Hitting The Wall

Dinner with friends is an endurance sport.

I’m an introvert.

I say that with a full-on appreciation of just how awful thinkpieces on “introverts” are.

However, I feel compelled to write about this today because of a certain type of social pressure that a certain type of introvert faces. Specifically, I am a high-energy introvert.

Cementing this piece’s place in the hallowed halls of just awful thinkpieces, allow me to compare my mild cognitive fatigue with the plight of those suffering from chronic illness and disability1. There’s a social phenomenon associated with many chronic illnesses, “but you don’t LOOK sick”, where well-meaning people will look at someone who is suffering, with no obvious symptoms, and imply that they really ought to be able to “be normal”.

As a high-energy introvert, I frequently participate in social events. I go to meet-ups and conferences and I engage in plenty of public speaking. I am, in a sense, comfortable extemporizing in front of large groups of strangers.

This all sounds like extroverted behavior, I know. But there’s a key difference.

Let me posit two axes for personality type: on the X axis, “introvert” to “extrovert”, and on the Y, “low energy” up to “high energy”.

The X axis describes what kinds of activities give you energy, and the Y axis describes how large your energy reserves are for the other type.

Notice that I didn’t say which type of activity you enjoy.

Most people who would self-describe as “introverts” are in the low-energy/introvert quadrant. They have a small amount of energy available for social activities, which they need to frequently re-charge by doing solitary activities. As a result of frequently running out of energy for social activities, they don’t enjoy social activities.

Most people who would self-describe as “extroverts” are also on the “low-energy” end of the spectrum. They have low levels of patience for solitary activity, and need to re-charge by spending time with friends, going to parties, etc, in order to have the mental fortitude to sit still for a while and focus. Since they can endlessly get more energy from the company of others, they tend to enjoy social activities quite a bit.

Therefore we have certain behaviors we expect to see from “introverts”. We expect them to be shy, and quiet, and withdrawn. When someone who behaves this way has to bail on a social engagement, this is expected. There’s a certain affordance for it. If you spend a few hours with them, they may be initially friendly but will visibly become uncomfortable and withdrawn.

This “energy” model of personality is of course an oversimplification - it’s my personal belief that everyone needs some balance of privacy and socialization and solitude and eventually overdoing one or the other will be bad for anyone - but it’s a useful one.

As a high-energy introvert, my behavior often confuses people. I’ll show up at a week’s worth of professional events, be the life of the party, go out to dinner at all of them, and then disappear for a month. I’m not visibily shy - quite the opposite, I’m a gregarious raconteur. In fact, I quite visibly enjoy the company of friends. So, usually, when I try to explain that I am quite introverted, this claim is met with (quite understandable) skepticism.

In fact, I am quite functionally what society expects of an “extrovert” - until I hit the wall.

In endurance sports, one is said to “hit the wall” at the point where all the short-term energy reserves in one’s muscles are exhausted, and there is a sudden, dramatic loss of energy. Regardless, many people enjoy endurance sports; part of the challenge of them is properly managing your energy.

This is true for me and social situations. I do enjoy social situations quite a bit! But they are nevertheless quite taxing for me, and without prolonged intermissions of solitude, eventually I get to the point where I can no longer behave as a normal social creature without an excruciating level of effort and anxiety.

Several years ago, I attended a prolonged social event2 where I hit the wall, hard. The event itself was several hours too long for me, involved meeting lots of strangers, and in the lead-up to it I hadn’t had a weekend to myself for a few weeks due to work commitments and family stuff. Towards the end I noticed I was developing a completely flat affect, and had to start very consciously performing even basic body language, like looking at someone while they were talking or smiling. I’d never been so exhausted and numb in my life; at the time I thought I was just stressed from work.

Afterwards though, I started having a lot of weird nightmares, even during the daytime. This concerned me, since I’d never had such a severe reaction to a social situation, and I didn’t have good language to describe it. It was also a little perplexing that what was effectively a nice party, the first half of which had even been fun for me, would cause such a persistent negative reaction after the fact. After some research, I eventually discovered that such involuntary thoughts are a hallmark of PTSD.

While I’ve managed to avoid this level of exhaustion before or since, this was a real learning experience for me that the consequences of incorrectly managing my level of social interaction can be quite severe.

I’d rather not do that again.

The reason I’m writing this, though3, is not to avoid future anxiety. My social energy reserves are quite large enough, and I now have enough self-knowledge, that it is extremely unlikely I’d ever find myself in that situation again.

The reason I’m writing is to help people understand that I’m not blowing them off because I don’t like them. Many times now, I’ve declined or bailed an invitation from someone, and later heard that they felt hurt that I was passive-aggressively refusing to be friendly.

I certainly understand this reaction. After all, if you see someone at a party and they’re clearly having a great time and chatting with everyone, but then when you invite them to do something, they say “sorry, too much social stuff”, that seems like a pretty passive-aggressive way to respond.

You might even still be skeptical after reading this. “Glyph, if you were really an introvert, surely, I would have seen you looking a little shy and withdrawn. Surely I’d see some evidence of stage fright before your talks.”

But that’s exactly the problem here: no, you wouldn’t.

At a social event, since I have lots of energy to begin with, I’ll build up a head of steam on burning said energy that no low-energy introvert would ever risk. If I were to run out of social-interaction-juice, I’d be in the middle of a big crowd telling a long and elaborate story when I find myself exhausted. If I hit the wall in that situation, I can’t feel a little awkward and make excuses and leave; I’ll be stuck creepily faking a smile like a sociopath and frantically looking for a way out of the converstaion for an hour, as the pressure from a large crowd of people rapidly builds up months worth of nightmare fuel from my spiraling energy deficit.

Given that I know that’s what’s going to happen, you won’t see me when I’m close to that line. You won’t be in at my desk when I silently sit and type for a whole day, or on my couch when I quietly read a book for ten hours at a time. My solitary side is, by definition, hidden.

But, if I don’t show up to your party, I promise: it’s not you, it’s me.

  1. In all seriousness: this is a comparison of kind and not of degree. I absolutely do not have any illusions that my minor mental issues are a serious disability. They are - by definition, since I do not have a diagnosis - subclinical. I am describing a minor annoyance and frequent miscommunication in this post, not a personal tragedy. 

  2. I’ll try to keep this anonymous, so hopefully you can’t guess - I don’t want to make anyone feel bad about this, since it was my poor time-management and not their (lovely!) event which caused the problem. 

  3. ... aside from the hope that maybe someone else has had trouble explaining the same thing, and this will be a useful resource for them ...