One of the things that I like about traveling alone is the ample time for self-reflection. With that much alone time, self-realizations come in waves, and my recent trip to Italy made me re-think a few things about myself in relation to extroversion, introversion, and loneliness.
In order to talk about this, I feel like it’s important to define what extroversion and introversion is. Extroversion is often simplified as “outgoing” and introversion is often simplified as just “shy”.
But it’s a little more complex than that. So, to the experts we go.
That’s right, I’m about to pull a dictionary on your ass.
The word generally refers to a state of being where someone “recharges,” or draws energy, from being with other people. People who identify as extroverts tend to search for novel experiences and social connections. These allow them to interact with other humans as much as possible. Someone who is highly extroverted will likely feel bored, or even anxious, when they spend too much time alone.
Psychologists argue that extroversion and introversion exist on a sliding scale. Very few people can be “pure” extroverts. Someone’s degree of extroversion is a core factor of their personality and is generally difficult to modify. True extroverts are “the life of the party.” They can clash with more introverted types. Introverts may find an extrovert’s energy and enthusiasm overwhelming or difficult to tolerate.
Or as Merriam Webster puts:
ex·tro·ver·sion | \ ˌek-strə-ˈvər-zhən , -shən\
variants: or extraversion
Definition of extroversion
: the act, state, or habit of being predominantly concerned with and obtaining gratification from what is outside the self
I think that sums it up pretty well. Essentially, extroverts get their energy from outside in. Now on to introverts.
Introverts are drained by social encounters and energized by solitary, often creative pursuits. Their disposition is frequently misconstrued as shyness, social phobia, or even avoidant personality disorder, but many introverts socialize easily; they just strongly prefer not to. In fact, the self-styled introvert can be more empathic and interpersonally connected than his or her outgoing counterparts. The line between introversion and lonely loners gets blurry, however, as some introverts do wish they could break out of their shell.
Or per Merriam Webster:
in·tro·ver·sion | \ ˌin-trə-ˈvər-zhən , -shən\
Definition of introversion
2: the state of or tendency toward being wholly or predominantly concerned with and interested in one’s own mental life
My Own Identification: Extroverted Introvert
In a personality test called 16 Personalities, I land right in the middle of the spectrum. I lean towards 60% extroverted personality and 40% introverted personality.
Despite this, for the last several years, I’ve identified more and more as an “extroverted introvert.” I’ve felt like I’m very good at putting myself out there and being social, but it’s draining. It sucks energy from me instead of replenishing me.
My Introversion and Extroversion Spectrum Over the Years
When I look back at my life, there are many periods where I vacillate between the extremes. As a kid, I was a pure extrovert from the time I could talk up until I hit puberty.
When I reached middle school I began to battle with my lifelong companions of anxiety, depression and eating disorders. Around that same time, I started to become much more introverted, a pattern which continued until later in my high school years.
Once I reached college the lines blurred, and I spent more time in both extremes as I navigated life in my early twenties and struggled to find my own identity. After college, I remained split as I had to be very extroverted for my job in China, which made me very introverted during my time off.
In recent years, I’ve still been a bit of both.
I’ve noticed in times where I’m really working on myself, I’ve been much more introverted, which has been most of the four years that I’ve been in Chicago. Despite my introverted tendencies, my career has always required extroversion which in turn makes me retreat to solitude in order to recharge in my time off.
Because of this, I’ve identified as an extroverted introvert despite the personality tests telling me I’m an introverted extrovert. I’m good at putting myself out there, and most of the time I do it whether I have to or not. BUT it kind of sucks the life from me, and pure extroverts get their energy from extroverting.
Even so, I still extrovert all the time because I feel compelled to.
I’m not sure why I feel the urge to extrovert when in social situations, including work or family gatherings. I think perhaps it comes from my anxiety and deeply ingrained people-pleasing/take-care-of-everyone-else-first tendencies.
Those tendencies make me want to ensure that everyone in the room is having a great time and benefitting from the experience. To me, a great time means engaging and talking and connecting and laughing. So I extrovert my pants off, especially when there is not a more extroverted person taking the reins.
How I Thought I Needed to Recharge
Extroverting in social situations makes me way more comfortable than introverting in social situations. Perhaps it’s another way that I try to control things that I can’t control, but I can’t help it most of the time.
I’ve tried to preserve energy by shutting up and not engaging. But that doesn’t work for me. Trying to NOT engage others in conversation or make up for the discomforting awkwardness that comes with meeting new people literally makes me feel like I’m strangling myself.
Being quiet and withdrawn and introverted around other people makes me uncomfortable. But the effort it takes for me to extrovert often sends me into the other extreme where I make a concerted effort to pause socializing in order to attend to some self-care. Sometimes it feels like a lose-lose situation, so instead I decide to stay in and not socialize because it’s the path of least resistance.
On rare occasions, those extended introversion stints work, and I feel recharged enough to go out and extrovert again. But other times, I find that spending large periods of time alone makes me really anxious, and believe it or not, lonely. I start feeling disconnected. I get antsy and depressed, and that leads me to question all the things I thought I wanted.
It’s confusing. I know. Welcome to my brain.
So why do I keep introverting in order to recharge when that doesn’t work for me? Maybe it’s cause I’m an idiot. Or maybe it’s because I’m doing self-care wrong.
For some reason, I connect introverting to self-care. But, introverting is not self-care for extroverts. Introverting is like torture for extroverts.
So perhaps the tests are right. Perhaps I’m more extroverted than I thought.
Italy and How I Realized I Might Actually Be an Extrovert
Now, let’s talk about Italy.
When I planned my trip to Italy, I planned on it as an introverted recharge trip, so I booked a couple of farm stays in the middle of nowhere Tuscany. They were the types of places that would be great to write a book at. But not easily accessible nor close to city centers. Peaceful and quaint as fuck.
The AirBnb’s and the locations I stayed were absolutely beautiful. The landscapes and views were stunning. I felt incredibly lucky to be there– after all, it took me years to finally make this trip happen. And I had a villa to myself in the middle of the Tuscan countryside! HOW IS THIS REAL?
It was a dream. I could sit with the dogs and kittens, walk around with the goats, soak in the farm’s serenity. I was going to embrace the quiet with the kitten and views and the wine.
It was incredible.
It also very quickly got suffocating and lonely.
My first day was in Barberino di Mugello, a tiny farm stay about an hour away from Florence. I woke up, enjoyed breakfast with the animals outside, and then started to pace back and forth.
My mind split between what I felt I should do and what I wanted to do. The indecision made me anxious. It was the “what-do-I-do-with-myself” type of anxiety and the “why-aren’t-you-enjoying-this-more-there-is-something-wrong-with-you” type of anxiety.
The Internal Struggle
I wanted to go out and find somewhere to explore, but I felt like I should take it easy and enjoy the villa.
But at the same time– I was in Italy! I didn’t just want to sit and write and read– I wanted to see and taste and explore and adventure.
But then again! I booked this place in the middle of nowhere to recharge and disconnect from the outside world. Reconnect! I’d be glad I did!
Yeah but fuck that! I wanted to go see stuff!! I wanted to explore!
Turns out I was a little confused on how to recharge and reconnect with myself.
Flashbacks to China
I debated with myself for at least an hour as I got ready that morning, and as I did, flashbacks of my days in China stayed in my brain.
I remembered the loneliness and felt the disconnection as I fell down the steep decline into memory lane. So many hours of my life was spent in a Chinese decision purgatory, debating on what to do only to give up and do nothing because I couldn’t come to a conclusion one way or another.
Luckily, unlike in China, I finally made a decision without wasting an entire day, and decided to do what I wanted instead of what I felt like I should do. And that meant heading out of the countryside and to San Gimignano, a gorgeous medieval town on a hilltop in Tuscany.
Sometimes self-care is doing the hard stuff like going to therapy and setting boundaries and facing your own shit. Sometimes self-care is saying fuck it to what you thought you “should” do and deciding to do what you want to do instead.
I felt better, but that anxiety didn’t disappear as I headed to my next stop. My second AirBnB was at a beautiful storybook villa that was about a 40 minute commute to the city center.
I figured that since I’d be closer to the action, that sinking alone-feeling, and “make this the best trip of your life” kind of pressure I felt would disappear. For the most part it did while I was out and about exploring during the day, but then when I got back to my AirBnb in the evenings, that strange feeling came back.
And again I thought back to my isolated time in China.
It brought me back to that place where I felt disconnected from my world and far away from a life I wanted to form but couldn’t have and didn’t know how to get. The second year I lived in China, there were literal days where I wouldn’t speak to anyone due to my anxiety. At times I’d have to force myself to go outside, and leave the apartment, but even when I did, I was so stuck in my head that I rarely afforded myself the opportunity for connection.
Too Much of a Good Thing
Since arriving in Italy, I had spent more time in silence than I was used to. Sure– I was talking to people. I’d chat with strangers in the line to the Duomo, and the waiter serving me coffee at the bar, and the woman selling me a pastry at the bakery, but for the most part I was my own and only company.
Spending too much time with myself and my own thoughts got to me. I started to think that maybe I was wrong about wanting to travel alone after all. Perhaps I didn’t want to do this anymore. Maybe my dream of traveling the world wasn’t actually something I wanted to do.
Traveling alone was too… lonely. Maybe I wasn’t cut out for it.
I kept ruminating on it on my second night in the outskirts of Florence and only about three days into my trip. Finally, I decided to reach out to one of my friends who has been traveling the world for almost five years, and after chatting with him for about an hour, I realized something incredibly important.
Traveling alone isn’t lonely. I was making it a lonely trip. I was responsible for being lonely.
Traveling alone does not need to be lonely, it just takes a little extra effort.
And I wasn’t doing that.
I was sitting in my room at 6pm on a Tuesday thinking woe is me and missing all my friends when there was opportunity for connection all over the place if I bucked up, pulled my head out of my ass, and made it happen.
So that night, I decided to do it.
I decided to say fuck it to the introverted vacation that I thought I wanted, and I decided to do some things that made me uncomfortable and excited.
In that same evening I got online and started booking experiences with other people, locals and travelers alike. I booked penthouse yoga and dinner in Florence, I booked river rafting in Rome, I booked a tour in Siena, a ghost tour in Rome, and two cooking classes for dinner on my first nights in Rome.
And you know what?
I had a fucking blast after that. After I got my goddamn big girl pants on and even when I was too tired from touristing around town all day, I went out there, met people and opened myself up to experiences that felt weird and lovely and wonderful.
The Experiences Extroverting Allowed Me
One night I made pasta with a family that felt like my own extended family, and we talked about how they hated the food in the US and didn’t understand why people wouldn’t let 18 year old’s drink with their families.
On my first day in Rome, I rafted with two Italians and we were able to converse by stringing together broken sentences of English, Spanish, Italian and the universal language of laughter for the three hours we spent rathing on the Tiber River together.
After rafting, I grabbed drinks with my instructor as he told me about how he was going to propose to his girlfriend of one month because “why not” and because he was 53 and she was 45 and he’s never loved anyone like he’s loved her in the last thirty days so “why not?”
Even after a long day of touristing left me exhausted, I had dinner with two Italian sisters and my Irish soulmate, where we talked about everything from the history of the Coliseum to conspiracy theories to average dick sizes around the world and laughed until we couldn’t breathe.
On an evening ghost tour, I met couples from San Francisco and Boston and I ended up talking with a woman about Industrial Design, and how no one knows what that is and how interesting of a field it is and how hard it is to know what you want when you’re 18 and forced to pick a career and that’s why she’s doing it now at 32.
After a day of adventuring, I learned how to make pizza with an Italian/Polish couple in their home in a residential part of Rome and we talked about how hard the economy in Italy is and how most people have to work for foreign companies in order to get by.
In Pompeii, I rode on horseback around the base of Mt Vesuvius with an 23-year old Italian man who told me that he was marrying his girlfriend of nine months on Tuesday so that she could stay in Italy, and that it was a secret, and that not even his family knew.
On my last night in Florence, I did yoga with a woman from Korea who was spending the week in Florence because she wanted to soak up all the art she could before heading back to school where she’s studying art.
After yoga, I ate dinner a young British couple that was traveling through Europe on the weeks between graduation and job acquisition and we talked about how hard it is again to decide what to do when starting off the rest of your life.
Throughout my stay in the last AirBnb, I practiced my Italian with Emma, the tiny little white-haired lady who ran the Airbnb we stayed at in Portici and she told me about her lovely, fluffy white-haired dog Gigia.
The Moments that Matter
These moments remind me of how alike we all are. They remind me that we all have the same fears, the same issues, the same concerns and the same excitements, passions and love. That we’re all unsure and confused and that we all do crazy shit some times in the name of love.
They’re reminders that the world and the people in it are all waiting for someone to open up and let them in, and reminders of what a relief it is when we find that welcome. What more could be a better cure to loneliness and disconnection than these incredible reminders?
These are the moments that remind us we are all connected. That we are not alone. Not even a little.
And these are the moments that I will remember even more than the cool places I went or saw. These places taught me something, not only about myself but about the world I live in too.
Those are the moments that filled my heart with so much love and happiness that I wanted to squeeze Italy in an “OMG I LOVE YOU SO MUCH I JUST WANT TO EAT YOUR FACE OFF” kind of embrace.
But I wouldn’t have done those things if I had held fast to my belief that I needed to introvert in order to recharge.
Because the thing is?
What I actually needed was to extrovert in order to recharge.
I needed to be reminded of the connections all over the world that are as simple as a smile away. I needed to be reminded that simply by being kind and open and loving, the world is filled with single serving friends that may or may not turn into lifelong friends.
Sometimes, my beliefs about me being an introvert prevent me from going out into the world and making the connections that I actually do want.
In my head, it takes a lot of effort to go out and meet people but what Italy reminded me is that actually that tiny bit of effort it takes to meet people and be friendly and be open– it repays me ten fold with the energy of connection, and love and warmth and the reminder that there are so many good people out there waiting for connections too. That gives me so much more energy than spending time locked away trying to perform self-care that actually makes me more anxious than fulfilled.
I extroverted my ass off even when I didn’t want to in Italy, and you know what happened? I made so many single-serving friends and possibly some friends that I’ll continue to stay connected with through the years (thanks social media!). Sometimes it was exhausting and the last thing I wanted to do, but I did it over and over again and it ended up filling my cup up more in ways that I didn’t realize I actually really needed.
A Need for Balance
Now there is a need for balance too. I can’t always be an introvert or always be an extrovert. I’m pretty much split between the two, personality wise, and I think that means pushing myself outside of my comfort zone sometimes is necessary because it’s easy to get lazy and complacent and not want to leave the house because in my brain, extroverting is a lot of work. I think I need to remember that actually the effort it takes is like a down payment on something that is going to pay me back ten fold.
And I think I’m still working on what that balance looks like for me.
Incorporating Extroversion into my Everyday Life
Since I’ve been back, I’m trying to incorporate this into my life. As I said before, extroverting often exhausts me but I think I’ve been extroverting wrong. I think I’ve been extroverting with the preconceived notion that I’ll be drained afterward so I spend the whole evening interacting, but thinking about how tired I’m going to be after it all.
What if I didn’t do that? What if I went in with an open heart and an open mind?
Perhaps I wouldn’t find it so exhausting. Perhaps I would realize that it is actually incredibly fulfilling and energizing.
I don’t know. But I’m going to find out.
Identifying as an introvert over the last years might have been because I’m tired. It’s been a good excuse to hermit and rebuild myself after the trauma I experienced in China. And I’m thankful for it– perhaps introversion was protecting me in a way, and perhaps my sudden need to extrovert and desire to extrovert is a sign that I don’t need the introversion to protect me anymore.
I have boundaries. I’ve built a safe and secure network of friends. I am not alone and I am firmly rooted in a life that I have not only created for myself, but also a life I have grown to love deeply.
It’s safe for me to be a little bit more extroverted now.
Either way, I’m glad Italy made me question this. I’m glad I’m trying to pause long enough to ask myself if it’s really something I want to say “no” to or if perhaps it might be something that I’ll really enjoy if I put the effort into doing it.
How do you identify? Do you feel more extroverted or introverted? How is that identification serving you in a positive way and perhaps how is it serving you in a limiting or complacent way? Has it changed over the years? What have you learned about yourself when forced to do the opposite of your tendencies?