Orientation Week at university, for me, was a right nightmare. Each night, I would come back to my shitty halls room, close the shitty door behind me and break down into tears, call my mum and beg her to come and pick me up. She, like the good lady she is, always encouraged me to try again the next day and promised it would get better in the end. Eventually, I’d calm down and re-read Harry Potter until I fell asleep. Because I, unlike my mum, am a super cool person.
Now, this wasn’t because people were being mean to me, they weren’t. It wasn’t even because I wasn’t making any friends, I was. No, it was the sheer pressure of being switched ‘on’ into social mode for up to 18 hours a day with a whole bunch of people I didn’t yet feel comfortable with.
See, I, like reportedly half of you lot too, am an introvert. I can enjoy social situations. I can fake extrovert behavior for a limited time but ultimately; I need time by myself to feel normal.
Obviously things got better at university. I learned to spent time by myself when I needed it. I learned that comparing yourself to extroverts is futile and I learned to revel in the secret pleasures of being introverted.
Now, the only time I struggle is when I find myself in others’ company for long periods of time. Situations when 'me' time is difficult and I have to have my brain engaged in 'super turbo social mode'. Things like weekends away, group holidays, work away days… times when being surrounded by others is the entire point of the exercise. Sometimes I find these situations so overwhelming that even the action of opening my mouth to say 'please' and 'thank you' is a tall order.
So, I spoke to Dr. Max Blumberg, a Psychologist Researcher from Goldsmiths University of London (which is totally where I went too. Turns out Max and I have got tipsy in the same pubs, sadly not at the same time which is a shame because Max is an excellent human being) to find out if there's anything introverts can do to feel more comfortable during extended periods of social interaction.
Max explains to me that there’s a very clear chemical reason as to why some people find socialising easier than others. "It’s a part of your brain called your reticular activating system," he say, calling it ‘RAS’ for short. It turns out that introverts have already got very active RASs which means that if they get much more social stimuli, they struggle. Extroverts, on the other hand have ‘lazy’ RASs. "They need stimulus from other people before they’re operating at their normal pace," he says. "They literally take energy from other people to kick their systems into gear."
So, that's cool right fellow introverts? It’s not that you’re boring. It’s because your brain was already working in overdrive before you had to talk to a bunch of people.
Here are a few tips from Max on how to deal with long periods of social interaction.
Remember why you’re there
This is vital. Being introverted means you tend to focus on yourself and your own feelings a lot. Max advises externalising your thoughts by remembering your reason for being at the event. Max has a friend who gets so overwhelmed by networking events that he will get a migraine every single time he attends one, without fail. However, he knows he needs to attend for business and so that’s why he goes. "You need to have a goal as to why you’re going to the event and keep that goal," he says. "If you’re going to your mate’s hen night remember you’re doing this not for YOU, you’re doing it because she’s your friend."
Make a plan
This might sound extreme but it’s a really important part of preparation. "You must plan," Max says. "The worst is when you’re dreading going before you start. The cortisol will be really pumping up in the blood stream and the anxiety is up. You’re a mess before you even get there!" Pre-planning can help minimse this pre-worry. "Have an escape plan," advises Max. "Ask a mate to phone you like if you wanted to escape from a first date." If possible, he also advises scouting the place out first to find any quiet spots you can retreat to.
Prepare your small talk
If you’re anything like me, you suck at small talk. Or at least you think you do. To introverts, small talk can be seen as failure because it’s not the full, meaty conversation that you think everyone else around you is having. According to Max though, extroverts thrive because they TOTALLY view small talk as a conversation. "If you’re going to have to make small talk then prepare some topics," he says. "Read the paper, read some magazines! Come armed with topics so you’re not suddenly faced with an awkward silence."
Alternatively, advises Max, get into an argument! Or at least, an interesting debate. "Introverts like arguing because it’s not small talk!" he says. "If you see a heated discussion going on, go and join that because that’ll be much easier for you than what you think is the normal rubbish."
Another good trick is to find an extrovert you know and trust and stick to them. "Say to them 'You are my shield!' says Max. "Firstly, they actually like the attention and if they know you’re introverted they’ll be able to grab it for you. Except if you meet someone you really fancy. Then they might grab them as well but hey, you can’t have everything!"
Alternatively, Max says, find a fellow introvert and hang out together quietly.
This is a must do. No matter what strict itinerary you’re on. "I went to a stag party in Amsterdam a few years ago," says Max, "and we had a guy there who was religious about it. He would disappear every couple of hours and come back refreshed. He’d just be like 'I find the intensity of these things really hard. I really enjoy being with you and so that I can enjoy the whole time we’re together I’m going to need to take a break every couple of hours.' And we all understood! We said 'Fantastic. We will continue partying and we look forward to seeing you when you’re back.'”
Be kind to yourself when you’re back home
Imagine your brain like your phone on charge. If you’re an introvert and you’re around people for an extended period of time, you’re going to need to recharge with some alone time. "Create extra time when you’re back," says Max. "Don’t book in another event or another social activity the next day. The chemicals in the brain can take 8-10 hours or even more to leave the body so you need that recharge time. It’s critical. Human beings are like an electrical device. Aside from the ghost in the machine, we are pretty device-y".
Remember you are you and you are great the way you are
Here is where Max gives you a pep talk fellow introverts. It’s easy to feel like a failure in situations like this when you see everyone else socialising like champions without a care in the world whilst inside you’re wilting. But, remember, that is not your fault.
"Introversion is one of five personality traits. Personality traits are given. They’re not a disease. They’re neither bad or good, they are just the level of chemical you have in your head," he says.
What’s more important is that, rather than trying to mould your personality to fit in with everyone else, make the world around you work for your personality. "You absolutely have to acknowledge your personality traits and build your life around them," says Max. "You can’t change them by definition. So you say this is MY personality. What kind of job do I need for this personality? What kind of partner? What kind of house? You build your life around your personality and not the other way. Mind-blowing hey?"
This article was originally published on The Debrief.