The entirety of the last year has been scary and uncertain, but the first few weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic were particularly so. Practically overnight, and with little advance warning, the country closed down businesses and implemented stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines to help prevent the spread of the virus. Obviously it was for a greater good, but suddenly many of us were no longer able to see our friends, our families, or our colleagues. The exceptions to this — like, if someone was an essential worker — only made it more clear how isolating and frightening a time it was. For countless people, the experience was lonely and isolating. But there was one group who seemed to be adjusting a little better than everyone else: introverts. Some were even a little smug about it — at first, anyway.
“All the health experts are saying #StayHome. Okay... where were you guys when I was disappointing my friends and family by doing that for years?” popular Twitter account Introvert Life posted back at the start of the pandemic. “‘Social distancing’ please I’ve been training for a pandemic my entire life introverts rise up we’re finally valid,” tweeted YouTube personality Daniel Howell.
The term “introvert” was first coined by psychiatrist Carl Jung, who defined introversion as a “preoccupation with one’s inner world at the expense of social interactions.” But it gained newfound popularity after the publication of Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking in 2012, which argued that our society dramatically undervalues introverts, and led to a lot of people online proudly proclaiming their introvert status. The modern understanding of introverts is that they may enjoy spending time with others, but find it emotionally draining; extroverts, on the other hand, find socialising energising, explains Alfiee Breland-Noble, PhD, a psychologist and founder of the mental health nonprofit the AAKOMA Project. “Introverts are more prone to get their energy and derive their excitement from an internal dialogue and what happens within them. It’s not necessarily shyness,” she says.
Since introverts already enjoy alone time, in the early days of the pandemic — before we knew how long the stay-at-home orders would stretch on, or how many lives the virus would take — many of them saw the COVID-19 regulations as a welcome respite.
“I was obviously pretty scared and alarmed about the virus news, but in terms of just life slowing down and spending more time at home at first, I thought it was kind of fun to have a blank calendar,” says Jenn Granneman, founder of the platforms Introvert, Dear and Highly Sensitive Refuge. “For a while, that was pretty exciting and it was fun to watch shows and relax, and get some more alone time and feel like life was slowing down a little bit.” The new bread-baking, tie-dye-sweat-suit-wearing, Tiger King days of quarantine were almost revitalising.
For some introverts, the entire year has been a welcome change of pace. Lindsey Evans, host of the podcast I Just Don’t Have Time For, tells Refinery29 that she’s enjoyed not being around people constantly. “I thrive working from home and love that most people socially distance when I go into stores,” she says. “I rarely feel like I’m missing out on anything. During month three of quarantine I was definitely starting to get a little antsy, but the more time that passes, the more I actually enjoy not having to fake my way through social interactions that make me uncomfortable.”
Many introverts I spoke with echoed the sentiment that because everyone was encouraged to stay at home, the pandemic freed them from the typical pressure they felt to go out — including FOMO or a sense of obligation. “So much of my life prior to the pandemic felt obligatory in nature with my social interactions, and now with everyone on the same page of burnout, it feels liberating to not have to see and be seen,” says Meghan Rose, a tarot reader based in California.
But after an entire year of distance, some introverts said their outlook has changed. “I think I entered the pandemic an introvert and now I’m an extrovert,” says Taylor, a HR professional based in Los Angeles. “I want to talk more than ever before.”
"I think I entered the pandemic an introvert and now I'm an extrovert. I want to talk more than ever before."
taylor, HR professional
At the beginning of quarantine, Taylor says that she wasn’t worried at all about staying home and not interacting with others in the way that she used to. “It just wasn’t top of mind for me,” she says. “Before COVID, my weekends were more resting and relaxing and not hanging with a lot of people.” But the loneliness started to get to her as the weeks dragged into months — so much so that she formed a “pod” with friends and now finds herself making plans with one or more members most weekends. “That’s a huge change for me,” she says.
Taylor isn’t alone. The University of Wollongong’s School of Psychology, which is based in Australia, recently looked into how 114 people fared during the pandemic and found that overall, higher introversion was associated with higher loneliness, depression, and anxiety. Introverts often turn inward when coping with stress and anxiety instead of reaching out to others for help, the study authors explained. This may have caused many introverts to fall prey to what Dr Breland-Noble calls “maladaptive alone time,” which she describes as using quarantine as an excuse to not receive the quality human interaction we need.
“I think everyone should have some balance between being fully engaged with people outside of them and being fully aware and present for themselves,” she says. The past year has tilted the scales out of balance, though: We have much more time to focus primarily on our own thoughts, and a serious lack of connection with others. At the same time, our stress levels have never been higher. It’s not a great combination for anyone — introverts or extroverts.
Another thing to remember is that virtual social interactions can be just as energy-sucking as IRL ones for some introverts. “Workloads have increased, there’s Zoom meetings all the time, even [Zoom] social events,” says Laurie Helgoe, PhD, clinical psychologist, associate professor of Behavioural Sciences at Ross University School of Medicine, and author of Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life Is Your Hidden Strength. “There’s a lot of stimulation that comes from the pandemic. It’s a different kind of stimulation, and so that has been a challenge.” That’s why some introverts still feel socially burned out.
Granneman points out that whether or not an introvert has thrived during the pandemic also depends on each person’s unique situation. “In a broad sense, a big misconception is that the pandemic affected all introverts the same way,” she says. “It depends so much on your living and working situation.” For some introverts, it was a dream come true. “I know some introverts who are like, ‘Oh this is great, I don’t want to go back to normal life, don’t make me go back to normal life.’ And then for others, they’re stuck at home with their family, their kids are doing remote learning, maybe their job was affected in some way, so this is absolute hell for them.”
Take Evans, for example. “I live with my fiancé, who is also an introvert,” she says. “It’s been good because I do get some sort of social interaction every day, but it’s also harder to get true alone time. I’ve definitely had a few meltdowns because I haven’t had enough time to fully recharge.”
As we approach a year of the pandemic and, for many, a year of near-constant isolation, Granneman is feeling less excited about staying home all the time than she did when lockdown first started. “I’m feeling ready to have some more people time, which might be strange for an introvert to say,” she says. “I guess I’m feeling cooped up in my house, and at this point I’m ready to go back to normal.” She added: “Although I’m sure once I return to normal, within a week I’m going to be begging to just be left alone again.”
There’s still so much we don’t know about how a year of so much alone time and living through this traumatic time has changed us. But we do know that there’s one thing we have to do — move forward. “I think my socialising on the weekends will probably slow down a little once I’m back in an office and have to be more extroverted at work,” Taylor says. “But I think I won’t take for granted being able to be around other human beings. It’ll just be another transition.”