I’m an extrovert. It wouldn’t take long talking to me to know that. I was active in theatre, I was always one to raise my hand in class, I tend to start loud conversations with co-workers, and sometimes when I’ve been alone for too long, I go to the store just to have a conversation with the Trader Joe’s clerk.
In the last year, that dynamic has shifted. I have found myself spending more of my time, by choice, alone. I go hiking by myself instead of trying to make plans with friends; I take myself out to coffee to write instead of chat; and I come home from work and start painting, journaling or meditating instead of recounting the details of my day to my husband.
Was it just me? Was I the only extrovert who didn’t want to hang out anymore?
Was I turning into an introvert?
I put out an informal question on Facebook and was surprised by how many people responded. “I need both people and solitude like air,” one woman told me.
“Oh my gosh, yes! I can’t be on all the time, sometimes I need to just be still with my own thoughts,” said another.
I called Dr. Deborah Bernstein, a psychologist in New York and one of our SheKnows Experts. I thought maybe extroversion and introversion were outdated terms and I could forget the whole thing. But she said that wasn’t the case. “There’s a lot of research on it,” she told me. “It is one of the five most important personality constructs that are studied and that seem to really be valid and true about people.”
But I was confused. As an extrovert, I’d always heard that I was supposed to “gain” my energy from being around other people. This seems to come from the Myers-Briggs personality model. That had been true for me, but now I found it was the opposite.
Bernstein suggested that we think of extroversion and introversion as too polarizing. Instead, she said, they’re more of a continuum. Few of us are pure introverts or extroverts and instead fall somewhere in the middle. And if I were in the middle, as she suggested I might be, the issue at hand wasn’t a failing of my extroversion. Instead, it was a matter of self-care.
“Some of the people that you’re describing to me that are extroverts suddenly pulling inward [makes me think] that maybe they got permission somehow, or maybe they just got a point where they said f*ck it, I can’t take it anymore, I need some alone time,” she said.
That was true for me. After years of focusing on other people’s needs (which no one had asked me to do), I couldn’t take the responsibility anymore. I wanted to be intensely alone and also to feel that other people could take care of themselves. Still, I sometimes felt guilty for the amount of time I was spending with myself. I had gone from nearly zero time alone to spending hours — even days — as my only company. Was it possible I was going overboard?
“How do you know when you’ve gotten enough alone time?” I asked her.
“Don’t you feel like you just… know?” she asked. I did. But in a culture where we routinely remind women to take “five minutes” to themselves, it feels like there should be some kind of acceptable time allowance to be by one’s self.
“Let’s be arbitrary,” she said. “Let’s make sure that everybody has two hours a day. If you have your two hours, you figure out how to spend it, and at the hour mark you start to feel lonely, you know it’s too much.”
It wasn’t that I wasn’t an extrovert anymore. It was that for too long, I had used my extroversion to neglect myself, and I was having to learn balance.
Bernstein suggested it can be healthy for extroverts and introverts alike to get more comfortable with both sides of the continuum. “If you feel like you’re not good at it, really take it on,” she said. “If you’re a crazy extrovert and you’ve always been the life of the party and it’s all you know, maybe you want to try [being alone].”
So extroverts — take that as a challenge. Whether you’re on the verge of burnout or not, check in and ask yourself: Am I taking care of me?
“I really do think the bottom line is: This is about permission,” Bernstein said. “It’s OK to need this. And it’s OK to let yourself know you need it and to seek it. It’s essential.”