By Sally V. Keil
Alarmed as I am by this virus and the quick transformations it is requiring of everyone I know and love, I have never been so grateful to be an introvert. Sheltering in place is my old normal. I am still sitting at my desk every day, writing and editing, still communicating mostly by text and email. Editorial meetings take place on GoToMeeting. I can even attend my qigong class from my living room via Zoom.
Social distancing as a concept has become an overnight meme. But it always felt natural and comfortable to me as a safe way to take the measure of a person before engaging in close association. As an introvert, I see the Outside World as a foreign land, one I must prepare myself to enter in order to accomplish my to-do list in the midst of all the extraverted action. Now we’re all viewing the outside world as daunting and possibly dangerous.
When introvert Jean-Paul Sartre said, “Hell is other people,” he was probably in a mood, but in the age of the coronavirus, we can’t help feeling cautious about everyone we meet. We introverts could not have imagined this – the whole world introverting, seriously and for real, and for the common good.
Now we are all attending to our home environment—the natural realm of the introvert. This time of enforced togetherness, especially in close quarters, is a real challenge for many people. Wives, husbands, partners, families, roommates—households of varied composition must come up with viable routines for daily life, managing in enclosed quarters for weeks.
In his observations of how people relate to the world, C.G. Jung described a continuum from extraversion to introversion. Extraverts like to go out and interact with people; introverts turn inward in order to process their experiences. Since I fall at the far end of the introversion scale, I normally find myself at a disadvantage in our extraverted society that requires me to go out to meet it. Now suddenly I find the outside world zooming in to meet me, on my own terms. Extraverts who thrive on “pressing the flesh” and “working the room,” have a harder time with social distancing for it screens them off from people “out there” where they naturally get energized and nourished.
Affectionate, hugging extraverts now have to wave to each other across a six-foot abyss. Even elbow bumps are now a thing of the past. A young friend spent her 18th birthday without a party. My extraverted niece is sad that she can’t get out to celebrate turning 34. Extraverts living alone are especially at a loss. “It’s weird that everything I did or attended has cancelled or closed,” said a 76-year-old professional living by herself on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “I know that’s happening around the country, but it’s hard to get used to.”
In Mill Valley, California, extraverted residents opened their front doors and windows and howled for ten minutes, their primal scream of protest against days of isolation.
Elsewhere around the US, extraverts are hosting online cocktail gatherings and drinking quarantinis. They are also gratefully escaping the house to food shop, or just getting in the car to explore the empty roads.
“We extraverts will find a way,” my husband insists, “Don’t count us out.”
Yet this is also a time for us to come to understand our opposites. As one extraverted friend put it, introversion has become a practice like meditation, one that she is getting a lot of now. There is richness in this kind of solitude, and a lot of pleasure, too. For one thing, our whole environment seems to have settled down. Traffic noise has diminished as only essential workers drive to and from work. Fewer planes fly overhead. Through my open windows, I can hear the first robins and finches of spring and distant spring peepers. Now that they aren’t rushing to get somewhere to meet someone, might extraverts now look out their windows and glimpse something interesting or delightful happening as I often do?
To be suddenly confronted with this amount of introversion can feel uncomfortable, disorienting, or frustrating for many. It is surely a time to acknowledge the stress of not being able to do things as one normally wants to do them, to keep a sense of humor and to “go with the flow” even if when it goes down to a trickle.
The French have a saying, “Reculer pour mieux sauter.” Loosely translated that means, “One must step back to better jump ahead.” Let’s hope that this stepping back, or hunkering down, will enable us to stay well and triumph over the virus, so when this ordeal is over, we will have grown from the experience and feel ready to jump back into action once again.
It is a fact of psychological life that visiting the realm of our opposite, even for a short time, has a profound effect, and a healing one. Introverting is valuable because it calls us to go deeper, take stock. Issues come up that may be resolved as we look at our lives and at the world in a new way. We can then move forward, more grounded in our personal reality.
“There will be a whole reexamination of how we live,” a friend predicted, as she prepared to go out and have a conversation with a river.
Finding some way “out” in this time of potential contagion, can be challenging and social distancing may feel unnatural for extraverts, but any extraversion these days must be exceptionally discrete. Pent-up frustration with the restrictions of sequestering can come out in ways that threaten the vulnerable. A woman I spoke with yesterday told me that she wears a mask in public to remind the clueless that she is older and in a high-risk population. The mask is a message that she is staking out her territory. It says, “Please respect my need for space.”
We all have an innate capacity for extraverting and introverting, so I’d like to suggest that we view this health crisis as a time to appreciate one another’s point of view. Yesterday my extraverted husband, whose habit it is to fly out the door like Pegasus first thing in the morning, took me to lunch at our favorite local restaurant — now offering takeout only. As we stood and ate our gourmet sandwiches out in front, a new customer arrived. Maintaining our appropriate social distance, we greeted each other and commiserated amiably about being house-bound for so long.
When the stranger left with his takeout food, a man and his school-age son walked up to the shop. I was glad to see these people too and suddenly felt part of a community, an uplifting gift of extraversion. We were all fellow human beings in the same challenging situation, and keenly aware that social isolation was affecting us in deeply personal ways.
Perhaps this collective experience will lead extraverts and introverts to a greater understanding of real connection—the kind of bonding that comes from being at home and wearing each other’s slippers for a while.
Sally V. Keil is a psychological counselor who also writes about mythology, dreams, and women’s lives. Her latest book is To Live in the World as Ourselves: Self-Discovery and Better Relationships through Jung’s Typology.