As an introvert, I get drained and overwhelmed around too many people. This doesn’t mean I don’t value your friendship.
One of my earliest childhood memories is when I asked my mom what to do when I just, you know, wanted my neighborhood friend to go home so I could be on my own. Even at that point, it felt strange to need to request time away from people.
And yet, as an introvert, I’m not in any way against having a social life, nor do I hate people. I’ve actually spent a great deal of my life battling loneliness — a temporary feeling that isn’t at all the same as needing healthy alone time (which is part of our introvert DNA).
We all know that saying “no” and setting boundaries is important self-care, and I highly recommend it, but it can be hard to express just how difficult it can be. However, please know that there’s a whole community of introverts who would also choose to stay in with a book on a Friday night.
So, when I say “no” to you, be it for a Zoom call or a socially distanced chat, please know what I actually mean.
What ‘No’ Means as an Introvert
1. If I come across as wishy-washy, it’s because I’m still very nervous about that two-letter word.
We live in a world that values people and togetherness — and these things should be valued to some extent — but discourages aloneness. We get taught to reject invitations in a gentle fashion so we don’t offend anyone. That usually means saying “no” indirectly.
I don’t mean to confuse you when I hem and haw over your invitations, I’m just a little (or very) nervous about that two-letter word. When my introvert battery is dangerously low, it gets difficult to focus on anything, let alone build up the courage to make myself feel like a weirdo for needing to stay in or go home early.
For most of my life, when I knew I really didn’t want to go out — but also didn’t want to let anyone down — I would mitigate it by saying, “I’m not sure…” and then ramble on about something else. However, I’ve learned that being vague will actually confuse people — and even make them keep asking me to hang out when I’m completely exhausted. Times like these, I wish I could briefly let other people read my mind instead of having to put this low-battery, must-be-alone-to-recharge feeling into words.
Since I don’t have telepathic superpowers (yet, anyway), I’ve started to surprise myself by saying a direct and effective, “It’s time for me to go now” or “I can’t make it, sorry.” The latter is usually easier to do in a group chat or text — aided by the emotional distance of texting. Face-to-face, it’s more difficult (although it gets easier with practice).
That’s really all that’s needed — and, if anything, my relationship with myself and others has improved as I give voice to my me-time needs.
2. Yes, I am actually busy (just not in the way you think).
Even as a kid, if I knew I needed to shrug off an invitation, I would need to have some sort of excuse. “Oh, I can’t, I’m busy,” I would say.
“What are you doing?” came the dreaded response.
It somehow didn’t seem right to say I needed to go do nothing … alone. Trust me, I’m not trying to be rude or selfish, it’s just that I simply can’t fill every waking moment of my day with people.
Some of the things introverts love — such as writing, crafting, or just sitting and thinking — seem like activities that don’t count as being busy. They seem to be something that should go by the wayside if a social commitment comes up.
However, these are just some of the things that make us introverts the unique, special, and powerful beings we are. Marking (and keeping!) a date with yourself on your calendar is just as important, if not at times more so, than a date with another fellow human being.
(Here’s the science behind why introverts love alone time.)
3. I’m overthinking it — again … and again … and again.
As I’m trying to fall asleep after a blissful night in, I think, and think, and overthink. I find myself wondering how the party was that I’d skipped out on. Did everyone go around talking to people they don’t even know about absolutely nothing, in a crowded room with blaring music?
This sounds like torture to me, yet my head still has the audacity to tell me I should have gone. That little voice of self-doubt whispers to me that maybe this was the time I finally would have enjoyed it.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stood miserably at a party, wishing I were home, staring at the clock until I’d been there for a socially acceptable amount of time (so I don’t look like I just ran in and ran out). Yet even when I spare myself the misery of being somewhere I am fully aware I don’t want to be, I wonder if I’d made the right choice.
When this FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) feeling starts to feel overwhelming, I have to remind myself to take a deep breath and feel the tension vanishing from my body as I rest and recharge. The overall sense of being in my own healing presence reminds me that it’s OK — and moreover, necessary — to make time to be alone.
4. It was a big deal and not easy for me to do.
When I first discovered introvert memes, I found myself wondering who these mythical beings were who seemingly had to shrug off social invitations left and right so as not to exhaust themselves.
Not all introverts, contrary to popular belief, get invited out all that often. Is this because I’m constantly burying myself in books and waiting for someone else to start a conversation? Probably.
You see, as difficult as it is to be around people when my social battery is drained, I would almost rather be drained at a party than have to be the one to start a conversation. Actually … start talking to a stranger? By myself?
For introverts, and I imagine even for some extroverts, this can be incredibly anxiety-provoking. A wave of panic starts to come on: What if … this person doesn’t want to talk to me? Better stay in the book cave — it’s safer there.
Because I feel all this, I recognize the intense social risks that can come with asking someone to hang out with you, and I’m probably just as scared about being rejected as you are. Please know that my saying “no” doesn’t come from a place of hatred; I do know receiving a “no” to an invitation can feel like a huge letdown. I don’t do this lightly to anyone. Which leads me to my next point …
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5. It means I’m scared I’ll be lonely: Will I stop being invited out?
This same feeling, when I’m hoping someone else will talk to me first, or when I regret not having gone somewhere, can creep up and sit like an elephant on my gut.
Even before the pandemic, invitations to go out weren’t exactly falling into my lap. Even the purest of introverts know we can’t exist in total isolation: As much as I need time to myself, I do crave meaningful social connections. It’s just that they have to be social connections, not something that will suck my energy dry — like small talk — without providing a substantial friendship.
I tend to run with an active imagination, so I perceive an invitation out as a means of establishing a long-lasting friendship. (You just wanted someone to have a drink with and pass some time? I just don’t get how some people can be social like this, all the time. Are they made of energy? Do they not need to stare at the wall alone in complete silence in order to feel whole again after a long day?)
Passing up on this means passing up on all the other efforts of connection I’ve made, missing out on a potential friendship (what if he never wants to hang out with me again because I rejected him this time?), potentially getting stuck at home with my boring self, wondering if my friends are hanging out without me, and then worrying about it.
Like many reserved introverts, I don’t exactly have a giant social circle of friends I can reject all day long. But, oftentimes, the amount of space I need makes it difficult to keep up with people and maintain the constant connectivity necessary for friendships.
6. Please don’t forget about me! Even if I say “no,” ask me to hang out anyway.
It still amazes me that some people have a capacity to be friends with hundreds of people. It’s pretty incredible. It’s taken a bit of work to accept that how friendship works for me is not how it works for all people — and I finally understand that that’s OK.
Even when I say I can’t go to all the big group get-togethers, I would still like to spend time with you one-on-one. I just get overwhelmed around too many people. This doesn’t mean I don’t value your friendship.
So when I say “no” … for some friends, I’m just one more person who can’t make it to the party this week, but for me, I’m scared I’m sacrificing the closeness that I don’t find in many places. It’s still nice to be invited (even if I decline the invitation) and I would love to hang out with you, just in a quieter setting. While there are certainly times it’s important to push myself out of my comfort zone, I wouldn’t be respecting myself (or my friendships) if I didn’t listen to my own needs.
Saying ‘No’ to You Means I’m Saying ‘Yes’ to Me
It’s pretty infrequent that I’ve ever wanted to go out or be in places crowded with strangers, but I often feel pressured into saying yes, not necessarily by friends, but by a society who taught me success and happiness are measured by the number of people you have over at your house each afternoon.
While that is certainly one measure of success, particularly for extroverts who find much joy in being surrounded by people, it is never going to be a measure that will work for me. Trying to force myself to make too many people connections just wears me out. No matter how much time I try to spend with people, I will still be an introvert and can’t magically morph into a people-person just because it would be convenient.
Even if the little voice in my head continues to whisper that going to just one more scary, loud party will somehow “cure” me of my affliction to need time alone, I’m learning that my ability to be content on my own and sit comfortably by myself actually serves both me and my friendships better. Honoring your needs, even when that means saying “no” to others, means that you are saying “yes” to taking care of yourself — and that should be your first priority anyway.