As a highly sensitive person and an introvert (INFJ, to be exact), it's been both a privilege and a challenge to do life-changing work with people for the past seven years. I love people. No, really: I love people, and I often feel energized when I get to see that spark of hope, creativity, and inspiration in their eyes. Seeing that spark--when someone reconnects with a part of them that they'd forgotten about--is what keeps me going.
But along with this seemingly bottomless pit of empathy, we introverts also need to know exactly when to step back for a moment and recharge. It's too damn easy to get carried away with helping and caring for others, especially during these tumultuous times. In other words, we need to be as attentive to our own moods, needs, and energy levels as we are to others'. Rest and solitude are necessary for our health, period. This is especially true for those of us in the helping professions, or those of us who are the "go-to" people in our circle of loved ones.
I recently took a step back from one of my side-commitments when I noticed my personal telltale warning signs of burnout/exhaustion. I'd felt the tiredness creeping up on me for a couple months, and I almost fell into the habit of powering through. It's so easy to force ourselves to "power through", isn't it? But remember, there's a difference between passionately persisting and stubbornly running on empty. One action is about using all your resources, and the other action involves ignoring your needs--and ultimately, your health.
If a plant is placed in the direct scorching sunlight and deprived of water and shade, it may wither and eventually die. It's not the plant's fault, and it doesn't make the plant less of a plant. Not all plants are cacti. Some are redwoods, which are lovers of cool climate and are my favorite trees of all time. But one advantage you have over a plant is that you can choose to pluck yourself from the harsh environment you're in.
I know it's time to pluck myself from the overstimulating social demands of my routine when I start experiencing the following physical and emotional signs.
1. Sensory Overload (to noise, sight, taste, movement, people, etc.)
I notice that I stop listening to music or podcasts while I'm driving. I turn off the TV when I'm at home. I crave silence and people-free zones... like my bed. Driving in traffic, riding public transportation, or even running local errands on somewhat congested local streets becomes intolerable. I can't stand the smell of artificial fragrances. I even start eating simpler foods with mild flavors, preferring my plain fried egg over bacon or french toast.
2. Feeling a Sense of Dread
I literally dread leaving the house to meet up with people. I'll leave the house to take a walk by myself, read at a coffee shop by myself, or putter around Target by myself. But go anywhere with anyone? Outta the question. I start wishing I'd never made plans in the first place, or a part of me even hopes that I'll get sick so I could back out without feeling guilty or appearing flaky. I end up leaving late and getting there late, which makes me feel even worse because I normally pride myself on being a punctual person.
3. My Face Hurts
I can tell when I've reached my max capacity for social interaction for the day when my face literally gets sore, especially around my mouth and cheeks (from all the fake smiling and forced pleasantries) and between my eyebrows (from making such an effort to look and be attentive, even though my brain is checking-out). Meanwhile, a tension headache is often stirring below the surface. The second I'm alone, my face goes flat and refuses to make any kind of facial expression for the remainder of the night.
These warning signs tell me, "Cherish yourself."
Meaning, I've been unconsciously pushing myself to act less introverted than I am, and I've been doing it for such a long stretch that it's taking a toll. It's time to actively embrace my introverted tendencies again, even if that means I help fewer people or contribute less during that downtime.
These warning signs remind me that I've been making other people feel comfortable and heard in whatever way they feel the most comfortable and heard--and it's time to comfort and hear myself in the way that I feel the most comfortable and heard. And more often than not, that means shutting up and shutting myself in... to a good book, a cozy couch, a quiet room.
This need for restful solitude is not a weakness and it's not selfish. So what if "everyone else" seems to have unlimited energy and even more unlimited words to say in those endless meetings? And so what if your friends seem to be chipper even through the most grueling day of serving clients, teaching students, seeing patients, and dealing with family crises? You've paid your dues. The whole reason you're so tired is because you've given so much to others already, and possibly in a manner that serves them more than it serves you. How many times have you agreed to sit through a two-hour meeting or phone call when you could have accomplished the same thing via two short but thoughtful e-mails? That, my friend, is you giving to others, because that's the way that they work best--not you.
So own your introverted self. This is what grown folks do: we know what we need, and then we go get it for ourselves. We care for ourselves. Self-care. There ain't no shame in it.
And if you're thinking, "But I don't know what I need," or "I don't go get it for myself," no worries. The simple fact that you're here, reading these words, means that you're wanting to take better care of yourself, and that's huge.
The first step is just to notice. What feelings, sensations, or habits precede your bouts of burnout, empathic fatigue, or exhaustion? Let's take heed of the warning signs that pop up when we aren't fully respecting our need for quiet introspection. What three warning signs remind you that it's time to schedule some quality time with yourself?
Take good care,