Isolation v. Introversion: How Can I Tell the Difference?

Photo by Andrew Shelley / Unsplash

We all have different social meters. Part of the gift of aging is leaning into what we truly need from our community, and on what levels we need it. It’s said that extroverts gain energy by spending time with others, while introverts refill their battery by spending time alone. Either way, a healthy balance of alone time and social time typically works to feed and nourish your mental health

So how do we know what the right percentage of alone and social time is for us? More than that, how can I catch onto warning signs that my alone time has shifted from a moment to recharge to self-imposed isolation that is harming my mental health?

This is a deeply personal distinction - which is part of the reason it’s hard to nail down! One person’s alone time is another person’s isolation. The even trickier part of this decision is how it kicks our rationalization into full force. You may find yourself saying, “People are just too draining, I enjoy being home alone every night”, when your actions, mood and thoughts are echoing a different sentiment.

As with most internal mechanisms, it’s important to gain a sense of awareness in order to appropriately understand how to enact change. Awareness means not just a logical understanding of what feels good v. what doesn’t feel good, it also means bodily and emotional awareness of what plays underneath the surface in our decision making.

Let’s look at an example. Let’s say every Friday you used to get dinner with your friends, but recently you’ve started spending Friday at home to be able to spend more time with yourself.

That sentence alone sounds great, and could be a perfect example of plain old recharging introversion, but let’s go a little deeper.

You’ve noticed some thoughts that keep roaming in your head as you’ve taken these Fridays off with your friends. They sound like, “They probably don’t even want you there anyway”. You’ve felt a bit more lethargic recently, and find most of the time you spend alone you lay on the couch and watch TV.

Can you notice the difference between logical, emotional, and bodily awareness? They must all be in harmony in order to get the full picture of what’s motivating our actions.

In this example, I would say you’ve slipped into isolation. This isolation could be caused by an underlying mental health disorder, like depression or anxiety, or could simply be a manifestation of some resentment you’ve been feeling towards your friend group. It’s important to foster an understanding of what’s underneath the surface, so you can guide yourself more readily to the antidote.

How do we defy this programming? As with all things, baby steps and compassion. If you’ve done some deep thinking and feel like you may be in a place of isolation, (hint: our friends and family typically notice before we do, be open to feedback!), allow yourself to pick up the phone and call someone you trust to talk it out. You can also try to spend some productive alone time with yourself; there are ways to push yourself out of isolation that don't involve family and friends. Go to a movie by yourself, or take an exercise class. Allow yourself to compare the pros and cons of how these actions feel in your body, mind and emotions.

If you’ve thought critically about isolation v. introversion and find yourself saying, “nope, this doesn’t apply to me, I love being alone” - more power to you. The purpose of the exercise is to help ourselves identify our motives and push ourselves towards change if necessary. It does not mean to question yourself into defying what feels most authentic for you. Trust me, as a fellow introvert, I salute you (but I can also pay attention to when I might need some connection). The two are not mutually exclusive.

Moral of the story: connection to your different levels of awareness allows you to identify the personal choice that is isolation v. introversion. Neither are bad, both require attention. I trust you to understand what works for you.

Alexa Cordry, LSW, LCADC

You can follow more of Alexa's insight on Instagram @yoursadtherapist

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Alexa Cordry, LSW, LCADC

Alexa Cordry, LSW, LCADC