Lately, I’ve been craving a pillow fort. I daydream about a cozy nest of blanket-draped comfort on my way home from work, and I idly look up couches with removable cushions in between grading and planning. Even with my greatly increased self-awareness, it took me a few weeks to realize I was sending out signals to myself: social batteries low, recharge needed.
I’m not going to call myself an introvert because I find the term has become overly popular lately, with online quizzes that label anyone who doesn’t want to put pants on sometimes or likes to relax quietly after a night out as introverted. If I had to put a name to it, I might call myself “socially exhaustible.” I can function in social situations, even enjoy myself, but getting to know new people or spending time in crowds or groups drains me pretty quickly. I love the people I love and draw strength and joy from them, and I do genuinely like learning more about new friends, but I need some regular and intentional me-time if I want to continue functioning.
A friend once jokingly described my recharged self as “when the social graces finally kick in,” which wounded me at the time. I had long been told this social exhaustion was weird and off-putting, and I struggled to project an air of ease. Even though it happened with consistency, I was always blindsided when someone described me as “reserved” or “aloof,” euphemisms for my friend’s more direct label of “socially inept.” It’s only recently that I’ve accepted that trying to force myself into an unnatural state of sociability is not worth it: it’s artificial and noticeably so, and it runs me down to empty.
Instead, I’ve started to focus on self-care and restoration. When I’m feeling overextended, or drained, or ready to hide in my house in a cat-friendly fort made of books, here is what I give myself permission to do:
1. I put my phone on airplane mode. There is something so luxurious about drawing a bubble of silence around yourself. It’s so much better than simply putting your phone in your purse or in the other room. For even more pampering, pretend you are actually on an airplane. Bring your neck pillow to the park and request drinks from small wildlife. Do not ask squirrels for nuts. I know some people who are too concerned about possible emergencies, and so I advise you to use your judgment. If this will create more anxiety than it relieves, it might not be the best move. But I also support giving it a try and sending a message to whoever you want to notify that you’ll be unreachable for a little while, just like you might when you are actually boarding an airplane.
2. I make myself as physically comfortable as I can, all the time. Most people have some ultimately comfortable clothes, like those pants they change into as soon as they’re home that feel like a warm hug on their legs, but they feel the need to wear restrictive, irritating things during the day. Those of you who wear bras and fantasize about the moment of sweet, sweet freedom awaiting you at home, stop dreaming and start living! You will not lose your appreciation for comfort by removing discomfort from your life; you’ll just be more comfortable. Switch to soft bras and bralettes, cut the tags out of your clothing so you can stop feeling itchy all the time, get those yoga pants that look like dress slacks and fool everyone. Let go of size-obsession and wear what looks and feels good. Don’t wear shoes that make it hard to walk when you’re wearing them, or when you take them off. Not only will you be more comfortable, but you’ll have more energy, patience, resources to draw on when it comes to social interactions, even stressful ones.
3. I reread my favorite books and spend time with the characters I bonded with before. Take yourself back to your youth, or dig out a pageturner from last summer. Rereading is so good for you – it’s soothing AND educational, so there is really no reason not to do it. If you’re not a reader, funny/adorable videos on YouTube can stand in here.
4. I feed myself nourishing and delicious things. There is an important distinction to be aware of here: “nourishing and delicious” does not mean “anything I want in the moment.” There is room in my life for donuts, but if I ate them every time I felt a funk coming on, I wouldn’t feel nourished. I would feel bloated and my energy would be a jumble of irregularity, and I would be hungry, like, 10 minutes after I ate. I’m aiming for satisfaction instead, for that warm belly, warm heart feeling that comes from eating well. Feeling like I can’t handle being around anyone is a great opportunity to give my time to cooking something I love but can’t always commit to, like zucchini lasagna or mini-meatloaves, or coconut chicken soup/stew, or homemade fried chicken and cauliflower mac and cheese. That wonderful, cared-for feeling you get when someone makes you a favorite meal? It’s pretty great when you can give that to yourself.
I know many people who recommend indulging in some pampering and purchasing when they’re feeling socially exhausted, and I won’t deny that there can be something restorative about an afternoon pedicure or retail therapy. But I find that that spending can add to my anxiety, or I can quickly overspend and come out the other side feeling worse. I try to focus on adjusting my time budget instead of my money budget (try being an operative word here!) because the real restoration comes from giving myself time and space to gather up my resources.
The most important thing I do when I’m feeling socially exhausted is validate that feeling. I acknowledge, by taking care of myself, that these feelings are real and okay. I show myself that I do not need to be ashamed of this, that I’m not malfunctioning because I function differently. It does wonders for my resilience and recovery, because showing yourself kindness makes it a lot easier to be kind to yourself.
These practices aren’t a cure to my social exhaustibility. They’re about being okay with how I work. I’m off to Kansas City this weekend for the I AM POWER retreat, where I will reunite with some recent acquaintances, meet many new people, be vulnerable and share and feel in front of other people, and I am definitely seeing a hotel pillow fort in my future. And that’s totally okay.