Paris, France

July 28, 2019

Reader Roundtable Replies: On Space

It's finally - finally! - time for the roundtable replies. :)

To put it mildly, I've been overwhelmed and heartened and delighted by all the responses.

In all, a couple hundred of you wrote back and shared your stories and insights, your strategies and questions.

It's taken me a lot longer than I anticipated to read all those replies, synthesize them, and write back to everyone, and I appreciate your patience with the maybe-next-week of it all. :)

The volume has also meant that while I'm certain I have read every reply, and I think I replied back to everyone, it is absolutely possible that I've missed someone.

If that's you, and you wrote in and didn't get a reply, my mistake! Rest assured that I did read your response, and integrated it into the replies below. My system for managing email replies really struggled under the volume. If everyone likes it and I do one of these crazy things again, I'll make sure to have a better system next time. :)

Alright - I think that's more than enough rambling from me. Let's get to the replies! Here's what all of you fabulous people had to say. :)

No one was alone.

The most striking thing about all the replies was that every single experience was shared by at least one other reader who felt similarly.

A great number of folks wrote back about how it was great to hear a bit of their experience reflected in the original prompt. From reading the replies, I can tell you for sure that no matter what your experience around finding space and connection, there are a bunch of people just like you out there, working through the same struggles, and with the same needs. :)

All of us, trying to muddle through and figure this thing out.

There's a wide gamut of experience.

I heard from self-described introverts, extroverts, ambiverts, and a few contrarians who felt like the entire "something-vert" paradigm didn't fit them. :)

On the whole, the majority of people on this list seem to be introverts (~65% of the replies), with about 25% self-describing as extroverts, and 10% of you identifying as both/neither/something else.

People's alone time needs ranged from 10% to 90% of their waking hours. Most self-described introverts has a hard minimum for alone time (from a few solid minutes to half the day), and a comfortable maximum alone time that ranged from 60-90%.

Most self-described extroverts were similar, just reversed - really needing actual human connection and interaction anywhere from a few hours a day to 12-14 hours a day.

Most of you needed a mix of both - even the most introverted folks still needed some time with people. And the most extroverted of you still needed some occasional time alone to decompress with their thoughts.

But for nearly everyone, it was a tightrope to walk. Even when you found a balance, you were still working at it. From partners to work and school demands to our own shifting senses of ourselves, nearly everyone seemed to have somewhere they were trying to get, some way they wanted to shift how much time they were getting alone vs with people.

Things are not always what they seem.

Perhaps the most surprising thing to me was the number of introverts who, like me, didn't look like introverts.

More than a few introverts had bold personal styles - dyed hair, tattoos, a tendency for bright and striking fashion.

A significant number of also worked very extroverted, people-focused jobs. Among the readership, there are "hidden" introverts who are:

  • Nurses
  • Activists
  • Actors
  • ER doctors
  • Librarians
  • Acrobats
  • Teachers
  • Full-time parents, and
  • Veterinarians.

People talked about how they did the work because they believed in it, and they were good at it - but also how it drained them. How when they got home at night and on the weekends, they were done.

It's not so simple.

"I guess I don't really have an answer just some contradictions."

-Sandra

One of the themes that came through in so many messages was how our experiences defied simple explanation and categorization.

For many of us, our level of introversion and extroversion was connected to other factors - our jobs, families, cities, and the stages in our lives.

So many of you shared stories of having periods of life where you needed more social interactions than you were getting, followed by a big change like becoming a parent, moving to a new city, or changing jobs - and then finding that you needed the exact opposite thing.

A few also talked about the interactions between other people and our own identities - especially in the long course of life, where we rarely stay the same people for more than a decade. New people and social groups helped us define ourselves in our new cities, new roles as parents (or not), and new jobs.

With these new personalities came new needs, even though at the core - we still felt like the same us.

Complicating matters more, a sizable group also noted how they would often experience the need for connection and space at the same time.

In the words of S, "This past weekend we spent some time with friends and we were there for about 6 hours and after about 3 hours I could feel myself wanting to get away, and I love these people!!! They are the most laid back, easy, non judgmental people, but I was ready to go."

Another reader shared:

"If i'm getting enough sleep, exercising, and taking care of my mental health, a weekend trip with my close friends is the best thing in the world. But if I am not, even a skype session with a close friend feels like a chore."

It seems like it's never quite simple.

There's a Dark Side

Both introverts and extroverts alike had similar reactions when they didn't get what they needed - they became complete jerks to everyone around them.

Introverts described how - without enough space - they become irritable and grumpy, upset at the smallest things. They'd see themselves being total assholes to people they loved and worked with, but felt unable to do anything about it.

Extroverts described how - without enough time with people - they felt anxious, scared, and quickly overwhelmed the people around them, becoming accusatory or clingy. Like the introverts, they knew they weren't helping themselves or the people around them - but they couldn't stop.

Both groups made me reflect on how the personal balance for space seems to hit quite low in Maslow's pyramid. People across the spectrum described reactions and experiences we'd expect more from issues like scarcity or safety.

Space and social connection seem to be a core, highly emotional need for nearly everyone, and when our core needs aren't being met, it seems none of us are particularly fun to be around.

Even introverts need people sometimes.

Most introverts also noted that they need at least some time with people. Swaying too far into the "totally alone" zone left folks feeling disconnected, down, and overall unwell.

Harjot K, an introvert, shared her needs for connection in a new city:

"I don't have a partner anymore, and live alone in a city away from most of my family and friends. Honestly, I have the opposite problem for the first time in my life. I need to schedule time with new friends and travel home to visit family to feel like myself. When I was with my partner, I learned to carve out space for myself by just telling him so. We didn't live together so it was relatively easy. I know this wasn't exactly related to your prompt, but I just wanted to mention the opposite happening when an introvert suddenly becomes more alone than ever. Making friends as a young professional in a new city is difficult and my heart is longing for people to share my life with."

The same went for extroverts.

Even extroverts need space sometimes.

Extroverts shared similar stories - about needing to occasionally find time to process and get a minute to themselves. Even the strongest extroverts often found value in space, as one reader noted:

"So, I'm an extrovert. As far as I know, I always have been, and I assume I always will be. I used to hate to be alone. I went from living at home to living with roommates to living with a husband and then...a separation from him and I found myself so very alone. I had panic attacks. I put the TV on as soon as I got home and it stayed on until bedtime, just to have the semblance of being with another person. Over the course of the next year, before I met the person I would spend the next life with, I slowly got to know myself and learn what it was like to be with me. I came to enjoy some moments (still not many) alone and even learned to be with silence and truly appreciate it. And after several years of work, then came motherhood. Now, with a husband (an introvert himself) and an 11 year old (also an introvert!), I have come to cherish the few moments I do get alone. I appreciate complete silence to read or just sit and think and wonder how I didn't know what I was missing all those years ago, when I couldn't stand to be alone."

For some people, it's about emotions.

A notable minority didn't really resonate with the introvert/extrovert idea - but did feel like you needed space and time alone specifically to process your emotions.

Whether it's climbing trees, going for walks, finding a quiet room alone, writing, or having a good cry, some of us really just need that space to feel.

Introverts passing in a world made for extroverts

A good number of introverts talked about their struggles and strategies in cultures that favored extroverted personalities. Particularly in North America, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand, introverts talked about how they would "pass" at work, in public, and with their friends.

They talked about finding ways to thrive in a world that expected them to want to spend time out with people, doing networking things, hanging out at bars, engaging in social events.

There was a palpable sense that their worlds favored people who were more extroverted, and the volume backed this up - dozens of introverts shared similar stories. Not one extrovert from these cultures talked about feeling pressure to be alone.

The biggest challenge seemed to be finding ways to communicate their need for space.

In reply after reply, introverts shared their difficulties in saying no to events, or telling people they just needed space - without coming off as aloof or disinterested or weak. The cultural stories that surrounded them didn't have well-known narratives about alone time that implied good things, and introverts struggled with ways around it.

Fascinatingly, I didn't hear any of these stories from readers in places that we think of as more introverted cultures. No readers from Northern Europe, Singapore, Japan or Thailand shared similar struggles.

But what did these introverts in extroverted cultures do to cope? Well, a lot of things.

Strategies for introverts in extroverted cultures

Most prominently, we lie. I heard story after story of people who had sudden "prior engagements" come up, dogs that simply had to be let out, or completely fake sleep schedules. Most folks seemed to have made their peace with the process, but were still a bit annoyed that they had to make up reasons to just be themselves.

But overall, these little white lies worked.

Tessa shared her balance, and strategy on being an "early sleeper":

"It's always a bit of relief finding other introverts out there who understand what it's like to need so much time alone. I feel like quite often today the world tries to push us to be good at extroversion (e.g. business meetings, customer service, social events, etc.). While I am good at those things and can do customer service or bar visits like the back of my hand, I have always been an introvert and will always need alone time to recharge.

I've done a good job of convincing people I'm not a night owl but what they don't realize is that I'm not going to sleep, I'm just trying to get away from other people. Often, just going to a park or coffee shop is enough of being around people to satisfy my social needs. As a bonus, it's often a great way to see the diverse people who make up this city. I've always liked being a wallflower more than being the center of attention and living in a place where peoples' attention is so quick and divided, it's fairly easy to blend in and observe."

Sleep stories like this were common - many introverts stayed up late or got up early to get some time alone - even if it meant they didn't get a full night's sleep.

Planning and scheduling was a second strong theme. People found ways to schedule empty, recharging time into their days, and keep that time sacred. A few samples:

"I find it’s best to plan when I’m going to spend time with people, then I can prepare myself and my energy levels. I don’t do well with spontaneous or open ended events where I don’t know what’s happening next or when I can leave."

and from Rebecca B,

"To get any time alone to work or just to think I have to schedule that time on my calendar. So that's what I do in my personal life now too.

These days, I try to schedule almost nothing on the weekends - social life happens during the week. I figure if the days are already packed, why not be efficient and pack it all into the same time frame. That's counterintuitive for most, but for me it's essential. No plans, no people to talk to, no where to be at a certain time...that kind of weekend is this introvert's idea of paradise. There is nothing more delicious than a Friday night with the full weekend of quiet and my time only ahead of me - maybe a glass of wine or a dinner with ONE friend, or just hanging with my dog. Something quiet. "

Lastly, there were headphones.

Particularly for introverts in cities, headphones were consistently mentioned as being just the best. So many of you wrote to share how you'll use headphones to create space and solitude even in busy places like trains, parks and city streets. Often without anything even playing on them!

They seemed to form a kind of magical barrier to the world that both gave space, and told the world, "no, I really wouldn't like to talk." :)

What recharges us.

For both groups, quality trumped quantity. Introverts could get real recharge with just a bit of genuine solitude. Extroverts could top up with a bit of real connection and conversation.

I mostly heard strategies for recharge from introverts (probably because of how I phrased the question), so that's what I'll focus on below.

For introverts, the keys seemed to be genuine solitude and a lack of demands or stimulus from another person. People found recharge in:

  • listening to music
  • watching movies alone
  • playing video games
  • sitting alone at a cafe or a park
  • simply being in wide-open spaces (a number of folks wrote about the hell that is open-floor-plan offices, and the sheer power of parks, open sky, and forests to recharge their batteries.)
  • reading, reading, reading. Reading was the consistently the most helpful thing to recharge people, and beloved across the board.

Serena noted how not being "on" was the most critical part of recharge:

"I think for me "quiet" time is any time I don't have to spend being "on" and doesn't necessarily always have to be alone or totally quiet. It's just time that allows me to decompress and needs to be something that doesn't tax my brain, require me to think, or generate strong emotions. That could be sitting in silence, reading something light, or watching brainless television. I'm not much of a video gamer but my partner is and I have found there are certain games I like that are numbing or relaxing for me if I've had a particularly emotionally taxing day. I think the biggest requirement for me is often that I don't want to talk. I don't want to have a discussion or to be asked questions or shown anything that demands some kind of interaction or reaction."

K talked about the need for genuine solitude:

"I wish people understood that my alone time is about me, not them. And it's not about going to sleep early and getting more rest. In fact, it's often about staying up late, once the world is quiet. It's about whatever independent pursuits I enjoy, in complete silence, completely alone. Just the presence of another person, no matter how quiet they try to be, can be draining. I'm so aware and observant of everything around me. It's such a relief to not have anyone around to observe, or to observe me. I just want to BE."

Relationships

The volume of messages I got on relationships was staggering, and so reassuring. If I had one take-away, it was that nobody really has it figured out, everyone is doing their best, and we're all just trying to make it work. :)

People wrote back from every possible combination - introvert-extroverts. introvert-introverts. extrovert-extroverts. And surprisingly, almost every single pair of them had their own struggles, tensions, and worked to find balance.

Here are the best things that worked:

Open communication is the best tool.

For the folks who felt like they had a good balance, nearly everyone mentioned having open, honest communication about their needs. (Most also mentioned how hard that communication was, and how it's a continual process.)

Nick noted,

"We're trying to find a good balance for alone times as we have shifted from a long-distance to a cohabiting relationship.

Some of it comes from just working on being able to say "I need to be alone right now". It wasn't easy at first, but I think we're doing better at it."

Compromise is a part of the gig.

Most people found bending a little to meet their partners in the middle a necessary, and sometimes growth-inducing part of making the relationship work. Introverts got drawn out more. Extroverts learned to enjoy some quality time in.

Eglé - who has the best titles ever, shared:

"Now, as we know each other so much better we have our strategies. He goes for about an hour long walk everyday and leaves me in my kingdom at home in peace. Also he got the greatest rank in my scale - "you are not annoying to be around", this title was given only to my sister and my best friend. He learned to be quiet around me and I learned to kick myself in the butt and go meet his friends and his family and spend time with them. "

Successful relationships find other sources to meet their needs.

There was also great value found in knowing your needs, and finding ways to meet them that don't involve your partner. Coupled with communication, the most grounded replies I read all seemed to be founded on a respect for the other person's needs, and support for finding ways for them to be met.

Serena talked about the balance she finds with her partner:

"My partner does have a bigger need for attention and noise and connection than I do but I find that our needs are not so dissimilar as to cause stress or conflict. He is always receptive when I say I just don't want to talk right now or I need an hour with the TV off or I want to do this errand on my own without you. He doesn't take it personally and will just go off and entertain himself with something else and then come back when I'm ready to be more interactive. I find that once I've had my 1-2 hours of quiet I can then meet his need to be more interactive and chatty about my day. He also finds connection in ways that are unfathomable to me, like spending an hour talking with the receptionist at the dental office about his favorite TV show or chatting with people at the gym. "

Planning and boundaries are great.

Cliché as it may be, date nights were a big hit. A lot of folks found that they struck a balance between connection and space by defining the size of interaction.

April noted how planning helps her manage her energy over a week:

"I find having specific date nights with my partners helps (I’m poly) because then I know what to expect. Then I allow for one or two additional interactions a week. That way I don’t get overwhelmed and I can still book others in."

Others found success by offering the more social partner a "free card" for one social event a month or a few times a year that they would attend.

Introvert-introverts: a special pair.

Introvert-introvert pairings were especially fascinating. They had both an easy compatibility on wanting quiet - one reader noting how they'd sometimes email each other from across the room so as not to interrupt the other person by talking - and particular challenges.

To get both people genuine solitude, this pairing had more folks with split sleep schedules, work shifts, or physically distinct parts of the house (upstairs/downstairs.) Being with a fellow introvert didn't eliminate the need for full solitude, and folks in these pairings had to find their own ways to find time alone (when both people would most like to be chilling alone on the couch.)

Balance matters.

Not everyone's relationships were working. In the ones that hadn't continued or were not working well, readers often described one person's need dominating the relationship.

I heard from extroverts who felt lonely and isolated because they gave up their social connection to meet their partner's needs for space and solitude.

I heard from introverts who felt overwhelmed and exhausted because they gave up their solitude to enable their partner's needs for connection and socialization.

But the relationships that sounded the happiest and most fulfilling found a balance between both people's needs.

Parenthood is its own beast.

If you're a parent and you struggle with balancing space and alone time and people time and the small human beings in your life, you are not alone.

In fact, every parent I heard from struggled with this stuff.

The biggest challenges seemed to be from introvert parents - being with their kids counted as social time, and drained their reserves. Being a parent also came with extra social obligations - spending time with other parents, going to school events and extracurricular activities, and managing a normal life and partnership on top of all of that.

(Notably, I didn't hear this particular type of exhaustion from any dads. I did hear it from dozens of moms. If your partner is an introvert mom, maybe check in with them. :) )

Parenthood asked a lot of people, and though - to a person - everyone said they adored their kids and wouldn't change a thing, many also noted that being a parent had taken a lot out of them.

Across the board, there was one coping strategy that almost everyone used: give up sleep.

Parents either woke up really early, or stayed up extra-late just to get some alone time to recharge their batteries, even though it meant years of feeling tired every single day.

Introvert parents (especially you moms), you are heroes. I have no idea how you do it. ❤️

Things that surprised me the most

Besides how much more work this entire thing was than I'd anticipated, the biggest surprise was just how many people shared similar experiences of the world.

As an introvert who generally only experiences the world in short bursts, I don't often come across other folks like me when I'm out and about (this makes sense, since we're largely at home!). It was powerful and reassuring to hear from this large, mostly invisible group of folks who also values some time alone and needs space to recharge.

I'm not crazy, and we're not crazy. :)

I was also struck by the way that certain countries and cultural areas shared similar stories, and had similar coping mechanisms.

But mostly, I was surprised, humbled, and delighted to be reminded again that even across continents, cultures, lifestyles, religious beliefs, professions, and walks of life, we all share the same experiences of being in the world, and trying to find our balance in it.

There were so many stories I couldn't quite fit in here, (even with as long as this thing is!), and I so appreciate being let into bits of your lives and experiences.

Thank you so much for sharing your world with me, and letting me share you with each other. :)

Thank you!

Whether you wrote back or just read along, thank you for being part of this big experiment. Let me know if you liked it, and would be interested in another roundtable on a different topic in the future!

If you've read all the way down here, thank you!! I hope you've enjoyed the roundtable.

Have a wonderful week,

-Steven

p.s. The best thing I saw all week was this charming story of where all of Bob Ross's paintings ended up. Enjoy :)

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