Introverts usually prefer being alone, and that includes when crying, too.
Recently, I took a vacation with my husband’s family. All 15 or so of us piled into a house at the foot of a pond for 17 days, with lovely views of the New Hampshire mountains in the background. It was especially heavenly after three months of Covid-19 lockdown in our New York apartment.
Still, as an introvert, I’d valued all my surplus alone time the few months prior, so going from relative solitude to communal living was a challenge, and I found it hard to break out of what I think of as my Cocoon of Introversion.
You see, if you spot me at the edge of a party with a clouded look on my face, I’m in the Cocoon. It’s where I go to be with my thoughts — or, sometimes, a book — in a crowded room. I think it’s a special talent most introverts have for carving out solace without being physically isolated. We can be alone within ourselves, and even while in the same room with others.
Near the end of the New Hampshire trip, I received some difficult news. Not death-in-the-family news, but a disappointing email about a project I held very dear to my heart. Sometimes I brush these things off, but not that day. That day, it hit like a geyser. I excused myself from the conversation I’d been having, found my husband, and burst into tears.
Nothing ruptures the Cocoon of Introversion like a crying fit. And the thing about crying is, people stare when all I want is to remain invisible as I fall apart, the only way I can eventually build myself back to relative OK-ness. I’m not an elegant crier; I’m an end-of-the-world crier, a watch-the-tears-fall-down-my-face-in-the-mirror-like-this-is-a-movie crier. And I really, really, really do not want anyone to see me like that (with the exception of my husband).
To make matters worse, the second someone asks me what’s wrong or how they can help, I revert to blubbering. No number of reassuring words or steady deep breathing can staunch the tears before their time. So if you ever see me crying, please know this: The best thing you can do is leave me alone.
It’s Easier to Cry in My Introvert Cocoon vs. a Houseful of People
Crying is a reflexive response for the highly sensitive person (HSP), or at least it is for me. As an HSP, I already tend to be overly perceptive and absorb other people’s emotions (even though I have plenty of my own to absorb). So when you combine being an HSP with being an introvert, it not only make me more susceptible to cry but also makes me want to cry in peace, alone.
But when I get angry or depressed or even frustrated, it’s too late, no matter where I am: I invariably feel the sudden tell-tale sting behind my eyes and tingle of the sinuses — like the beginning of a sneeze or the rush of a dam before it breaks. And once the flood of tears starts, there’s no turning back.
When it comes to crying in Western society, I think there’s an expectation of graceful duress: The single tear quivering down the cheek preferable to an ugly cry. I believe this is, in part, from where the rush to comfort, to make OK, to hush up, emanates, like a buttoned-up urge to kiss the wound and make it instantly better. To not cause a scene.
In The Year of Magical Thinking — Joan Didion’s memoir on grieving her late husband John Gregory Dunne — she writes how we even expect widows to remain strong at the graveside. “When we anticipate the funeral, we wonder about failing to ‘get through it,’ rise to the occasion, exhibit the ‘strength’ that invariably gets mentioned as the correct response to death.” Sometimes, grace is pathology.
Of course, it’s difficult to go unnoticed when you are a capsizing ship of tears in a house with thin wooden walls and more than a dozen people popping in and out of rooms unannounced. My brother-in-law twice wandered into the tucked-away bedroom where I thrashed and wailed like a pubescent banshee.
The rest of the family kept their distance, but hovered. Their well-meaning concern was palpable; it traveled along creaking floorboards and followed me into the bathroom, where I splashed water on my face and tried to stop hyperventilating.
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The Best Thing You Can Do for Me Is to Leave Me Alone
Trust me, as a sensitive introvert — since we tend to take on others’ emotions — I understand the instinct to be there for someone who is visibly upset. It seems cruel to ignore the sobbing mass of flesh in the corner, or to close a door when you come across a scene of obvious distress. Yet, I promise, that’s exactly what I want, and I’m sure some of my fellow introverts would agree.
After all, being an introvert is, in part, about taking care of yourself. I love to be alone and I’m not afraid of my own thoughts or feelings. Still, I feel a lot of pressure to accommodate the feelings of others, and I don’t want anyone to be upset by my upset-ness.
Plus, I can’t stand pity. If I sense that someone feels bad for me, I freeze up, and it only makes matters worse. And, I prefer to operate in a room’s outskirts. Crying tends to thrust you into the center of attention (no thank you); well-meaning people offer and console, but it only makes me feel scrutinized.
And let’s not forget about the loss of control inherent in crying. My introverted self spends a lot of time thinking, and overthinking, about what to say next in a group setting, or simply listening and observing. When I cry, I start unleashing snippets of emotional nonsense that I’d prefer to keep private.
Of course, there is no shame in wanting a lot of support to help staunch tears. But recognizing how others cry — and grieve — differently is part of being human. I need to let my tears run their course, alone, to become dried out by my sadness. Only then can I begin to heal. Introverts tend to thrive when we are given time to recharge — to rebuild the Cocoon, so to speak — and this is doubly true in moments of sadness.
Accepting That It’s OK to Want to Cry Alone
Of course, there are a few trusted individuals — people who don’t count as people — who can truly comfort me when I’m in shambles. It requires an unnatural closeness. Basically, you have to be my mom or spouse.
But for a long time, I believed my habit of shutting down when someone asked if I was all right was a flaw, something to be fixed. However, just like choosing to stay in with a book instead of going to a bar on a Saturday night, it’s not a character defect — it’s part of who I am.
I also reject our societal proscriptions against wallowing, as Didion notes, “the grieving have urgent reasons, even an urgent need, to feel sorry for themselves.” Self-care is not self-indulgent: Especially when I’m crying, my need for alone time is not a reflection on you.
These days, I try to exert some control over the uncontrollable-tears situation: I excuse myself or state what I need. Longing for privacy amid sorrow is a natural extension of my close-guarded personality. And this must be accepted as equally normal to people who want to weep with company.
So the next time your introverted friend or family member has a crying fit, ask them if they’d like you to close the door. Believe me, perhaps the best thing you can do is leave them alone.
You might like:
- What to Do When You Feel Overstimulated and Overwhelmed
- 13 Problems Only Highly Sensitive Introverts Will Understand
- The Science Behind Why We Absorb Others’ Emotions (and How to Deal)
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