Part of the Friendship Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.
Call it the introvert’s party paradox. You’ve been invited to a large social event — say, a friend’s wedding. You’re full of warm feelings about their nuptials, and you’re looking forward to seeing people you haven’t connected with in a while. You’ve got an incredible outfit planned.
The night swings into full-on party mode, but at a certain point, hours before the function is set to wind down, you realize with an unwelcome lurch that your energy and enthusiasm for engaging with people has begun a precipitous decline. With every introduction to a member of the happy couple’s family, every grinning friend beckoning you to come dance, you feel the growing urge to disappear to the nearest stairwell and sit quietly by yourself for a while. In order to enjoy the party, it seems, you must escape the party.
When we talk about a person’s capacity for socializing, we’re often referring to how introverted or extroverted they are. Laurie Helgoe, a clinical psychologist and author of the book Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life Is Your Hidden Strength, describes introversion, in its simplest terms, as an internal orientation.
“We go inward to make sense of the world. An extrovert is more likely to work things out through interaction and direct experience,” says Helgoe, who identifies as an introvert. People who are introverted tend to be most effective when they’re dealing with less external stimulation, whereas extroverts like a lot of external feedback.
Among personality psychologists, introversion and extroversion are seen as broad traits that include several narrower components, not all of which deal explicitly with a person’s interest in socializing. There isn’t a single working list of these facets, but extroversion typically includes “things like assertiveness, high activity level, some dominance and cheerfulness, some sociability, some joviality,” says John Zelenski, a professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa who studies extroversion, happiness, and social behavior. Introversion is often defined by lower scores on those same metrics.
Though it’s often gratifying to categorize ourselves as one kind of person or another, most of us possess shades of both introversion and extroversion. These traits exist on a continuum, says Zelenski, with the majority of people falling somewhere in the middle of the bell curve and a smaller number of extreme introverts and extroverts on either end.
If you tend to be more introverted, the realization that your social battery doesn’t hold a charge for the full duration of a social gathering can bring up feelings of discomfort or shame. You may worry that you’re bringing down the vibe or that people will leave with a middling impression of you, even as your own need for some quiet time isn’t being met. But by accepting your battery life for what it is and getting to know the different factors that support or strain it, you stand a better chance of getting through the night in a stress-free way — and of actually enjoying yourself in the process.
Get to know the dimensions of your social battery through trial and error
There’s nothing inherently good or bad about being introverted or extroverted, says Jennifer Kahnweiler, the author of Creating Introvert-Friendly Workplaces. Still, many introverts get the message that at an event, they should be out in the crowd, mingling and partying — and that there’s something deeply wrong with them if they don’t feel up to that. It doesn’t help that most big group gatherings are indeed geared toward extroverts. “The way we plan all kinds of events, whether they’re social or business, tends to be very much skewed toward the extrovert ideal of being stimulated all the time,” says Kahnweiler.
Researchers have paid a lot of attention to the negative aspects of time spent alone, and with good reason, says Robert Coplan, a colleague of Zelenski’s in the Carleton University psychology department. “Unwanted solitude makes you feel lonely, and we know that chronic loneliness is not only bad for your mental health, it’s bad for your physical health,” Coplan says.
But we can also get far less solitude than we crave, a phenomenon that Coplan, who studies the benefits of solitude, calls “aloneliness.” When people want alone time but are forced into prolonged social situations, they can become grumpy, sad, stressed-out, and exhausted.
Everyone needs a different amount of time spent socializing and time spent alone. Though the research on solitude hasn’t advanced to the point that Coplan could say how much time people typically or optimally need alone, a close study of your own behavior and mood could help you figure out your ideal balance. “What we tell people to do is just track your solitary and social experiences over the period of a couple of weeks — how much time did I spend alone, how much time did I spend with other people, and how was I feeling?” Coplan says. “And then you can calibrate. It’s really going to be trial-and-error for each person.”
Both the number of doses of solitude and the length of those doses can play a role in how refreshed a person feels afterward. “Not everybody has time to take a two-hour walk in the forest, but if you take a 10-minute micro-dose of solitude to catch your breath and center yourself, that might be equally effective for some people,” Coplan explains.
While tracking your experiences with solitude can help you understand your needs better — and in turn give you a better handle on how to prepare for and navigate long social engagements — there’s an important complication to the matter of introverts needing alone time: Introverts tend to underestimate how much they will enjoy being around other people.
According to Zelenski, an introvert himself, research suggests that people who are introverted can actually feel a lot of positive emotions when they act in extroverted ways. Some of his own work builds on this notion: His team found that introverts’ positive emotions were not tinged by negative feelings or mental fatigue after spurts of extroverted activity. But, Zelenski notes, research has also shown that when people were asked to act as extroverted as possible for a week, the introverts started to show signs of strain. “That does make me think it’s probably possible to overdo it,” Zelenski says. “That certainly resonates with my personal experience.”
Before an event, spend some time preparing to socialize
When it comes to managing your social battery at an event, Kahnweiler says, “the real key is preparation.” Thinking ahead of time about how you can make a party less overwhelming relieves some of the pressure in the moment, when you’re already starting to feel stressed and burned out.
If you’re an introvert, you’re already well aware that taking periodic breaks away from the crowd is one of the most effective ways to recenter yourself. As an event is getting started, Kahnweiler recommends scoping out the venue for spots where you can chill out by yourself. To the extent that you have a formal schedule for the evening, you can also plot out when you’ll be seizing those opportunities.
When you’re attending an event with a date or other people, it can be useful to tell them about your plans to slip off, both so that they know what’s going on and to normalize doing so, for yourself and others. “You can say to them: ‘You might not see me a couple of times. I’m fine, I just need to take breaks,’” says Kahnweiler, a self-described extrovert. In the early days of her relationship with her husband, who is an introvert, Kahnweiler didn’t understand why he would disappear at parties and would get frustrated when he did so. Now she knows that he just needs to take a breather, and their friends have come to expect it as well. “He owns it,” she says.
Beyond carving out space for solitude, Helgoe suggests familiarizing yourself with the social context of a party before you arrive, which can make the event itself less overwhelming. If you’re close with the host, that can translate to asking for a copy of the guest list, so that you can figure out what the scene will look like and who you’re excited to speak with. If you know other people who are attending, hit them up to ask who else they know will be there.
Naturally, it also pays to charge your battery before the event begins. If I could plot out my perfect party prep, it would involve speaking to no one but my boyfriend for about four hours, during which I’d lay on the couch scrolling TikTok while drinking tea, go for a run, and then take a long shower. Sometimes life gets in the way of our dreamy silent afternoons, obviously. This is where Coplan’s suggestion to track your experiences with solitude comes in handy: If you have a sense for what sort of alone time makes you feel most centered, you can prioritize it before going out.
At the event, take your breaks — and remember that nobody cares that you’ve disappeared to the bathroom for 20 minutes
You’ve prepared, you’ve arrived at the venue, and when you feel like you need an escape, you’ll be taking those quiet breaks that you built into your mental plan for the evening. In the meantime, you may keep in mind that for many introverts, not all conversations are equally draining. According to Kahnweiler, introverts often prefer more in-depth, one-on-one conversations to flitting through the crowd.
Helgoe says talking about ideas rather than people can also be slightly less taxing. “Social data is kind of demanding, and we like to sometimes have more of a side-by-side experience with a person, where we’re looking at an idea or a shared interest,” Helgoe says.
This certainly doesn’t mean you should avoid group conversations or personal histories in the name of enduring a party. Rather, it’s a suggestion to take an active role in your experience of it. For many introverts, big events can have a combative edge, as though we have to protect the little flame of our sanity against the impositions of the socializing crowd. It’s easy to forget that, in many situations, we have a choice in who we talk to, when we take breaks, and how long we stay.
The truth is that these decisions usually matter a lot to us and way less to everyone else. “We put a lot more pressure on ourselves,” says Kahnweiler. “People are not always thinking about us.”