Introverts and social time don’t always mix. I look at social time the same way I look at jogging: they’re fun but they wipe me out. I’m a Perspectives-Effectiveness user (INTJ in the Myers-Briggs system), and once I’m winded, I become quiet, checked out, daydreamy or even cranky. A single social occasion can wipe me out for a week.
But skipping social events isn’t always possible. Friends can end up feeling ignored. And many business or career opportunities require face time (the “networking” that we introverts dread). If you avoid that networking, it can feel like you’re losing out while the extraverts get all the opportunities.
So there’s no question that we introverts have to get out there and socialize. But is there a way to keep our steam longer, and feel less exhausted in groups?
I always thought the answer was no—this is just how we’re made and we have to accept our weaknesses with our strengths. But it turns out introverts can actually build up a sort of resistance and feel less drained by “people” time. The secret lies in what I call the introvert “basket” and the science of willpower.
The Science of Willpower
Socializing requires willpower. That’s because introverts take much more interest in our inner world—reading, writing, creating, thinking—than in the outer world. So turning outward requires focus and effort. You can see the same thing in reverse if you ask extraverts to sit quietly without talking. After a while, they may visibly fidget and struggle not to speak. They’re using willpower.
Most of us think of willpower as something we should be able to use anytime, if we just try hard enough. But it isn’t. The truth is, willpower is a limited resource. When you force yourself to do something hard, it takes mental energy, and the brain only has so much energy before it needs rest. You know that “drained” feeling you get after a two-hour meeting? It’s the exact same fatigue that dieters feel when they choose a salad over a pizza.
That’s good news, because there are ways to reduce how much willpower you need. For example, who’s more likely to quit drinking: the person that still has beer in the house for their friends? Or the one who throws away all the booze and fills the fridge with club soda? Both need willpower to stick to their choice, but one has stacked the odds in their favor. They have filled up their willpower “basket” with the tools to succeed.
The Social Hour Basket
I decided to see if I could apply this to socializing. I noticed that I don’t get equally fatigued at every social event. One night I might go to dinner with four friends and feel lively and engaged. Then we do it again next week, with the same people, and I wish I was home with a book. Why? What’s the difference?
The difference has a lot to do with small, seemingly unrelated things—things I didn’t even realize affected my energy. I started to keep track of what I did before any given social event and how I felt when I was there. The results were startling. Pretty soon I had a list of everything I need to be social, energetic and fun around people. That’s my introvert basket.
I’ll tell you exactly what’s in the basket, but first two words of caution:
- My basket won’t be the same as yours. Every introvert is unique. The things that help you keep your energy up may be totally different from mine, and that’s okay. What’s important is to figure out your own personal list. Then fill up your basket before you walk out the door.
- What shocked me is what’s not in my basket. I thought external factors would make a big difference. For example, I assumed I’d have more energy with friends than strangers. And that small groups would be better than large groups. But if my basket is full, I can be comfortable and energetic even with huge groups. I can actually show up acting like a social butterfly and be the center of attention—without wanting to curl up in a corner afterward. Introverts are not actually at the mercy of those around us. We can take charge of our own social energy.
My Introvert Basket
Without further ado, here’s everything I put in my mental basket before socializing:
- Eat first. An empty stomach is a willpower vampire. When I realized this, I started eating before going to a social event (even just a snack). It doesn’t matter if there will be food at the event; I eat first, so that my stomach doesn’t steal the precious energy I need to be social. This is the most important item in my basket.
- Finish work, or reach a point where I feel accomplished. As an INTJ, I derive joy from accomplishing things. Not accomplishing them leaves me with a nagging feeling that I should be working, and that drains me. So I plan my day to finish a work project before a scheduled social event. If that’s not possible, I try to reach a stopping point where I know I made progress. Suddenly the people around me look interesting again.
- Sleep. Everyone says to get more sleep. It’s hard advice to take because we’re all busy, and I do a lot of late nights. But lack of sleep is pretty much identical with lack of mental energy. If I know I’m going to attend a social gathering, I try to pay off my sleep debt the night before.
- Have a drink. I’m embarrassed to even put this one on the list. I’m not a heavy drinker. But, at least for me, alcohol really does loosen me up and lowers my social inhibitions. And social inhibitions are a form of stress or anxiety, which takes willpower to overcome. So before I head to a soiree, I have one drink (one!). Obviously this depends on the context—don’t slam a bourbon before a business meeting. (Unless, like me, you live in New Orleans, in which case your boss is the one pouring the bourbon).
- Upbeat pop music. If the cocktail wasn’t embarrassing enough, this is my basket’s rock bottom. Certain songs fire me up. And the most effective ones for me are really up-tempo, anthem-like pop songs. So yes, about 30 minutes before I walk out the door, my neighbors can hear me pumping Lady Gaga and LMFAO. Then I roll out feeling like a rock star. Thanks, YouTube!
- Have something to talk about. Introverts don’t like small talk. We prefer deeper conversation. But that’s like being vegan: if you want to be sure you’ll get what you need, you better prepare it yourself. So I think up a few conversation starters before I go out. They can be as simple as, “Did you know… [cool new scientific discovery]?” or “Did you hear about [recent news item]?” Ideally they’re topics that get me started on an excited rant, because excitement is contagious. One introvert friend has a more all-purpose line: “I like fruit, and I like dessert, but I don’t like fruit desserts.” The ensuing debate easily lasts 30 minutes.
What’s in Your Introvert Basket?
When I fill my basket, I can “turn on” my social skills. I don’t dread groups as much, and I don’t get as fatigued by them. People even mistake me for an extravert. (Announcing you’re an introvert is another great conversation starter.) They never guess that the secret to my charm is a snack, a nap and a Britney Spears album.
What belongs in your basket? Is your list similar to mine, or different? Leave a comment and tell me what improves your social energy. You might have an idea I should be using too.
And here’s a fun question: would anything in my basket actually make it harder for you to socialize?