I have always landed on the introvert end of the spectrum. I enjoy time alone. I have social anxiety and can get “peopled out” easily. And I am easily overwhelmed with crowds and too much stimulation.
Well, let me tell you, the pandemic has taken all of these quirks and idiosyncrasies and kicked them into overdrive. I feel like I’ve literally forgotten how to “people.”
Let me set the stage for you. I babble and blah-blah-blah my way through a conversation only to replay it and think, what the actual fuck are you talking about? No one gives a shit. And I can’t believe you told her that. She probably thinks you’re a total bitch. And boring. And stupid. You can’t even carry on a conversation.
And that’s what happens with good friends of mine. Conversations with people I don’t know very well are next-level awkward.
I stumble through basic interactions and “how are yous.” I literally don’t know how to respond to these questions. Like, should I admit that I’m beaten down with pandemic fatigue and allostatic load, that I’ve been languishing so hard that I might even be a little depressed, that most days I just want to put my head on my desk and cry? Or do I tell them that I’m so overwhelmed with gratitude that my family is comfortable and safe, that I’m so grateful for my family and my health that I want to put my head on my desk and cry? Or do I respond honestly and say that most days I feel some mix of loneliness-frustration-gratitude-fear-exhaustion-gratitude, with a heaping mix of confusion about what the fuck am I doing with my life?
After fretting about how to respond, after a long and awkward pause, I usually just say, “I’m fine, how are you?” And then immediately regret saying too much or too little or not smiling enough or smiling too loud or not asking enough questions about the other person or asking too many questions or just generally being ridiculous.
It’s utterly exhausting.
There’s a few reasons I’m having a hard time “peopling” these days, I think. For one, my threshold for bullshit is infinitely lower that it was a couple years ago. I’ve gotten more selective about who I spend my time with and in what ways. The past couple of years has been a continual process of choosing who I want to be surrounded by, and the people I want in my life. Quarantines and amped-up anxiety have solidified some friendships, while others have slipped away. I’ve reconnected with old classmates over shared values, even though we may not have been friends all those years ago. I’ve unfriended and unfollowed more people than I can count.
And I’ve taken social distancing relatively seriously, avoiding things like weddings and parties and crowded indoor restaurants. While I am comfortable with these decisions, they’ve exacerbated my social anxiety. I feel like I’ve forgotten how to act like a normal person.
It becomes a cycle of awkwardness too. Because it generally goes something like this: Feel awkward around people, avoid people, feel more awkward around people. Wash, rinse, repeat.
The thing is, while I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing that I’ve gone KonMari on my life and the people in it, I don’t want to be a human turtle, tucking my head in and hiding every time I interact with acquaintances and strangers. I want to be able to carry on a conversation without my palms getting sweaty and my heart racing and suffering from middle-of-the-night panic attacks about all the ways I humiliated myself during a six-minute conversation.
But I don’t have any magic tips or tricks other than the easier-said-than-done “get back on the horse” kind of advice to just fumble our way through awkward conversations. And to cut ourselves some slack and stop fretting so much. And to maybe stop with the “I’m fine” responses. No one is “fine” right now. I mean, no one.
The best I can suggest is solidarity and grace. To my fellow introverts with social anxiety, if you’re struggling with peopling these days, you aren’t alone. I see you. I am you.
And to the rest of the humans, please be patient with us. Peopling is really hard right now.