"We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience." -John Dewey
The quarantine has taught me something crucial about myself: I am absolutely an introvert to my core.
Of course, I’ve had my suspicions. But prior to the shutdown I felt my affinity for some extroverted activities put me somewhere in the middle of the introvert-extrovert spectrum. Would an archetypal introvert feel a need to share her work online? Would she contact her representatives and join activist groups? Could she shamelessly sing karaoke or rage it on a dance floor?
It depends. What I’ve learned in a roundabout way thanks to the pandemic is that introverts like myself can happily engage in extroversion. In fact, we should practice extroversion when it suits our goals, our values, and our human need for connection. But a true introvert must take extra care to carve out enough time for total, rejuvenating solitude.
Must. Must. Must.
But let’s take a step back. First, what is the true measure of introversion or extroversion? On the one hand, psychologists understand introversion to be greater concern for one’s inner world than external phenomena. That’s somewhat helpful, but some studies show that even infant behavior can point to future introversion or extroversion. So what observable traits in babies point to a lifetime of patterned social behavior?
The answer has to do with our response to stimuli. Each new thing we perceive—new toys, new people, new sights and smells—each is a stimulus. In a strictly controlled environment, scientists can delicately manipulate the level of stimuli that babies experience and then observe how they react.
If a child becomes stressed in a stimulating environment, she’s more likely to grow up and be an introvert. If the child is interested and attempts to engage with new stimuli, she’s probably an extrovert.
Despite how malleable our brains can be (i.e., “neural plasticity“), our impulse to either avoid or seek out stimulation follows us through life. Since quarantine for those sheltering in place involves confinement in a relatively unstimulating place (home, where the alchemy of novelty and public life is scant), this offers a rare opportunity for a pseudo-experiment.
In this experiment, our control is our previous lifestyle (probably a life with more daily stimulation: travel, human contact, appointments and obligations). Your experimental environment is quarantine, with the variable of “level of stimulation” turned down low. What do you observe about yourself? Do you relish the opportunity to slow down and collect your thoughts? Or are you bored out of your mind and stressed by a lack of connection with others?
Depending on your personality and the degree of low-stimulation you’ve reached in these rare times (perhaps parents with young children are still plenty stimulated while sheltering in place), chances are you’ve experienced a variety of reactions and emotions in quarantine.
I feel moved to write this because, well … I haven’t. With a suddenly contracted level of stimulation in my life, I’ve felt more whole, more mentally and physically healthy, and more secure in my identity than ever before—and this really surprises me. All told, the most difficult emotion I continually face during social distancing is guilt—guilt that I’m not suffering the psychological or economic tortures of isolation as so many do. Worse still, there’s guilt that my skills, work experience, and proclivities don’t position me anywhere near the front lines of the pandemic.
Still, there’s power available to those who determine their position on the introversion-extroversion spectrum, and this power can be harnessed for good. For one, recognizing what levels of stimulation best suit you can help you better plan your lifestyle.
In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, author Susan Cain describes how introverts sometimes need to practice pseudo-extroversion to advance their goals and careers. This is especially true in the United States, where our educational system and job sphere assume extroversion as the default mode. (Read about an introvert who realized how extroversion-centric we are after she moved to Switzerland, here). As for me, in childhood I had theater camp, brownie scouts, and sports teams. In college and grad school, I practiced pseudo-extroversion for group projects and research presentations. While waiting tables, I basically made a living at it. Same thing while teaching overseas.
These and other experiences point to my long personal history with pseudo-extroversion. It’s been vital for me to succeed in school, to build social capital, and to go after job opportunities. Considering my values and goals—and the fact that this quarantine won’t last forever—I know I’ll need more pseudo-extroversion in my life. But importantly, now I see how much healthier I feel with less stimulation, and this helps me plan better for the future.
I see now that I must prioritize a style of living and working that gives me enough time and space for solitude. Now I know I won’t be at my best unless I draw some boundaries—unless I say “no” sometimes.
Previous to the shut down, I was hesitant to limit myself like this because I didn’t fully appreciate the restorative power of solitude for my personality. I was more likely to say “yes” to any stimulating experience that came my way, and regret missing out on others. I mistakenly believed that more stimulation, more variety, more novelty, and more social interaction was categorically good. The spice of life. The stuff of memories.
I spent my time without properly valuing it, and without evaluating its effect on me.
So I have at least two tasks before me: commit to new limits on stimulation and carefully reintroduce variety, novelty, and connection back into my life.
For one, I’ve been writing more letters; what better way for an introvert to express love and affection for friends than through the effort of crafting and mailing a letter? I’ve also started to explore ways to build community while sheltering in place. My plan involves three types of groups: book clubs, activist networks, and the Quaker spiritual community. I hope my own journey will inspire another introvert to carefully poke at her own boundaries.
First, book clubs keep me reading and thoughtful. What’s more, Susan Cain describes a key trait of introverts as a strong preference for deep conversation over small talk. Book clubs are ideal spaces for setting aside the superficial and dredging up deep themes of life and literature. Thanks to an industrious friend of mine, I’ve been able to meet new book lovers around the country in our COVID-19 online book club.
In the activist world, the pandemic has raised the stakes and brought about new online advocacy groups for tenants rights, aid to indigenous tribes, and more. I admit, so far I’ve only taken tepid steps toward online activism while I orient myself to the issues and strategies on offer. The book Becoming a Citizen Activist by Nick Licata offers useful suggestions on how to make incremental progress through mostly established, institutional channels. On the other hand, the anthology of essays The Impossible Will Take a Little While, edited by Paul Loeb, offers a wealth of inspiration and psychological insight into nonviolent civil disobedience in the United States and internationally.
Finally, I’ve started to engage with the Nashville Friends Meeting, a Quaker spiritual community. If you’re not familiar, Quaker meetings convene at least once a week in many cities and communities across the country. Although the theology of Quakerism has its roots in Christianity, most Quakers eschew religious dogma; there are as many “holy books” as individual Quakers who spot divinity in the pages of one text or another.
This means that Quakers are essentially introverted in their theology—they believe that each person has a piece of divine Truth, and it’s the work of a spiritual seeker to inquire within and listen to a higher form of guidance. This guidance might be understood to come from God, or even just the “better angels of our nature.” There are Quaker Christians, Quaker Buddhists, and Quaker atheists that all find a home in the tradition.
Instead of church services, Quakers—or Friends, as they refer to themselves—engage in weekly meetings. A traditional “unprogrammed” meeting is essentially non-hierarchical, in that there is no priest or spiritual leader to direct the congregation through their spiritual lessons. Instead, a meeting functions like group meditation: Friends quietly face each other, eyes open or closed, and occasionally someone may break the silence if they feel moved to contribute something to the group. They might share a personal revelation. An interesting bit of news. Always, they provide a window into their unique situation and wisdom—their special corner of divine truth.
It took a book, Peace Pilgrim: Her Life and Work in Her Own Words, for me to feel ready to purposefully engage in a spiritual community. Peace Pilgrim thought the goal of spirituality was to embody inner peace and harmony, and to realize your full moral potential. She promoted a life of service, and although Peace Pilgrim was not a Quaker, in my opinion there are few spiritual communities as open to her deeply personal interpretation of spirituality. It’s through the Quaker community in Nashville, in fact, that I’ve found the most energy for local grassroots activism during quarantine. The Society of Friends also have a legacy of anti-war and abolitionist work to commend them.
I’m lucky to be so well-constituted for sheltering in place, but I’m determined not to sit pretty in my oasis of solitude. If you value contribution, service, and growth, then you must find your own ideal balance of solitude and connection. For the deep work of mindful awareness, creative expression, and careful analysis, an introvert’s low-stimulus environment might be ideal. But to ensure a better world emerges from the destruction of our pre-coronavirus status quo, we need to unite and challenge the boundaries that separate us. We will have to cooperate to build a better society.
The full spectrum of introversion and extroversion is required here, and the first step to find our place in the struggle is to figure out our baseline impulse for solitude or stimulation. From there we can plan how to build our community and achieve our aims while prioritizing self-care.
What have you learned about yourself during quarantine?