Long Days and Short Years

just trying to pay attention so that I don't miss my life

An Introvert’s Guide to Surviving the Holidays

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For you and/or the introverts you love.

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PART ONE: Who are we?

I must begin by stating, as clearly as I can, a simple fact for the record.  I like people.  I really do.  I have friends.  Sometimes I can even make small talk.  Goodness, I live with seven other people.  This is good.  I would be a very unhappy hermit.

And this is also good, because ‘wannabe hermit’ is not a synonym for introvert, nor is ‘shy’, ‘withdrawn’, or ‘antisocial’.  Can you tell that I’m feeling a little defensive?  Perhaps this is because the Cambridge Dictionary defines introvert as, “someone who is shy, quiet and unable to make friends easily”.  Ouch.  How about a definition for extrovert?  That would be, “an energetic, happy person who enjoys being with other people.”

No value judgments here.

Sorry Cambridge, but I’m coming at the introvert/extrovert continuum from a slightly different angle.  It begins with a few questions, the first of which is, “What charges your batteries?”  In other words, when you are depleted, overwhelmed or mentally worn-out; what energizes you?  A night out, or a night in?  Do people, experiences and challenges ‘get you going'; or require a whole bunch of extra processing time?  Are you more easily bored or overstimulated?  As the Myers-Briggs website summarizes, “Do you like to spend time in the outer world of people and things (Extraversion), or in your inner world of ideas and images (Introversion)?”

So, which category do you suppose a reflective blog writer falls into?

We are the introverts.  Hear us roar take some time to think about all of this.

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PART TWO:  Introvert Torture

That would be a full work week (paid or unpaid) plus two social gatherings, every weekend, for all of December.

And don’t forget to put up the lights, make the cookies, buy the gifts, take the family picture and order the photo cards (not to mention actually addressing, stamping and mailing the cards… I still have an unsent box from the year our youngest was born), decorate the house, make more cookies, figure out what you can give to various worthy organizations, keep up and maybe create some meaningful family traditions, and try not to get too stressed out because you know that the holidays are supposed to be a reflective time.

Ah, December.

Stop reflecting.  Shouldn’t you be making cookies?

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PART THREE:  Introvert Survival

First off, re-read part one, and write the Cambridge definitions on a piece of paper.  Burn it.  Dance around the fire.

There is nothing wrong with you.

Did you know that introvert’s brains are actually wired differently than extroverts?  A researcher named Dr. Debra Johnson published an experiment in the American Journal of Psychiatry in which researchers asked a group of people to lie down and relax.  Their brains were scanned, and then her team compared the findings to the participant’s questionnaire-based identification as introverts or extroverts.  They found that the blood flow in the introvert’s brains was actually longer and more complex, hitting parts of the brain that involved memory, problem solving, emotion, and planning.  The extrovert’s blood flowed in shorter, faster and less complicated pathways that involved sensory input.  It’s no wonder that introvert’s brains can feel so tired!

Now, it’s not that extroverts don’t think deeply or even that their brains are less complex than those of introverts.  It just seems that introverts tend to favor the longer brain pathways, even for processing very simple experiences (like, ‘lie down and relax’).  Before I get into deeper neuroscientific waters (with my swimmies on), I’ll just say that this rings true for me.  My extroverted husband and I can experience the exact same situation (let’s say a holiday party), for the exact same amount of time (as long as I can last), and I will come away mentally and emotionally exhausted while his reaction is something like, ‘what’s next?’

What’s next?  A break for my tired brain.

Breaks are the key to survival.  But they are not a given in the month of December, so to my fellow introverts, I say…

Please don’t let the holidays eat you alive.  This will take some planning.  Yes, planning.  I don’t mean to give you one more thing to do, but hear me out.  You need to plan so that you can choose.  You need to plan so that you can pace yourself.  You need to plan so that you will have more than a smidgen of energy left when something really important is happening.

This is my first piece of unsolicited advice:  plan to give yourself some space.  Before the party, after the party, hidden in the bathroom (just briefly!) during the party.  Close your eyes, take deep breaths, try to forgive yourself for the stupid thing that you just said and think of a question that you can ask someone when you emerge.  Write space into your calender like it’s an appointment, and then do the things that give you energy–the things that help you process and enjoy the rest of your life.  Be really protective of this time, and if you miss it, re-schedule.  The key words here?  Prepare and recover.

Second, reflect on what you can really do well, and say no to just about everything else.  You’re an introvert, and so you have unique gifts to give.  Could you spend some extra time on a thoughtful holiday letter (or e-mail)?  Is there someone who really needs you to reach out to them and then just listen for awhile?  Are you an especially considerate gift-giver?  Do you have an idea to make the holidays especially meaningful for your kids (or someone else’s)?  Are you an artist of some kind or another?  Take some time to think about this, and then prioritize these things.  When other things that you are perhaps not so well-suited to come up, you won’t have time to do them all.      

Finally, stop thinking so much about yourself.  This may come off as a bit harsh, and even contradictory to the two previous paragraphs; but as I live my own little introverted life, this is a constant tension.  How can I remain healthy while responding to the near-constant demands of my two small children?  When do I go to the party just because it means a lot to my husband?  What about the big family gathering after an especially stressful week?  What if I figure out ‘what I need”, but then I don’t get it?

Sorry.  Sometimes you just have to deal.  Sometimes you just have to play nicely with the extroverts.

But here’s the thing… if your plans for space get interrupted, at least you had plans.  If you have to do something that you don’t want to do, at least you know what you’ll do next time.  If the pace doesn’t seem quite right, at least you’re paying attention.

And if you really need a break, you can always hide in the bathroom for a little while.

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13 thoughts on “An Introvert’s Guide to Surviving the Holidays

  1. Dear Jen – Ahh – like RX for my tired brain. You could also say – after every large social gathering, just schedule some time to sit alone and stare at a wall or curl up and just rest. I wouldn’t necessary classify myself as an introvert by looking at me from the outside . . but because I live in my head . . . I know that I am right there with you.

  2. Well said, my fellow introvert! I am planning to share this far and wide. Thank you! :)

  3. Also – key to getting through a party – sit next to a friendly introvert and have a nice heart-to-heart talk.

  4. Well said, Jen, once again. There are moments when we need to give extroverts grace and do some things that please them and also identify the moments when we need to “stare at the wall.” Yes, it is a balance. It doesn’t matter how extroverts label us. We know that God made us this way for a purpose. We have many gifts that extroverts do not have. If an extrovert refuses to understand or accommodate, then that’s their issue. Let’s celebrate intoversion by . . . reading a book during half an hour of quiet time and then reflecting on what we’ve read.

  5. As an extrovert, married to an introvert, I have come to see the need for, as we call it, ‘Kyle Time,’ even though it doesn’t compute in my brain; just as after a long day with the kids, I long to get out of the house for party doesn’t compute for his. We are different, wonderfully different, both sides and both extremes. Thank you for taking the time to present such an insightful and balanced look at how to care and love an introvert!

    • It’s amazing to me how many couples span the introvert/extrovert “divide” and how much stinkin’ work it is to try and understand each other. How and why do we find each other? It reminds me of something that somebody once said, that marriage is not designed to make us happier, but to make us holier. Hearing about couples who have lovingly adapted to their partner’s needs is a beautiful thing.

      • So true! In our pre-marital counseling our pastor told us that about 90% of couples marry their opposite, and about 10% of couples marry someone just like them. Those who marry similar personalities statistically have peaceful, calm, and ‘easy’ marriages. Those who marry their opposites statistically have more arguments, more emotional time, a ‘harder’ marriage. But also grow more learning to see things from another’s perspective. Since biblically we are always called to grow to be more and more like Christ, these words have always helped encourage me that just because our marriage is ‘hard’ at times does not mean that our marriage is bad or struggling. We simply encounter the ‘growing pains’ that God can use to refine us.

      • So at least 10% of married people are at peace… maybe they should start a fund to give the rest of us back massages.

  6. Ooh, that last piece of advice is sticky! I say that because that’s what my family tends to think my hubby should do ALL THE TIME. In balance with the rest of the advice it makes sense, though! I’ve found the best thing I can do (as a more-extroverty person married to an extreme introvert) is to let him know i care about his mental/emotional wellbeing before, during, and after big stressful events. When I get too carried away into my extrovert world and forget to give a couple supportive touches/looks, things don’t go so well.

  7. Also for the rest of us to be able to separate that being around lots of people (in general) is torture for introverts and that they do not in fact DISLIKE the specific people (whoever they may be) is important!

    • Thank you for writing this down. So true. This is actually part of the reason why I work so hard (on my good days!) to prepare for something like a Christmas party. If I don’t, I am much more likely to unintentionally give the message of “I don’t like talking to YOU.”

  8. Yes! I found it so fascinating that introverts and extroverts are actually “wired” differently. And as a response to this wiring, introverts actually tend to take in so much of their environment, which is why they’re (we’re) so closed off, to protect ourselves from becoming too overwhelmed. And then in general, extroverts tend to seek out more stimulation because they naturally don’t experience as much by being passive! The mind and brain and incredible.

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