Why Introversion is a Superpower (and a Tempting Trap)
Learnings from 2.5 months completely alone
“Being alone for a while is dangerous. It’s addicting. Once you see how peaceful it is, you don’t want to deal with people anymore.”
~ Tom Hardy
Flash back to August 2020.
Within the growing uncertainty around the world regarding where we were in the pandemic timeline, I knew one thing for sure: I was sick of being at home.
Obviously no knock to my family here, but after 5 months of quarantining together, I needed a break. Luckily, with my work start date right around the corner, I had a good excuse to get some space. I just had to figure out how.
I’m always someone who’s enjoyed his me time, maybe a little too much. Although I consider myself a social person, I’ve never gone out of my way to avoid time by myself if I could help it. It started in high school, when I’d often choose to commute (yes, I commuted to high school, but that’s a different story) by myself instead of with my fellow classmates and friends. That was easy enough to rationalize, as I had less than 0 desire to socialize at 7AM after a late night of homework and 3 PM after a long day of school. Even during the school day, when I had a free 20 minutes, I usually opted for watching basketball highlights in the back of the library instead of hanging out in the cafeteria.
A trend obvious to me now in hindsight but elusive at the time was that from Freshman Year to Senior Year, my attitude towards companionship steadily changed. Earlier on in high school, I would time alone more begrudgingly, in spite of what I thought I needed, what all teens needed — to always be around peers. Yet every time I hung out, even my close friends, I’d find myself needing time to recharge after. I should’ve known what was going on then, but I kept operating like something was up — I certainly wasn’t quiet or shy(anyone who knows me can attest to that), so why wasn’t I always down to clown? Over time, I came to enjoy those moments alone and seek them out more often, often by choosing to commute home alone most days and shut the world out with my headphones. Believe it or not, that’s how I’m sure most of the world saw me for a long time — in my own world, shut out, in my head.
As I got to college, that perception only increased. Early on, I jumped into the newfound freedom I had and embraced the chance to shape more of my days and committments. Instantly, my introversion reared its head multiple times. I vividly remember being surprised when I realized I had never even considered taking classes with my friends, instead opting for the ones that fit my schedule best — same for group study sessions and meals. I also vividly remember showing up for a parties on Friday nights and frequently being met with “Yo, did you disappear? I haven’t seen you all week!” and being super confused about why I was expected to be consistently seen with other people, not understanding that was the norm for college kids.
Throughout college, I leaned into that side of myself even more, eventually ditching the headphones and cellphone for my famous “stimulation-free walks” that I tried to get everyone I knew to try. Through meditation, I finally found solace in being with myself (longer piece on that coming soon), and got to the point that I often preferred a quiet, chill night with my roommates to just about anything else. As bummed as I was to go virtual, the prospect of quarantine actually really excited me.
It wasn’t until about 2 months into the pandemic that I found the validation I had been looking for. I was near peak quarantine boredom and making a playlist of TED Talks to watch. I sorted them by most watched on YouTube and was surprised to see a vid called “The Power of Introverts” right behind an interview with Elon Musk. Intrigued, I clicked. I watched as Susan Cain, the woman giving the talk, spoke about how introverts have felt increasingly out of place in a hyper-stimulated society and have trouble finding their crowd, especially when younger. Hearing her words, I finally began to properly conceptualize all of my past tensions and confusions into a narrative that applied beyond my own life. Feeling relieved and hopeful, I purchased her book, Quiet, and dove in. I finished the whole book in about a week and now recommend it to everyone I know, regardless of their personality. I won’t blabber on about the book more here — my review can be found below.
What I’m Into — May 2020 Edition
A collection of my favorite books, musical artists, TV shows, and movies from this past May — edition 2 coming soon!
Ok, back to August. Like I said earlier, I loved my family, but my lease was up. Thankfully, we had a beach house I could spend time at — out on the northernmost tip of Long Island in Orient(pic below for context), a town of just over 750 people, a fair amount of whom only came there for summer weekends. The perfect test for me. I was game.
I made the 2+ hour drive from my parents’ house (near Port Washington on the map) and slowly settled myself in. I was so excited to finally have a space to my self— I’d wanted to live by myself as early as my Sophomore Year of college and although it wasn’t 100% my own, it was the closest I’d gotten to that point. I also knew a few moments of loneliness and boredom would creep up because of how remote of a location I was in, so I prepared to handle them when they did. I expected my unofficial “move out” to teach me a lot about myself, which it certainly did. However, what surprised me most about my 2.5 months living alone was how much I learned about other people, specifically how much we take strangers for granted.
For the first month, we were still in fairly heavy lockdown, so I couldn’t go anywhere besides the grocery store. None of the neighbors were around for the duration of the two months, so that was my main form of in-person socialization. As a small rural town of mostly older people, Orient exudes a general friendliness that I always found comforting. People would wave to you as you passed by even if you’d never seen them before and you’d always stop to chat with a familiar face if you saw them. As someone who loves getting to know people, I always appreciated this, but it had been over a year since I was last in town, so I had forgotten what it was like. Small talk is virtually non-existent in college, where everyone’s always too busy staring at a screen or anxiously rushing somewhere to spare a few minutes.
Realizing I had a chance to change things, I quickly embraced a new attitude. Whereas before I would never have bothered engaging with the cashier ringing up my groceries or the service worker filling up my car with gas, I was talking their ear off now — asking them how their day was going, how busy it’s been, how they’re handling the pandemic. I never pushed a conversation if they clearly weren’t in the mood, but I consistenly found that a simple “how are you?” often lead to way longer, more personal answers than I expected. It was as if that person had been preparing what to say in their head for hours, desperately waiting for someone to ask for it.
This was a big step for me — despite my outgoingness, for the longest time I created an invisible social barrier between me and the essential service workers that helped make my life so comfortable. While I was still on the meal plan at school, I’d run to prepared food I could serve myself instead of talking to the man or woman behind the counter and always did self-checkout at stores. When I did engage with them, my tone took on what I see now in almost everyone else — an emotionally distant, expectant order. I’ve genuinely seen people talk to Siri with more enthusiasm.
I kept that same energy when gyms opened up in Mid-September — I became close with the woman who worked the front desk on the nights I would go, Ghana. It would often be just me and her in there, so we’d get to talking about music, working out, you name it. Again, someone I never would’ve bothered to talk to before. I was genuinely sad when I said goodbye to her the night I left, as it was further proof to me that everyone is worth getting to know, provided we put the effort in to actually do it.
In addition to grocery store, gas station, and gym workers, I became very familiar with the turkeys and deer that I’d wake up to walking around our yard. They fascinated me endlessly. I admired from afar how the flock of Turkey would walk everywhere together like a proud Uncle, and watched the babies grow from small to less small to “holy shit, when did you get so huge!?” like a humble observer of nature. I’d often joke on work calls that I see more turkeys/deer on a daily basis than people, which was crazy but true. By the end of my stay, I was making up backstories for them and imagining what they’d say if they communicated how we did. In retrospect, that was a pretty clear sign I needed to get back to civilization.
To be fully transparent, I did come home twice — once to tour apartments in New York City and once to celebrate my birthday. That being said, when I came back home to begin my move into my apartment at the end of October, I felt changed. As much as I was constantly invigorated by my ability to connect with strangers, I now found more voluntary socialization onerous and annoying. For nearly 3 months, I had the most control I probably ever will over my social life — every single interaction I had with other people was chosen by me, whether because I wanted to have it or because it was unavoidable. Especially because I was new to work and not staffed on a project yet, my days were amazingly peaceful. No drama, no chaos, no distractions. I was asleep by 10 PM most nights, barely used technology outside of work, and cooked every meal I ate. It was paradise.
Now almost 4 months into living in NYC, it’s amazing to think back to how used to that lifestyle I became. A big part of me wishes I could go back to it forever. I shocked myself by how ok I was having so little in my life, so much so that it seriously made me worry about what motivation I’ll have to actually go out and meet new people once the pandemic ends. Becoming as comfortable as I am spending much of my time alone has helped me shed a lot of toxicity from my life — in relationships, in the food and media I consume, and in my unfair expectations of myself. However, the fact that I took it to as far of an extreme as I could manage and liked it as much as I did scares me. With the internet’s mighty range, I could easily coast on the work I put in to form the relationships I currently have with my friends and family for a long time, without ever seeing them much in person again.
I want to make new friends, I want to get married, and I want to have kids, but fear that I’ll always have to fight against the part of myself that utterly relishes in disconnection and isolation to make that happen.
This is something I’ve struggled to admit to myself. As I write these thoughts down for the first time, I’ve had trouble finding things to do in the city that introduce me to new people. I finally caved and got on dating apps, but I can’t see how Bumble will be my savior. Even when the pandemic ends, I will have to adopt my hobbies to become more socially conducive. I’ll have to force myself to join a book club instead of reading by myself. I’ll have to force myself to join a basketball league instead of shooting around by myself. I’ll have to start finding other people who enjoy my new taste in music instead of listening alone in my bed. I’ll have to find people who also enjoy cooking rather than always cooking for myself. Hell, I hate drinking, but might have to do it just to give myself a solid chance at meeting enough new people to replace all those I’ve grown apart from or lost touch with since last March.
Or maybe that’s what I’m most unwilling to admit — maybe I’m one of those people who’s comfortable enough living a life predominantly alone. That thought scares me just as much.
I don’t know what’s true yet — I’ll have to wait and see.