If you ask anyone who knows me, they’ll describe me as outgoing, funny, full of life, and ambitious. They’ll recount stories of me taking risks (I recently took a huge one), being the life of the party, and constantly trying things that take me out of my comfort zone.
And they’re not wrong. I love challenging myself and meeting new people, I think life should be lived to the fullest, and I’m willing to do almost anything for laugh. I’ve been successful in my career because I’m not afraid to be honest or ask for what I want, and I take chances on opportunities that are more exciting and uncertain than they are stable and secure.
But the truth is, that projection of me—at least on paper—is a far-from-accurate portrayal of my true personality.
The first time I felt different, and even a bit lost, was in 2014. I had recently outgrown my desire to be social every night, I resonated more with JOMO than FOMO, and I started cancelling my plans last minute. I often found myself happiest and most comfortable when I was alone in my room with my door closed. I even began treating trips to the bathroom like a James Bond mission: I'd dart across the hall, duck into the bathroom, and stealthily close the door, not making a single noise. The thought of my roommate detecting my presence gave me anxiety. And it wasn’t because I didn’t like her—on the contrary, I adored her. I simply wanted to hide from everyone, to the point where when I got a text or call, I would hide my phone from myself. I wanted—and needed—solitude.
I felt tapped out—mentally, emotionally, and physically.
Things escalated when I started dating someone. We both shared a love for adventure, and we’d often go to shows, talk to strangers, and gallivant around the city like we owned it. I was having the time of my life, but the days we weren’t together, I could hardly get out of bed. I felt tapped out—mentally, emotionally, and physically. After living a life that was meticulously scheduled and optimized for me (and only me), I was struggling to adapt to a life that involved another person. Not to mention I had growing social anxiety. I began working in meeting rooms instead of the open workspace. I was exhausted and short-tempered when I spent time with friends and family. I wasn’t my best self, and I didn’t understand why.
For a while I thought I was depressed. But having experience with people who truly suffer from depression, I knew that wasn’t the case. I went through various stages of blaming my job, the fact that I couldn’t exercise (I was injured at the time), and even lack of sleep.
Determined to diagnose myself, I started to dig deeper. I read articles and research about personality disorders. I observed people’s behaviors like a mad scientist. And I became more open about what I was experiencing.
The Introvert's Dilemma
As it turns out, I just needed to recharge.
Basically, I'm a smartphone that always runs out of battery. While some wear out theirs playing Pokémon Go, I lose mine being social. A week jam-packed with plans, a job with back-to-back meetings, and a boyfriend with boundless energy were draining me. I wasn’t putting myself on airplane mode, and I desperately needed to.
The misconceptions of being both introverted and extroverted stretch far and wide. Extroverts have a reputation of being outgoing, confident, and full of energy. They thrive in the limelight, excel in client-facing careers (like sales), and can be blunt and confrontational. Introverts, on the other hand, are often deemed hermits—people who prefer to be alone, lost in a book, and consumed by their own thoughts. They are shy, guarded, awkward, and all those other adjectives reminiscent of the sad blob illustrations from old Zoloft commercials.
While not entirely untrue, those descriptions fail to capture the true difference between being introverted and extroverted: energy. Introverts get their energy from being alone, while extroverts get their energy from being around others. Individual differences in extraversion and dopamine genetics predict neural reward responses. Cohen MX, Young J, Baek JM. Brain research. Cognitive brain research, 2005, Nov.;25(3):0926-6410. And though I embody many traits that are associated with being extroverted—charismatic, social, open—my energy comes from being alone.
Getting to where I am today wasn't easy, but it taught me a ton about myself. For starters, I've learned it’s imperative to make time for myself and to avoid overscheduling. That means limiting myself to two social evenings during the workweek and one or two on weekends. My then boyfriend (now fiancé) and I even alternate nights we have plans so we’re guaranteed to have at least one evening to ourselves. We also designate one week per quarter as a “No Plans Week,” where, just as it sounds, we keep the entire week free of plans.
Your body will tell you when it needs rest. Listen to it.
I’m also strategic about events. If I have an upcoming party, wedding, conference, or anything else I know will zap my energy, I prepare for it with two or three days of downtime. I also schedule time to recharge during the event, whether it’s through a walk by myself, yoga class, coffee shop break, or a few hours in bed relishing the quiet. It doesn’t work every time, but the more diligent I am about it, the happier I am.
While there are many tricks to conserving and optimizing energy, the biggest lesson (and skill) I learned was how to listen to my body and communicate my needs. Your body will tell you when it needs rest. Listen to it. And when you need rest, be open about it. There will always be exceptions, roadblocks, disagreements, and times you need to shut yourself in a room and recharge. People who love and respect you will understand. Even if they don’t at first, they’ll try and ultimately learn to.
Bottom line, the more you respect yourself and your boundaries, the more energized, productive, and fulfilled you’ll be. It can even make you a better friend, partner, manager, and so much more. I’m far from perfect and still struggle to strike a healthy balance, but I do feel like I’m getting one step closer every day.