To the Extroverts in My Life: I Love You But I Need Alone Time

an introvert and extrovert are friends

“What are you doing this weekend?” she asked, as we drove back together from the comedy show.

“I’m not really making any plans,” I replied.

I could practically hear the eye roll when she shot back, “Of course you aren’t!” She was angry. I was “free” for all intents and purposes, but I didn’t want to hang out with her.

“I haven’t had time to myself for so long,” I tried anxiously to explain, wanting her to respect my need for space. “I’m exhausted.”

But she was an extrovert, and to her, it was personal. The fact that I wanted to stay home rather than spend time with her made no sense. She didn’t understand that my heart had been beating out of my chest for weeks, my nerves were all on edge, my thoughts were racing, and I was on the verge of crying most of the time. All because I’d overexerted myself socially, because I had friends who needed my time and energy. And I’d given it, because I loved them, but I’d become a nervous, sad wreck of a person as a result.

My Body Needs Balance

We’ve heard it all before: Introverts just want to be alone. Though this isn’t always true, and it reduces us to an “antisocial” stereotype, we do need a lot more time alone than our extroverted counterparts. Even if we are sociable, friendly, and outgoing, exhibiting extrovert-like behavior at times, if we don’t carve out enough time alone, we introverts crash and burn.

And it’s not a pretty sight.

What my extroverted friend didn’t seem to understand was, if I had hung out with her, I wouldn’t have been any fun. Without my recharge time, I become a negative, irritable, bad friend who is just counting down the seconds until I can get the hell outta there. Not because I don’t love my friends; in the Myers-Briggs system, I’m an INFP personality type — an introverted feeler, after all — and I cherish those deep connections.

I turned down her invitation because I physically NEED to recharge my batteries. Sometimes that takes an afternoon, sometimes a whole weekend or more. It depends on how much I’ve exerted myself socially, but in all cases, my body needs that balance.

“We’re just so different,” she said. “I don’t get it.” The rest of the car trip was spent in relative silence. I was upset that she couldn’t understand and accept me — and that I was trying so hard to give my time to my friends (to the point of exhaustion), yet it still somehow wasn’t enough.

And she was hurt that I didn’t want to spend time with her.

How to Handle This Type of Situation

The hard thing is, when we introverts are met with the kind of reaction that I received from my extroverted friend, we’re tempted to respond in unhealthy ways. We may resort to people pleasing or agreeing to socialize past our limits. We may retreat inward, feeling hurt and misunderstood.

For healthy relationships, we need to work past these knee-jerk reactions, and instead set firm boundaries with our extroverted friends. We need to explain our needs, and help them understand why we are different. Most important, we need to become comfortable saying no if they still push us for more. It all comes down to mutual respect for one another, regardless of our differences.

Why I Can’t Live Without Alone Time

To my extroverted friends who find me confusing, I love you, but these are the three main reasons I cannot live without time alone:

1. It’s science

Introverts are wired differently than extroverts. Needing alone time is not a choice, it’s science. It essentially boils down to the brain chemicals dopamine and acetylcholine (though other factors are also at play).

According to Dr. Marti Olsen Laney, author of The Introvert Advantage, introverts have a low dopamine threshold, so we’re highly sensitive to “the happy drug.” Extroverts, however, are far less sensitive to its effects and have a high threshold. The result is that introverts can become easily overwhelmed and anxious when flooded with dopamine in “exciting” situations, whereas extroverts crave this stimulation to get their fill of the feel-good chemical and a boost of energy.

On the flip side, acetylcholine is the introvert’s “drug” of choice. (To be clear, these are not actual drugs; they’re neurotransmitters, which are essentially chemical messengers.) Acetylcholine, like dopamine, is also linked to pleasure. However, to get this chemical flowing, we need to turn inward. When we spend time alone in a calm environment — concentrating, reading, watching TV, doing something we enjoy — our brains enjoy the rush of acetylcholine, without the ill effects that accompany a flood of dopamine. It calms us into a serene yet energized state.

Personally, I’m never happier than when I’m alone in my bedroom haven, in my pajamas, with my cat, ice cream, and Netflix. This downtime is what keeps me going and what makes me a nice person in the morning (also, coffee).

In contrast, extroverts hardly register the effects of acetylcholine’s subtle relaxation.

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2. Hobbies, so many hobbies 

I have a lot of hobbies and interests, which is a pretty common “affliction” for an introvert, especially for an INFP like me. My creative fire comes to life when I’m alone, and I feel like me. Allowing enough time to dedicate to my hobbies is vitally important to me. These hobbies are what I spend all day thinking about, they’re what I long to return to when I’m at work or socializing: They’re my identity. I have a million things on my mind at any given moment, and if I don’t give myself the chance to dive into them, my racing mind won’t settle.

I have a stack of books that I’m currently reading, leaning like the Tower of Pisa, waiting to be finished — and those are just the ones on my bedside table. I have podcasts lined up to listen to, TV shows to binge, articles to read, new recipes I’ve been dying to cook, a camera to play with, stories to write, nature walks to take, and passions that I haven’t even stumbled upon just waiting to be discovered.

But I can’t do any of those enjoyable things when I’m tied up socializing, and that thought makes me panic almost more than anything else. Time is fleeting after all, and there is so much to explore. Don’t get me wrong, I love spending time with my people, but my mind is always buzzing, and I need to give it the time and attention it deserves, too.

3. I love people, but I love me more 

When I’m on my own, I don’t have to watch what I say. I don’t have to try to be fun and bubbly. I don’t have to be the listener or help anyone with their problems, or feel their pain (which, as a highly sensitive person, is something I can’t switch off when I’m with others). When I’m on my own, I can do whatever I want to do. I don’t have to accommodate anyone, because as an introverted feeler, I’m always trying to please others, and it’s tiring.

I just want to think about me sometimes. When I spend time alone, I can be my silly self and not feel judged. I can read a book and not feel like I’m being “antisocial.” I don’t have to strain to find something to talk about — I can just be.

With myself, I’m at ease; it’s like coming home. It’s comforting and easy. 

I love being with you, my extroverted friends, but I love being with me more. And I no longer see the sense in apologizing for that. It’s my life, after all, and I’ll spend it the way I choose. I just hope that you’ll stick around and accept me for who I am, even when I’m in introvert hangover mode.

Because, dear friends, I may not be down to hang out every weekend, but I promise I’ll always stick around for you.

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Rebekah is a highly sensitive INFP trying to find her way in this noisy world. After completing a Speech Pathology degree and feeling unsatisfied with this career, she decided to take the road less traveled and spread her creative wings. She now pursues many different creative endeavors — she loves to cook and create recipes for her blog, The Floured Kitchen, and dream up cakes for her home-based bakery. When she's not in the kitchen, she loves stretching it out on the yoga mat, gulping down huge mugs of coffee, flexing her photography muscles, writing until her fingers cramp, and reading until her eyes hurt. Words have always been her dearest friend.