Science Explains Why Introverts Have a Love-Hate Relationship With Socializing
A study explains why introverts can love their friends but at the same time dread being around them.
I’m an introvert, but I love going out to dinner with my friends and laughing so hard my face hurts. We take pictures, share silly jokes, and talk about embarrassing moments that are too funny to forget. Being around these good, honest people fills my soul.
As we commiserate, we deepen our bonds, and I get the amazing feeling that I’m not going through life alone. My friends let me vent, teach me to laugh, and help me move on from the past. We talk about our children, our marriages, our mothers-in-law, and everything in between. We talk about our struggles and victories, our hopes and failures, our fears and dreams, and who we want to become in the future. For me, having friends and staying close to them is so fulfilling.
So why do I always come home at the end of a fun night feeling completely exhausted?
Why do I lie in bed and dread the next time I might run into one of my friends at the grocery store and be forced into small talk?
Why do I feel squeamish thinking about the thousands of words thrown about carelessly that night?
In other words, how can I love my friends but at the same time dread being around them?
A Study Has the Answer
Well, research can finally explain why I both love and hate being social. A University of Helsinki study published in 2016 found that acting “extroverted” initially makes us feel happy, but it leads to mental depletion and fatigue just a few hours later.
The researchers performed a small, 12-day study that tracked how people felt in terms of personality, mood, stress, and fatigue. They asked college students to record how happy and content they felt in the moment after they did certain things, like socialize. They also recorded how tired and stressed they felt in certain moments.
As I said, the researchers found a connection between happiness and extroversion. (They also found a connection between happiness and acting in a conscientious way — such as being altruistic or kind — but that’s not what I’m going to discuss in this article.) The people who engaged in extroverted behavior (regardless of whether they described themselves as an introvert or an extrovert) felt happier afterward. This might look like making small talk with a cashier or texting a friend.
But as time passed, that happiness turned into a state of fatigue — only two to three hours later. Both the introverts and the extroverts felt fatigued. What made a difference, in terms of how tired they felt, was how many people they had interacted with, the intensity of the interactions, and whether they had a particular goal in mind while studying or working. As you would probably guess, the more people the college students had interacted with, the more tired they felt.
These results are surprising, because they go against the idea that extroverts are energized by socializing. Turns out, everyone gets tired (eventually) from socializing, even extroverts. And even though we introverts may say we don’t need people, we really do (to some extent). A little socializing is good for us “quiet ones” (if we can have our much-needed alone time afterward, of course).
Nevertheless, there are some very real (and scientifically proven) differences between introverts and extroverts. The study did not look at whether different kinds of social interaction made the introverts feel more tired. Knowing what we know about introverts, I’m willing to bet that the introverts felt more drained by certain things like networking or lots of small talk.
Why Is Socializing So Tiring?
Basically, because it takes effort. Sometimes a lot of effort. “Even in the most desirable company,” the researchers explain, it’s normal “to control one’s emotional expressions and behaviors to some extent, out of consideration for others.” And interacting with others — especially in group situations — requires that we pay attention and call on our short-term memory. Plus, not all social interactions are positive, which forces us to deal with negative feelings and control our reactions even more. All of this takes effort, and in turn, energy.
As an introvert, I feel this fatigue deep in my bones. I now finally understand why I enjoy going out with friends but also feel mentally, physically, and emotionally depleted that same night. My body needs a few hours to process my surroundings and then seems to realize that the socializing is tiring.
I enjoy being with my friends, but I also need a break from them after spending some time together — even if we have fun and enjoy each other’s company.
I Changed How I Socialize
After discovering this study and reflecting on its findings, I’ve made a few changes to how I socialize.
1. Limit socializing to two hours or less at a time.
After some experimenting, I’ve noticed that I can handle about two hours of chatting and being friendly. That gives me enough time to be with my friends and fulfill my need for close human interaction, but it also helps me set a limit so I can take care of my mental health.
My closest friends know that I limit my socializing time, and they help me by making it easy to quietly escape the situation. For example, at a recent baby shower, my friend let me park in the driveway behind her house so I could make a quick getaway. Thank goodness she did that because thirty women in a house can get loud really quickly!
When I hit my social limit, I can then leave feeling guilt-free because I did my part by showing up, being friendly, and making conversation.
2. Leave when I’m 70% done.
I used to try to socialize for as long as possible so I could squeeze as much “fun” out of the night as possible. Then I’d go home ready to crash on my bed, and my mental depletion would spill over into the next day.
Now I prepare for any events that will drain my energy by leaving social settings when I feel 70% done. Sometimes this is just after an hour, sometimes around two hours. I do this by monitoring how I’m feeling as the socializing goes on. When I’m with a close friend and can talk for a few hours, it takes me longer to reach 70% done.
But there are other times when I’m surrounded by 40 loud strangers and I can feel my brain melting into a puddle. So I gauge how I’m feeling as if I were a fuel tank — am I 70% full yet? Then it’s time to leave, even if I’ve only been at the party for 30 minutes. The louder the room is and the more energy it takes for me to be in that situation, the faster my inner tank reaches 70%. I’ve learned to listen to what my body is telling me, even when it seems silly to leave after just 30 minutes.
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3. See people as energy givers or takers.
There are some people I love to be around. They exude happiness and charm, and are engaging to talk to. We have deep, meaningful conversations at the right times, and these people are socially adept enough to know when to stop digging deeper.
Then there are people who seem to bring a dark cloud wherever they go. Talking to them takes effort and every sentence you say seems to hammer away at your mental health. Being around these people makes me lose energy. I can feel my back slumping and head lowering when they come around and want to talk. Engaging with them is depleting and difficult, and burnout quickly creeps in.
When I come across someone who falls in this category, I try to minimize my interactions with them. They are draining my mental, emotional, and physical stamina by simply being near me, so I need to find a way to cut it short and take care of myself. I’ve learned that my “being friendly” to them by allowing them to talk endlessly does neither one of us a service — I’m not genuinely interested in what they say, and I’m not prioritizing my own mental health. So I make sure to smile and say something simple like, “Hey, I have to run, but I really hope you have a great day!”
Now I know that I have mental and physical limits, and I need to set boundaries. Some of us may be more extroverted and enjoy socializing all night, whereas some of us might need to be done after just 30 minutes.
Regardless of where we are on this spectrum, we need to keep tabs on our inner tank and remember that fun nights out with friends can lead to fatigue later. By understanding our limits, we can balance our need to socialize with our even greater need to take care of ourselves.
How do you balance your need for interaction with your need for alone time? Let me know in the comments below.