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Calibrating the Balance of Solo vs. Social

The complicated push-pull of introversion and loneliness.

Key points

  • Even introverts can get lonely.
  • It is essential for introverts to stay aware of their thresholds for solitude and socializing, which can change according to life circumstances.
  • Often friends don't want to inappropriately impose on an introvert. If introverts want company, it is important for them to reach out.
Chad Madden/Unsplash
Source: Chad Madden/Unsplash

Those of you who assert that you never get lonely, there may be nothing to see here. This post is for those who both value solitude and yet also feel the ache of loneliness sometimes.

Since losing my husband last year, I have had a new perspective on loneliness. For me, the comfort of a lifelong partner with whom I could share space without necessarily having to expend a lot of energy provided the perfect balance of company and solitude.

But now, living alone with only the company of a dog (delightful as she is), I am having to learn how to stave off loneliness while not exceeding my threshold for social interaction. In my new solo life, I am having to reset my boundaries because I need friends and companionship in ways I haven’t in many years.

Some people in grief lock themselves in the house, but I had the opposite impulse—to stay busy and try to keep sadness at bay; the silence of solitude was hard to bear at first. So I was saying yes, yes, yes to everything all the time, grateful to not be forgotten and unaccustomed to not having my person to do ordinary things with, like go out for a bite. In the first year after Tom’s death, I could not get enough of other people. I spent time with practically everyone I know.

But there’s a big difference between spending time with friends and spending time with my husband of 30 years, with whom conversations all started in the middle, with whom I shared a secret language of jokes and references, and with whom I could be comfortably silent when we ran out of things to say. Time with other people requires much more of me—with friends, I must be “on.”

At first, I was not being particularly discerning in what I said yes to, sometimes committing to events too raucous for my introverted self. In time I understood that while the distraction of socializing helped, it could not ease the existential loneliness of losing a life partner. The socializing I was gorging myself on was becoming empty calories, and I was getting exhausted.

It was time to rethink.

Now, in the second year, I’m relearning how to balance my life, trying to weigh my interactions to stay true to my introversion while still keeping loneliness at bay.

I have, for example, found texting to be a lifeline. I have extolled the virtues of texting in the past, and my relationship with it has grown ever more profound. Texting requires little of my friends and me—I don’t take offense if I don’t hear back immediately, and I trust they extend me the same grace—while also providing an invisible thread of connection. The chime of an incoming text tells me that I am not alone, that I am in someone’s thoughts that very minute. This is reassuring, and it takes the edge off loneliness. In addition, when a wave of grief or loneliness hits me, picking up my phone and shooting off a quick text can ground me again. (Even in my grief I prefer scheduling phone calls, although I am getting better about answering the phone when friends are bold enough to call.)

Although Zoom has gotten a bad rap in the pandemic days (and with all sympathy for people whose job requires many Zoom hours), a twice-weekly Zoom class and Zoom or Facetime happy hours with friends who are heart close but geography far away, while not as good as an in-the-flesh visit, comes close enough to help.

I have also realized that the effort of doing with friends—meeting for drinks, meals, museums or shows, or any of the things we do when we do things—contributes to burnout. But I have a friend who also works at home with whom I have developed a lovely tradition of “lazy-ass afternoons.” On those days, she’ll come here with her laptop; we’ll work for a few hours, perhaps break for lunch, and then knock off early, mix up some cocktails, and veg in front of the TV. Sharing this kind of unstructured time with another person is as close as I get these days to the easy, sweatpants-and-snacks companionability of marriage. I feel fortunate that although my friend has a husband at home, she’ll still goof off with me.

And I am finding it necessary to resist my introverted inclination to stay on the couch and instead force myself to make plans of my own, including extending invitations. In this way, I’m not constantly being dragged into someone else’s idea of fun, and I get to do things I choose with the people I choose. It also helps me control my calendar so that I don’t succumb to invitations that don’t sound like fun simply out of desperation, having let so much time slip by, that solitude has become loneliness. If I fill my weeks with one or two hand-picked events, I can keep a healthy balance. (A note to fellow grievers: People may feel awkward about asking you to do things, unsure about what’s appropriate. If you want/need company, do the hard thing and reach out.)

Of course, as I’ve counseled as long as I’ve written this blog (12 years!), it’s important for all introverts to stay cognizant of our thresholds for solitude and socializing—when we have spent too much time alone and when we have spent too much time in the company of others. And you might find that these thresholds are not constant. Introversion is forever to a great degree, but our needs may wax and wane according to our life circumstances, and we are responsible for recalibrating our balance as the world turns. As it will.

LinkedIn image: Twinsterphoto/Shutterstock

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