Introversion, depression, anxiety: the trifecta of solitude.
I have an abundance of all three.
Combine that with being a highly sensitive person, and you have everything you need to run home, lock the doors, draw the curtains, and never go out again.
Those who know me from a distance may be surprised by this as I am talkative, outgoing, hilarious, and charming — if I do say so myself. But those who know me well, know I protect my alone time like a lioness protects her cubs.
I enjoy being alone. In fact, I crave it. I’ve created and discovered spaces that are comfortable to me, in which I feel safe and strong. Some are at home, some are out in nature. I am never bored and I don’t get lonely. I’m ambitious, fiercely independent, and, being an introvert, I require solitude to relax, recharge, and refocus.
For many years it’s been a challenge for me to accept my predisposition for solitude. I felt — and sometimes still do — like this is a bad thing, unhealthy or abnormal. When I feel like retreating, I question if it is for a “valid” reason or if it is really my depression or anxiety talking. I wonder if I am hiding because, frankly, it’s easier than trying something new, facing crowds, making small talk, being “on” all the time.
As I get older, I’ve begun to accept my introversion and the fact that I will need to manage depression and anxiety for the rest of my life. It’s getting easier, especially with the rise of self-care culture and increased visibility and acceptance of introversion. I am learning to own this part of myself and to not hide my ongoing struggles with depression and anxiety.
But the answer to one question continues to elude me: when is my solitude healthy self-care and when is it avoidance?
Perhaps even asking this question signals that I am not fully okay with dealing with the solitude trifecta. That could be true. As someone who continually questions and critically examines most parts of my life, I still wonder if there aren’t times when I am simply avoiding situations that I don’t want to deal with.
We all do that sometimes, right? Even those of us who are extroverted and not depressed just don’t want to do things sometimes. But for me, it is more than just sometimes. In fact, it is probably most of the time.
Now, some context may be in order here. I am an academic librarian at a large research institution. I run an office with a small staff and multiple students where I attend to research requests, manage the budget, consult with faculty, create resource guides and bibliographies, sit on library and campus committees, manage the publication of a print journal and several digital resources. I sit on national boards, contribute to and edit statewide projects, and write about libraries. I am monumentally busy and was recently asked to take on interim duties as our libraries’ collection development officer, which is a whole other half-time job in itself. I commute to my job 1.25 hours each way. So it’s fair to say that my work life is at capacity.
I also have a partner, a puppy, a mortgage, and all the trappings that go with them. Plus, I am trying to do this pesky writing thing. I have a regular column at the Ms. website, write book reviews, and have increased my popular press writing, including on Medium. So I keep my off-time pretty packed as well.
My point in sharing all of this is that at the end of the week, I am exhausted! Sometimes I am up for a drink or dinner after work but mostly, I would like to head home, hang out with my girls, and read or write or watch Ghost Adventures.
For some of us, busy schedules are our reality and it’s valid to feel physically, mentally, and emotionally worn out after a long week. That being said, they are also good excuses to not do things that we actually may want to do.
Perhaps keeping busy and goal achievement are additional security blankets of mine, much like food and sugar are. Sorry, I’m so busy and worn out and have so much to do that I couldn’t possibly attend this party or that show. I have built-in excuses.
But what if I wasn’t that busy? Would I still feel this way? Would I still need to be alone so much? I think so. I’d still want my downtime. Sometimes that’s due to being tired after a long day, other times it’s to do with my depression, and still other times, I just want to be alone. What I am learning is that this is okay. What’s important is that I’m learning how to distinguish between using solitude for self-care and using it to hide from situations I’m afraid of.
So how do I decide when I truly need time away and when I am just avoiding things because my depression or anxiety says they would be too hard, too scary, too something?
Look inside yourself. Get to know your intuition, your gut. What does it sound like when it speaks to you? Reflect on what is at the heart of wanting to be alone. Is there something happening that you don’t want to face? Or have you just reached your limit for the day? Practice connecting to your intuition. Learn to TRUST it.
Also, look around. You know what? There are others out there like you! I finally realized that I am not an anomaly. And you aren’t either. We are okay just as we are.
Once you’ve located your intuition, listen to it. Lately I’ve been getting better at tuning out the “shoulds” or fears that my brain keeps screaming at me and getting in touch with my gut. I have pretty strong intuition and when I listen to it instead of the tapes in my head, it rarely steers me wrong. Your intuition will protect you if you hone your skills of listening to it.
When I listen and hear only fear, I challenge it. If you want to do A Thing but you are afraid of the unknown, of looking foolish, or of what others will think, challenge yourself. We shouldn’t let depression or anxiety stop us from doing what we want; we shouldn’t use them as excuses and give in to fear.
You do need to take risks once in a while. Exposure to anxiety-provoking situations can help. It’s about balance. Practice listening to your intuition and you’ll be better equipped to determine whether you’re feeling afraid as opposed to just feeling worn out or like you just don’t want to do The Thing. The latter is valid; the former may only prove to increase your anxiety in the future.
I’ve been learning more about introversion and self-care by reading (duh) and talking to others. There are some great articles out there and of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you to run right out and get some of my favorites: The Body is Not an Apology by Sonya Renee Taylor or anything by Pema Chodron.
We all know of others who are introverts or who may struggle with depression or anxiety. Befriend these people in ways that are comfortable to you both and share information. Perhaps you’ll find someone who is empathetic and supportive. Perhaps you’ll be that person for them as well.
I don’t have a concrete answer to the question of whether behavior is self-care or avoidance; this is a personal question and the answer will vary for each of us across lots of situations.
We all have our threshold for socializing, for working, for alone time. We need to listen to our bodies when they tell us to take a break and for some of us, the breaks may look different or occur more often.
Let go of comparisons to others. Let go of ideas of what you “should” do or be like. Surrender to yourself and acceptance will come.
I’m going to continue exercising my introversion and intuition muscles and owning my needs, preferences, and desires. I hope you do too.