me.
“My inbox is full of people saying they’ve found their creativity during lockdown, they’ve started sharing with an audience or made a pivot in their business that they’d hidden from for years,” she continues.
“It’s been fascinating to witness introvert people give themselves permission to thrive once lockdown stripped that pressure away.”
It’s freedom, then: not the freedom we think of in terms of easing Covid rules, but an altogether more powerful force.
Images: Getty, Unsplash