This past week in honor of Mother’s Day, I did an interview with my mom as an introduction to a project I’m working on with a friend, and one of her answers sparked a thought in my mind.
When Rose (my mom) was asked what I was like as a child, she said something that could be surprising for a few people who know me or read my writing often:
You were very, VERY outgoing. You would go up to anyone and everyone and just chat away. I was afraid you might get stolen or something.
It likely surprises no one to find that this description of me, an introversion researcher, seems miles away from who I am today. It’s not to say that I don’t enjoy people or shy away from conversations, but the boundless energy that my mom mentions from my youth, some of which I actually remember, didn’t carry through into my adulthood. Why?
If I’m being honest with myself, there’s a key difference between the life I lived then and the one I do now. Naps.
By that, I mean that the energy that it took to interact with people seemingly effortlessly could nearly immediately be recouped by an hour or two spent asleep. To this day, I’m significantly more likely to be more social at an evening event if I’ve had a nap just prior. However, we’ve declared it socially unacceptable to stop the business of the day with a nap break. And I think that’s hurting a lot of people.
In the absence of a way to recoup the energy that the average day for an adult in a workplace, introverts can become…well, you’ve seen a toddler around 3pm with no nap. Cranky, easily agitated, difficult to reason with. While your coworker from the next office over may not crumple to the floor screaming, it’s entirely possible that she feels that way on the inside but knows she can’t get away with it. I recall several references to that “3pm meltdown” feeling from testimonials in my book “The I’s Have It”:
“[M]any I’s mentioned they need time to recharge to be their best. What happens if you don’t get that time?”
Here is a sampling of the answers I received:
“[I] get short with folks and have no time for nonsense. Ick. I’ve found other ways of coping, but that’s my reaction…” (Gwen)
Gwen’s sentiment about getting short with people was a common thread I noted as responses to my question rolled in. Heidi T. was one of those who agreed, saying, “small annoyances become a bigger deal than necessary.” Other words that echoed in the answers I received: “cranky”, “irritable”, and “unreasonable”.
“I call it the introvert hangover – I get irritable and lose focus if I go too long without quiet time” (Chris)
Chris’s response was one that resonated with several people, and is so indicative of the problem at hand. A hangover from alcohol or sugar (and yes, a sugar hangover is real) comes from the consumption of an excess amount of something that, in appropriate amounts, has few ill effects. But after we reach a threshold that our body can handle, we start to feel ill. The introvert hangover is our body’s response to excess- irritability, short temperedness, and a loss of focus. When we look back on some of the negative characteristics associated with introversion- assumptions of judgment, self-centeredness, and aloofness – one starts to wonder if these conclusions were drawn from introverts who were, as Chris says, hungover. These characteristics generally aren’t true from a “fully charged” introvert, but could certainly be mistakenly assumed of an introvert in dire need of a recharge.
So until we get to a point where we allow for midday naps (which I’m more than happy to carry the banner for!), what should we do if the day becomes too much and we find our battery gauge in the red?
- Change your surroundings. I’m a 3pm walker. That is to say, if I get to a point in the afternoon where an email I open or a meeting I’ve finished is pushing me into the tantrum zone, I get up and leave the office. I head outside our gates and wander the neighborhood for a short time. I should also note, because it can be important- I don’t take a phone with me. This keeps the trip short, and it keeps me aware of the amount of time I’m spending away. I’ll head to Starbucks or the nearby grocery store (I’m not me when I’m hungry), up the street to browse the movie theater marquee, or even occasionally to Marshalls or Paper Source to look at greeting cards. It’s a moment that I take for myself, and by leaving my phone behind, it stays a solitary moment.
- Be a tourist. Who else is in the area that you should visit? Do you have other colleagues that could use a short break from what’s eating away at them? Spend a brief moment together, with a “no work talk” rule, and give each other some time away from your breaking points. For those with a strictly social interpretation of introversion, this may seem counterintuitive- “why would you spend your you time with other people?” To that, I would say that introversion isn’t a social construct- it’s a description of where your energy comes from. For many introverts, time and conversations with people they know and are comfortable with actually provide energy, rather than taking it away. These interactions, when held to a brief period, can give the charge that may be needed.
- Hide out. I don’t (really) mean this literally. But, it could help. If you have a busy few days on your calendar, schedule time early in those days, leading up to that period, or perhaps for a few days following, where you can work from somewhere else. Home, a coffee shop- my personal favorite is the second floor of our campus library. I am still productive and am still reachable to others that may need something, but the comfort of a home court advantage can help mitigate any strain that could be seen as environmental.
While none of these strategies will take the place of the charge that a short nap could provide (seriously, folks, can we rethink this??), it will keep you from that meltdown that once overtook the personable toddler within, and maybe even give you the energy to roam the aisles on your next flight, asking where everyone else was going (somehow, I didn’t know that everyone was going the same place, but what can you do?).