Social Exhaustion: Avoiding Introvert Burnout
Some people derive energy from being with others. These are extroverts. To introverts they seem to rule the world with their easy charm and ability to small talk just about anyone. An introvert doesn’t derive energy from other humans. In fact, socialization exhausts the introvert, who must retreat to solitary in order to recharge their battery.
It’s like a video game. In my corner is a little health meter. When it gets too low my character slows down and can hardly play. During this time I’m easily susceptible to injury, so I have to hide. The problem is I don’t realize that my meter is running low until it’s all gone and I can barely function.
I know this about myself and yet I still get myself into situations where my energy is dangerously depleted. By “dangerously” I mean unable to string together sentences, shaky, tired in a way that sleep doesn’t help, so miserable that I dissociate and hardly feel in control of my actions.
My husband and I recently had in-laws come and stay with us — his uncle and two cousins in their early 20s. I’ve known them for nearly 10 years. I’m comfortable with them, but they are very talkative. The three of them have a healthy sociability — telling stories and asking an equal amount of questions to draw you into conversation. If someone leaves the room to get more coffee or wash off a plate, one will go with them — you know, just so nobody feels left out or lonely. There seems to be no end to their chattiness. They must be extroverts.
About 24 hours after they arrived, I hit a wall. I was in mid-sentence when it struck me. It felt like my higher faculties had been switched off. My mind felt cloudy and vacant. “What was I saying? What’s happened? What’s wrong with me? I can’t finish my sentence. Of course, I can finish this sentence. I feel so tired. This isn’t fair.”
The founder of analytical psychology Carl Jung coined the terms introvert and extrovert. The introvert is introspective, concerned with their internal life, and their energy flows inward. The extrovert is concerned with the external world, interacting and being influenced by their environment.
I do have an interest in their external world. I’m not socially anxious and I feel competent talking to others. But I can’t sustain it without getting wiped out.
Just 24 hours after my houseguests arrived, I thought I was going to have a breakdown. I could barely think or switch subjects fast enough to answer simple questions. My hands were useless. It was very similar to insomnia. They didn’t seem like my hands. My face was twitchy. Gravity felt exceptionally strong. I didn’t feel grounded. Life didn’t feel real, and I wondered if I would hurt myself. I didn’t want to end my life and yet walking into traffic outside seemed like an appropriate way to “snap out of it.”
I felt generally miserable. Sleep did nothing to reinvigorate me, but I retreated to my bedroom anyway claiming I would take a nap. I lay there feeling defective and rude. How do I stop my energy from flowing inward? What if I had the kind of job where I was sent to a multi-day conference? How can I overcome this unconscious habit? What good is it?
I had a psychology professor who believed that, evolutionarily speaking, introverts were the most suitable people to survive long winters in rural, weatherworn areas of the world. We’re the people who can handle being stranded in Patagonia or even Antarctica during the seven months of the year when jet fuel freezes. We’re the keepers of the lonely outposts. By 2030, according to Elon Musk, a handful of us will be on Mars.
Being alone for 30 minutes did help in the end. I had a little more fuel in my tank when I emerged for dinner. However, I need to deal with the energy loss more offensively in the future. I’m not prone to monitoring my energy levels, and I tend to think people will take it personally if I suddenly retreat into my room. But on the other hand, I’ve seen people do it before and I didn’t think it was rude. They must be onto something.
When I used to smoke cigarettes, I took five to 10 minutes to myself 20 times a day. There’s got to be some way to do that again, maybe with a book. What do you think?
Newman, S. (2015). Social Exhaustion: Avoiding Introvert Burnout. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 23, 2018, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/social-exhaustion-avoiding-introvert-burnout/