Though the pent-up demand for socializing might feel more intense than ever, perhaps the only benefit of the two-plus years of the pandemic (at least for introverts) is the normalization of alone time, says clinical psychologist Laurie Helgoe, PhD, author of Introvert Power.
“One of the silver linings of the pandemic is the discovery of how many of us actually enjoy working from home, connecting from a distance, and wearing comfy clothes,” says Dr. Helgoe. “Memes and skits celebrating these indulgences should reassure any introvert that our lifestyle preferences have a shared language.” So, even as you re-enter the social sphere as an introvert, you can take comfort in the fact that people around you will likely understand or even totally relate to your enjoyment of alone time or your desire to take breaks from crowded environments.
Simply knowing that may help you feel less drained by social get-togethers, and more comfortable turning down invites or dipping out early if you’ve hit your socializing limit. At the same time, it’s also possible to plan your calendar and engage with others in a way that minimizes your risk of social burnout from the jump. Below, find advice from psychologists on how to re-enter the world as an introvert without experiencing total social exhaustion.
5 tips from psychologists for avoiding social exhaustion as an introvert
1. Be honest about how you feel with friends and family members
Letting people know directly that lots of social time can be draining for you, or that it takes a lot of energy for you to engage in a social outing, can lift a huge weight off the experience. “Just be honest,” says Dr. Helgoe. “To friends, you might say something like, ‘It was so hard to leave my dog and my couch tonight. You all better make this worth it!’ or if you’re meeting someone new, bring up a topic that reflects your introversion, like asking them about their favorite pandemic binge show.”
“Now is our time to talk from the ‘introvert assumption,’ and assume that people at least understand, if not identify with, introverted preferences.” —Laurie Helgoe, PhD, clinical psychologist
Being honest could also help you find a source of connection with others that makes the conversation less exhausting. “In my book, Introvert Power, I challenge introverts to stop living by the ‘extrovert assumption’ or the assumption that all people prefer extroversion,” says Dr. Helgoe. “Now is our time to talk from the ‘introvert assumption,’ and assume that people at least understand, if not identify with, introverted preferences.”
If that feels awkward, Dr. Helgoe suggests first writing down your honest thoughts about socializing in a journal. “This can help you become more comfortable with your reality, spot humor and insights within it, and find your self-awareness more shareable,” she says.
2. Plan specific social and non-social days
It might seem counterintuitive at first blush, but grouping social outings or get-togethers on particular days can actually help mitigate social exhaustion in introverts, according to Dr. Helgoe.
“This way, you can leave yourself full ‘no prep’ days, or days that free you from the mental energy and work of getting ready to spend time with other people,” she says. On those free days in between the social days, you might still connect with a close friend or family member (for whom you don’t need to mentally prepare to hang out) but you wouldn’t schedule anything that requires you to actually pick an outfit or get ready.
Instead, be sure to use that downtime for rest or restorative activities like playing with a pet, reading, or watching TV—all of which can help you recharge your social battery, says clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus, PsyD. “Listen to your mind and body to see what’s working for you and what’s not. It’s possible that a certain show or novel is more relaxing than another one.”
3. On social days, leave gaps between events for recharging
Even though grouping social outings on certain days can be a smart move, avoid stacking them immediately back-to-back, if possible. Instead, leave at least a 30-minute break between social obligations.
“If you can create a large enough gap between get-togethers, aim to fit in a solo date, like a quiet walk or bookstore browsing, to give yourself needed time for reflection and processing,” says Dr. Helgoe. “Recharges like this can actually fuel your social connections, giving you more authentic material—like an opinion on a book or part of town or just the smart thoughts that occur to you while reflecting—which you can then talk about later with friends.”
4. Align social activities with your values or interests
For introverts, any social activity brings with it a bit of social drain, but the effect will be significantly less if the activity reflects one of your core values, says Dr. Helgoe. “For example, if you highly value a close friendship or partnership, and your presence at a particular event would mean a lot to this person, it may feel ‘worth it’ to attend even if the event itself would normally be totally exhausting.”
The same goes for any event that includes a personal interest—like a charity event for a cause you care deeply about, a movie outing if you’re into film, or a sports game for a team you love. “Play to your interests,” says Dr. Daramus. “Pick and choose events that you know you can get excited about.” In the same realm, she suggests prioritizing low-key events when possible, like a spa outing or movie night, which won’t take a lot of social energy, regardless. This way, you can make sure you’re still engaging in low-lift social outings and connecting with friends and loved ones as an introvert, while keeping your risk of social exhaustion low.
Should an event come along that doesn’t fit within the above parameters, you can then feel more okay with saying, “no,” says Dr. Helgoe. “One warning sign of that would be having any sense of ‘premeditated resentment,’ or a feeling that you know you’re going to be resentful after attending,” she says. “In that case, declining may be the more effective response for everyone involved.”
5. Find a sense of privacy and calm around others
Sometimes, you might find that even with all the prioritizing and schedule-planning, you still end up at an exhausting event without an easy exit. In that situation, it may be helpful to use a breathing technique in order to reset and recharge even while surrounded by other people, says clinical psychologist Chloe Carmichael, PhD, author of Nervous Energy: Harness the Power of Your Anxiety.
She suggests what she calls a cocoon breath, which she advises practicing alone first. “Take a big inhalation, and if you’re alone, let your eyelids close as you exhale,” she says. “On your next exhalation, imagine your eyelids drooping closed again, and on the following exhalation, imagine your shoulders dropping. On each exhalation after that, picture a part of your body relaxing, and imagine drawing a privacy curtain around yourself, creating a cocoon. Then, take a few deep breaths and open your eyes.”
Minus the closed-eye part, you can do the exact same breathwork exercise while around others in a crowd or other socially draining environment, she says. “By having practiced the exercise in its complete form privately, you may be able to activate the same sense of privacy and relaxation even with open eyes.”