Hi, I’m Nick. I’m an introvert, and I’m caught smack in the middle of my least favorite time of the year.
No, I’m not the Grinch, I’m not a Scrooge. I’m just your average introvert, and I wish to hell that Christmas would just shut up.
“Introvert” isn’t the same thing as shy or socially awkward or loner. We just find social settings (large ones, at least) draining of emotional/social energy and quiet (solitude or very small gatherings) energizing. The other guys, the Extroverts, have the opposite reaction: they charge up with the stimulation of a group and grow restless and listless when under-stimulated.
We live in an extrovert world, like it or not. Social conventions and social expectations require a certain degree of extrovert behavior, so even the most extreme of introverts (that’s me you see raising my hand) can put on their social suit and bring it when they need to, just as an extrovert can sit alone for a while without losing their mind.
But that obligatory socializing leaves an introvert exhausted and ready for some time away from the crowd, the party, the noise, the stimulation.
Maybe you’ve noticed – there’s a lot of extra crowds, parties, noise and stimulation this time of year. To us introverts, instead of peace on earth and goodwill towards men, a tsunami of festivities can lead to no peace in our home and an increased will to drink.
Being an introvert is like commuting in an electric car. As long as there are enough opportunities to hook up to a charging station, things are fine. You can get one big charge up overnight, or several smaller ones along your trip, but go too long between a recharge and suddenly you find you just…can’t…go…anymore.
Introverts in an extrovert world learn to sneak in their recharge when they can. I used to recharge on the train to and from work every day. I put on my most obvious “leave me alone” body language – earbuds in, head down, book open.
In college I’d take two or three hour long walks at night or take a book and sit in the most obscure basement library stacks I could find. I’ve spent lunch breaks sitting in my car alone, parked around the corner after lying to non-comprehending extrovert coworkers that I was running errands.
There’s an achievable balance, a point where I can fulfill all my social and professional obligations, but refill enough emotional energy that I avoid a full blown panic attack because I just can’t get away.
And then Christmas shows up, and that balance gets challenged.
The holidays mean added social commitments (drains) in the form of office pot-lucks, white elephant parties, family gatherings, playdates, neighborhood block parties, etc.
The whole damn secular side of the holiday is based around a home invasion, for crying out loud. What’s more disrupting of your inner sanctum, your place of refuge and recharge, than someone sliding down the chimney at night and swiping your cookies in exchange for lumps of fossil fuel or unneeded consumerist goods?
My recharging moments get filled with ever more relentless noise. Christmas carols play everywhere. Despite our best efforts to keep gifts simple, piles start the spring up: piles of packages, piles of crafts, piles of cookie baking supplies.
Singing holiday toys that I manage to entomb in the garage for 11 months out of the year are brought out. My kids love these things, so I am treated to an endless loop of mechanical Snoopy in a Santa hat playing Have A Holly, Jolly Christmas on his little plastic piano until I’m praying someone will drop a Baby Grand on my head and put me out of my auditory misery.
In the name of community and tradition, plates of fudge and cookies are dropped off. Niceties are exchanged. I put on pants and socialize with the neighbors, because that’s what people do.
Advertisements and appeals fill store windows and online sanctuaries. Emotional tugs pull in confusing directions: think of the veterans, think of the children, think of the homeless, think of the farmers. Lead a cruelty-free Christmas, donate to Heifer International, examine your charities carefully. Buy new Toys for Tots, give experiences, don’t forget a gift for the mailman, don’t buy things at all. Donate to Wikipedia, don’t shop at Walmart, shop local, avoid the crowds – shop online! Drain, drain, drain. It’s death by a thousand cuts at this time of year.
People I rarely trade words with suddenly corner me at the coffee machine (which is literally in a corner, here at the office) and demand to know what I’m doing this December.
“Oh, I’m hiding in our hall closet and setting up a webserver to serve as a development environment for my wife’s blog and hoping that I can make it through the obligatory family events without having to mediate a political dispute!” seems too honest, so I tell them what they expect to hear: “Got a few parties to go to and then getting together with the family.”
My peaceful home, my refuge, is filled with a shining bright Christmas tree and there’s an electric train that would clack in a celebratory circle around it, if I didn’t constantly trip over the track and derail it. (The doctor says my ankle should be fine in about four weeks.)
My wonderfully bright and inquisitive and noisy children are home from school a lot more and so are their friends who are cutting out snowflakes so there’s a lot of pieces of paper in the middle of the floor and there are the scissors I just stepped on. (The doctor says I’m lucky and the nerve wasn’t severed, so I should regain feeling in my big toe within a year or two.)
The kids want hot cocoa and there’s an argument about who chose the last show on Netfix that I need to adjudicate. And they are all so cute and wonderful that I can’t deny them this joy but sometimes I’d really like them to just stop, just for a minute.
It is the rare Christmas where there aren’t at least two, and sometimes as many as four, family get-togethers in the span between December 23rd and 26th. You’ve got the immediate family thing, the medium-family thing, the big-whole-family thing with the cousins and the aunts and the uncles and the grandparents.
The logistics approach the complexity of the Normandy landings. I explain what “business intelligence” is to people who really don’t give a shit eight or ten times, bluff my way past my minimal awareness of and interest in the performance of the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, and Stanford Cardinals this year, and try not to drink inappropriately.
I can do all this, of course, but it takes effort. It’s like rubbing your tummy and patting your head, but with eggnog.
I hate eggnog.
Welcome to the Introvert’s Christmas.
When I was a child, I’d always adjourn to my room as soon as Christmas gift time was over. My parents always thought it was because I was eager to read the books I’d gotten or play with new toys. Over time I’ve realized it was more than that – it was a desire to be alone and move into the quiet of my space, an escape perhaps aided by a new book or a new toy, away from the aunts and the grandmothers and the uncles and the cousins and the awkward conversations about football and the teasing, invasive questions of relatives.
Now it is a lot harder to sneak away or sit nose-in-a-book. I’m expected to be an adult, to converse and opine, to shake hands and to hug.
Honestly, I drink a lot more during the holidays. It deadens the sensory stimulation of omnipresent carols, blinking lights, loosens my tongue and makes me willing to just babble, if necessary, to fill the spaces. We’ve been known to stash a couple of bottles of wine or whisky up in the master bathroom…they’ve rarely ever been used, but somehow the knowledge that they are there means I’ve got a refuge inside my refuge, a place I know I could go to escape when my usual place of escape has been overrun.
I walk a lot, sometimes alone, in the beautiful cool space of December air. I drink in the quiet of a snow day or the hiss of rain or the roar of wind and let it fill my mind and push out the exhaustion of parties and questions and stupid politics.
Sometimes I take preposterous and frequent bathroom breaks. Smartphones have been a godsend for introverts, I’ve got half the Western Canon loaded up on my iPhone and can sit in the bathroom of a stranger’s house reading Moby Dick for five minutes until I’m ready to meet-and-greet with the next potential friend.
Actually, who am I kidding? I make one friend a decade, so I’ve got at least five years left before I need to start remembering new people’s names.
I’m not ungrateful. I love to play host and have a good conversation with a couple of dear friends. I adore my children and the sound of their happy playing is soul-filling and hopeful. I can’t Grinch-out and decide that we are going no-tree and no-presents when they beg me to stay up late to hang garlands across our living room. I love the joy of giving presents, of thinking about my friends and family and figuring out how to bring them joy.
What I am is just exhausted.
As a grown man, I’ve wept in my closet, behind a locked bedroom door, because I had no more energy to put on my social face and make conversation. That’s what happens when an introvert’s battery runs out.
So please, don’t tell me to have a little Christmas spirit. If I look like I want some quiet time, if I have a book anywhere near me, if I’m staring at a glass of whisky, if I just up and disappear for ten minutes or an hour, understand that what you see is me looking for the one thing I really want for Christmas this year: true peace, simple quiet.
No blinking lights required.