For the first 37 years of my life, I was an extrovert. I thrived around other people, loved social events, and could talk for hours. When I took the Myers-Briggs Personality Test for my first job, I was squarely an ENFP (E for extrovert). During high school, college, and beyond, I saw myself as a party girl and loved being with people – the busier my social calendar, the better. Then, on March 2, 2002, I suddenly got sick, diagnosed a year later with ME/CFS. I still yearned for social interaction, but now even being with my closest friends exhausted me.
Over the past 16 years, with the help of many different treatments, I have improved my overall condition and ability to function. Lately, though, I have noticed that I crave quiet solitude. I need to spend a certain amount of time home alone or I begin to feel stressed and exhausted. Certainly, I still enjoy time with my friends – I love going out to dinner with my husband and another couple, attending my book group, or taking a short walk with my two closest friends and talking nonstop – but I can only manage a limited amount of social time each week. I often feel desperate for “alone time” without my family or friends around, and that can make me feel a bit guilty. Has chronic illness turned me into an introvert?
What are introverts and extroverts anyway?
Susan Cain, author of the best-selling book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (check out her TED talk), says that introverts and extroverts are defined by how you respond to stimulation – when do you feel most alive and most creative? That’s kind of a mixed bag for me because I do enjoy social interaction (in small doses) and being with friends does make me feel alive, but I am definitely more creative when I’m alone. I need quiet solitude to write – no noisy coffee shops for me!
I recently heard another definition that stopped me in my tracks and made the light bulb go on: it depends on how you get your energy and recharge. No contest there – I love my friends but social interaction with chronic illness tires me out. I need my quiet alone time to recharge. Famed psychiatrist Carl Jung said there’s no such thing as a pure introvert or extrovert; everyone is on a spectrum. I have definitely moved from far to the extrovert side over to the introvert side now but still with some extrovert tendencies.
How Have Others Responded to This Change in Me?
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Susan Cain explains that our world tends to favor extroverts and underestimate the value of introverts. In my own life, I have struggled with my family’s acceptance of this shift in my needs. Some family members are offended that I can only manage family gatherings in small doses. I explain that it’s not personal, it’s the same for time spent with my friends, and I quite literally need that quiet down time. With all my family living in other states, though, any family get-together is a marathon for me, often spanning many days. As you can imagine, this is exhausting for me and affects my overall health and well-being, though that is not well understood by others.
What is my life like now?
My tendency is to hibernate at home when I can now, but I do recognize that I enjoy time spent with friends or family, if I can properly limit it. So, I have goals to spend time with friends once a week, to stay in touch with far-flung family members, and to carve out time with my immediate family each week. I also have quiet time that helps to revive me built into each day, for reading, watching TV with my husband, and my necessary afternoon nap. I understand my limits, and I am very fortunate that my friends do, too.
If I have book group scheduled for Wednesday evening, I know I should spend the rest of that day at home and that I shouldn’t schedule anything else social on the days before and after. This means sometimes making tough choices, when I already have one social event scheduled and am invited to another. But I know I can’t do both, and I have gotten better at making those choices. My own personal barometer when I am struggling to decide whether to cancel something is how I feel after I make the decision. If I feel disappointed, then maybe I should still go, but often, when I finally decide to cancel, I feel only relief – then I know that I made the right choice.
I am almost never out of the house in the evenings (except for those occasional dinners or book groups), but my daytime calendar can easily become filled with doctor’s appointments (for myself and my elderly father-in-law), errands, and other obligations. I try very hard to leave at least two days – and preferably three – open each week. Those are the days that I stay home, work on writing projects, and recharge with that precious quiet solitude. Now that I’ve recognized how much I need it, it’s easier to make room for it.
At first, I struggled with this concept that I “switched sides” from extrovert to introvert. Much of my personal identity was wrapped up in being a social, outgoing person. I have realized, though, that it’s best to accept myself as I am now. I do still need a certain amount of social interaction, but I have learned that I can satisfy some of those extrovert needs through online interactions – from the recliner in my quiet house. And clearly, I am much happier, less stressed, and feel better when I make a conscious effort to restore my energy through solitude. Now, I have the best of both worlds!
Suzan Jackson is a freelance writer who has had ME/CFS for 16 years and also has Lyme disease. Both of her sons also got ME/CFS 14 years ago, but one is now fully recovered after 10 years of mild illness and the other just graduated from college, with ME/CFS plus three tick-borne infections. She writes two blogs: Living with ME/CFS at http://livewithcfs.blogspot.com and Book By Book at http://bookbybook.blogspot.com You can follow her on Twitter at @livewithmecfs.