By Francesca Dunlop
efore the pandemic, I thought I was an introvert. I was a self-professed ‘shy person’, prone to minor anxiety attacks in the toilets of any social event; I was all too familiar with the vaguely condescending “you’re so sweet”, whenever a stranger or acquaintance would struggle to describe me. This, I accepted with said ‘sweet’ smile and pink cheeks, making some self-effacing comment that meant that really, I was just overwhelmed and wanted to go home.
But that was before. Now, after months of isolation, and years of things being ‘not quite as they were’, I no longer think of myself as an introvert, but rather, as someone who once used ‘introversion’ as a crutch to help me over the hurdle of what can only be described as low self-esteem and extreme social anxiety.
I’m not sure the last few years have done me much good. I will say, though, that everything looks different when you look at things, well, differently – for one thing, I feel much more comfortable trusting others with my thoughts and emotions, particularly when it comes to loneliness and anxiety.
"How does one reconcile their introverted tendencies with the human need for social interaction, without getting overwhelmed?"
For a lot of people, the pandemic demanded that we look at ourselves, our lives ‘before’, and what we hoped the future might be. What I saw in myself was someone who was intensely lonely; someone who had isolated herself for fear of what it might mean to meaningfully connect with others, and someone who was afraid of being rejected by people she admired. Boring, I know.
What I realised most was that I had felt ashamed of how I had been feeling – everywhere I looked, online, at university, or in London’s busy streets, I saw a togetherness that I wasn’t experiencing, alone in my self-made isolation. The irony is, surrounded by people I felt more alone than I ever had before – something which I know now to be more common than I ever imagined at the time.
The pandemic was, in many ways, the great teacher of isolation – of what it means to be alone in ways we never had been before, to feel lonely, and the meaning we give to connection with others. Extroverts were forced to explore other sides of their personality, to walk in the shoes of their more introverted friends. But for introverts – what did we gain?
It seems that returning to ‘normal’ after lockdown has only confirmed that the world is overwhelming, sometimes scary, and often difficult to navigate. Whilst Telstra’s 2021 Talking Loneliness report may have found Gen-Z to be society’s loneliest and most anxious generation, loneliness has settled on living room sofas all across the country, no matter your age.
During the depths of lockdown, there was some comfort in knowing that you weren’t the only one – at least, there was in the time before Tory garden parties, illicit affairs, and the infamous trips to the opticians. Now, there is once again only the acute awareness that the space between you and the person avoiding eye contact with you on the tube is infinitely bigger than the eye can see.
" I no longer think of myself as an introvert, but rather, as someone who once used ‘introversion’ as a crutch."
Adopting an outward-facing disposition, then, might be the way to go, which begs the question: how does one reconcile their introverted tendencies with the human need for social interaction, without getting overwhelmed?
For me, the answer is something between a teeth-gritted just-get-on-with-it and a show of vulnerability, an admission that, maybe, everything doesn’t quite feel okay. As we approach our first restriction-free Summer, maybe I no longer have to be so afraid that the Hinge date sat across from me might, in fact, be completely alien.
Maybe I can simply enjoy having company, or even venture to feel excitement at the possibility of something new – if not as a show of good faith, then as a balm for that incurable sense of isolation, we have all felt at least once in our lives.
"Everywhere I looked, online, at university, or in London’s busy streets, I saw a togetherness that I wasn’t experiencing, alone in my self-made isolation."
That, perhaps, is the crux of it – that the stigma and sense of shame surrounding feelings of loneliness is the very thing that keeps you there, alone in your self-made isolation. Most people are unlikely to tell someone when they’re feeling lonely, or that they’re struggling with their mental health.
We trade the discomfort of vulnerability for the familiarity of loneliness. That way, we don’t have to face the possibility of being misunderstood. With perspective, I’ve found that people are infinitely more understanding than I’d ever given them credit for; and that, maybe, the distance between you and the stranger on the tube isn’t so big after all.
Francesca Dunlop talks about navigating loneliness in a post-lockdown world
By Francesca Dunlop
The ‘Pure O’ or ‘purely obsessional’ type of OCD is characterised by distressing, intrusive thoughts and mental rituals to cope with them. Rae Elliman shares her experience of living with – and learning to manage – these hidden compulsions