When I explain my relationship dynamic to strangers, I like to tell them about a night a few years ago when my wife and I met up with friends at a crowded bar in Brooklyn, New York.
I was on the dance floor talking to a friend and straining my voice to be heard over the music when I noticed Lisa standing alone and content against a wall, only bothered when other patrons drew near.
Until the pandemic, this dynamic helped define our lives. I scheduled an activity or catch-up with a friend almost every night of the week. When she had free time, Lisa preferred to relax at home, with the exception of date nights.
Our friends have joked that Lisa doesn’t want to hang out with them because she’d rather be alone; I quip back that she doesn’t even want to hang out with me. The actual truth is that human interaction makes me feel replenished, while she finds time alone to be restorative.
Nine months into the pandemic, and several cycles of our respective coping mechanisms later, I envy her ability to look inward. While our former lives were orchestrated around social, professional and familial pressures that were often out of sync with her introversion, coronavirus has undone many of the ways in which we think of extroverts as having an advantage in our highly social world.
For extroverts like me, our brain’s reward circuitry is activated when we’re in a social environment or group and feel the spotlight of attention. Conversely, for introverts like my wife, these situations can be overstimulating, according to Todd Kashdan, a psychologist and co-author of “The Upside of Your Dark Side.”
When New York City locked down in March, I went into a digital socialization hyperdrive. There was webcam drag bingo, virtual birthday parties and at-home fitness challenges. But I quickly learned, like many others, that a screen is no replacement for in-person interaction. By May, I’d lost my job and we both got and recovered from Covid-19. I was desperate for the pressure-release valve found in the company of friends. But that valve — one through which I needed to externalize my despair — had been shut off.
Lisa, on the other hand, was coasting along. As a nurse, she still reported into work. She lamented the awfulness of the year, of course, but not much changed in the way of her plans; Lisa was happy on the couch with me, our cats, and Netflix. Her perfect-sized crowd.
As it turns out, the chasm of how we’ve coped is explained by the hardwiring of our personalities.
Now as the seasons change and coronavirus numbers surge, we’re looking at another stretch mirroring last spring, with diminishing options to see friends and family at a safe distance outside. There are still so many reasons for us to feel despair, between the hundreds of thousands of people who have already died from Covid-19 in the U.S., the murders of Black and brown people at the hands of police and a justice system that fails to hold them accountable, and a polarizing and exhausting election that the president has not yet conceded.
Staring into this grim future, it feels like the tables have turned. Not only has the ability to socialize in person been mostly removed, but extroverts like me don’t have opportunities for spontaneous interactions, like chatting with a stranger at a bar, bumping into a neighbor in my apartment building or just being around people on a commute to work and in the streets of the city. Meanwhile, introverts who find themselves restored when they’re alone may be finding themselves with a greater availability of time to do so.
Popularized by the psychiatrist Carl Jung in the early 1900s, introversion and extroversion represent end points on either side of a continuum. At the time, it was thought that introverts were internally focused on their own thoughts, while extroverts relished the external world.
Since then, we’ve come to learn there can be a great deal of variance within each of us at any time, as well as ambiverts who fall in the middle of the continuum, according to the psychologists I talked to.
For Fil, 32, and Emma Eden, 29, a married couple living in Rhode Island, the pandemic has similarly underscored these personality differences. Before lockdown, the pair established a routine that gave them equilibrium. If they were going out to a bar with friends, they’d take separate cars so Fil could stay out as late as he wanted and Emma could head home when she hit her limit.
As someone who gets “energy” from socializing, Fil said he’s struggling to navigate the mandated alone time, with an added layer of hearing about friends who aren’t taking Covid-19 as seriously. “Now I'm just stuck at home and I'm miserable,” Fil told me. “But, I also got FOMO because they're all out still kinda doing their normal thing.”
Meanwhile, Emma said she doesn’t have to be as intentional about scheduling alone time. “I feel less anxious,” she said. “Before I would need to kind of plan to recharge after spending a lot of time with people. I don't need to do that, which is pleasant.”
While Emma and my wife may be finding unanticipated relief, so much of our pandemic experience as introverts and extroverts comes down to the “nature of [our] lockdown,” according to Jonathan Cheek, a professor of psychology at Wellesley College. That means it’s not necessarily a breeze for introverts, either.
It sounds intuitive that extroverts would have a harder time during a prolonged interruption in socializing, but introverts who’ve been forced into unpredictable circumstances — interruptions in planning, encroaching family — can also feel exhaustion, Cheek said.
When the pandemic hit, Eva McCloskey, 40, her boyfriend and their 2-year-old son moved in with McCloskey’s family because they needed help with child care. While McCloskey was grateful for the support, the lack of alone time was draining.
“There's just always someone around and so little bits of solo time. It was challenging for me to be as gracious as I felt,” McCloskey said. “It was just really hard. [I’d] be annoyed that I was around people all the time.”
Now back in her own apartment and with child care restored, McCloskey said “it feels luxurious” to have her alone time back.
To be clear, when it comes to my own living circumstances, my normal outlet to blow off steam may be cut off, but Lisa and I are still in a position of privilege. When I lost my job, I was able to freelance, so we were never in the kind of precarious financial situation that millions of unemployed Americans are facing. When we witness horrific accounts of police violence, as white people we do not live with the fear that we could be next.
In a time of political and social unrest, it’s especially important for extroverts like me to focus on quality over quantity in our relationships. We should surround ourselves with — or limit our digital communication and social distancing to — people who fully accept us. In other words: Make time for people who you can be “effortlessly yourself around,” Kashdan said.
As we brace ourselves for more pandemic time indoors, just knowing the root of my depletion is helpful in figuring out how I’m going to get through the winter. I’m planning on nurturing fewer relationships more deeply over digital communication, rather than scheduling a torrent of Zoom calls with acquaintances. I’ll be saving that energy for when we can be back at a crowded bar in Brooklyn. Until then, I’ll be on the couch with Lisa.