Photo: Simon Migaj/Unsplash
Life Lessons from an Extrovert in Isolation
I once asked a zookeeper why the orangutans were kept on islands surrounded by moats; “can they not swim?” He responded that, actually, they could swim; they just didn’t know they could swim (both tragic and adorable).
Throwing me into isolation was like throwing an orangutan into water — I felt panic, desperation, and despair — until I realized I could swim.
In a way, I’m glad this pandemic threw me into the deep end (pun intended). I can’t say I have a newfound love for being alone, but solitude has definitely taught me a few valuable lessons and made me stronger.
Given the uncertainty around how this situation will evolve and whether it will reoccur, I’ve decided it’s important to share my story and the things I’ve learned. I hope it helps the other extroverts out there, desperately longing for a hug.
I am by no means the loudest person in the room, nor do I particularly crave being the center of attention or going to a rave every weekend. I don’t mind some small talk since I like to meet new groups of people, but there’s a time, a place, and a limit.
That said, I’d definitely categorize myself as an extrovert; I need quality time surrounded by others to help me recharge, and I always prefer being around people to being alone. We don’t even have to talk (unless I desperately need to) — just stay close to me.
Many of my favorite people, however, are the opposite. They’re introverts who love putting in their headphones and going for a solitary walk (much to my bemusement and disappointment). They recharge by spending time alone — without me.
I think introverts have it harder than extroverts in a way. It’s often they who are forced to socialize for one reason or another; made to feel guilty for not ‘making the most of their youth’ by going out four times a week, for leaving a party early, or for ‘not wanting to sit with us!’
Extroverts on the other hand are rarely forced to spend time alone. So, when the coronavirus pandemic hit and I was forced to live in unwelcome solitude, I was far from prepared.
My story: Stranded in Switzerland
3rd January 2020 — I arrived in Geneva.
I was offered a 6-month Paralegal role in a top international law firm. During the first month, I was working an average of 12-hour days; I often had to stay until 10–11 pm, and I worked 13 hours on my first Sunday in Switzerland — crazy.
I had been given such short notice before moving that I was renting an Airbnb for the first month, hoping to find something more permanent whilst I was out here. So I was spending all of my ‘spare time’ contacting estate agencies, spamming Facebook groups, and venturing the streets of Geneva, visiting one room after another.
My point is — I had NO time in January to socialize. I was spending all of my time at work and in viewings, finding whatever time I could to sleep and eat.
- Friends to date: 0
February 2020 — Connections!
The big hearing that we had been working on was finally over, and things went back to ‘normal’ at work. I finally found a room with a nice Welsh girl, who I really clicked with, and the landlady; an elderly (probably 80+-year-old) Swiss woman.
I struck luck! My sister’s boyfriend had a friend who happened to live a 20-minute tram ride away from Geneva, just across the border, in France. I met up with him in early February and he introduced me to his friends. Finally, some love!
- Friends to date: 2 (+ friendly acquaintances)
March 2020 — Hello Covid-19
My Welsh housemate was offered a job in Prague at the start of the month (-1 friend). I was left alone with the landlady, who, isn’t a bad person, but I must say, is unequivocally unpleasant.
This is when the panic kicked in.
We’re told to work from home, so I gave it a go. Day one, I’m working in my room when the landlady knocks on my door. She tells me I’m not allowed to work from home because I’m “aiding and abetting” a large corporation to invade her private life… to this day, I have NO idea what that could possibly mean.
I explain my living situation to my office manager, who welcomes me to work from the office given that I’m the only person there anyway. Frankly, this was a win given that I only have a bright green plastic chair made for children under the age of 6 in my room.
Adding salt to the wound, the one friend (plus the associated acquaintances) I had met, live in France. Every other social-outlet is closed, so there’s no opportunity to meet new people anywhere. It’s just me, myself and I.
- Available friends to date: 0
April 2020 — Hey, Covid-19…you’re getting old.
Much of the same. My life is pretty uneventful. Work, home, work, home, repeat…
But — this month is where everything changed.
Despite the loneliness and all of the associated downsides that have come from this pandemic, I can confidently and proudly say that this experience has made me a better version of myself.
Above all, it’s taught me that I am enough; I can see the value in being alone and the strength that comes with trusting that I’m doing what’s right for me. In just a few months, this experience has taught me several valuable life lessons; here’s what I’ve learned:
1) I Learned the Value of Self-Reflection and Took Active Steps to Self-Improve.
Being systematically alone for weeks, and months, forced me to address my thoughts; I couldn’t just escape them by initiating a conversation with the person sat next to me. And, one thought, in particular, became inescapable — I wasn’t happy with the career choices I had made. I didn’t enjoy what I was doing, and, I realized that, so far, I hadn’t enjoyed any job that I had done.
Thankfully, this time to self-reflect proved to be the cornerstone of my self-development.
I made the decision to take a leap of faith, and pursue something I think I’m going to love; I decided to become a freelance writer as soon as my contract here is up in July.
I’ve taken actionable steps towards making my goal a reality. I created my own website, I started my own blog, I networked with other freelance writers who very kindly shared their experiences and gave me valuable advice; I feel ready, empowered, optimistic, and I’m finally excited for what the future holds!
“Without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful.” — Margaret J. Wheatley.
Embrace the moments you have to be alone; in fact, be proactive in carving time out of your day to be alone. Self-reflect; truly listen to your thoughts, no matter how annoying, no matter how painful. Then, address them.
I truly believe that self-reflection in the necessary start to all self-improvement.
2) I Learned to Overcome the Fear of Judgement
Now, I want to think I would have been brave enough to make the decision to become a writer and create my own blog anyway; isolation or no isolation. Because I rationally know that nobody really cares that much about what other people are doing anyway, and if they do, who cares? Nobody should have to prove anything to anyone; your life is yours to live, and yours only.
However, I admit that seeking to be surrounded by people often makes the fear of judgment quite pronounced because there’s always someone around. I’ve noticed that the fear of what other people might think has often influenced my decisions, at least to some extent.
So, being isolated and geographically distanced from anyone I knew actually gave me the privacy I needed to actively take steps in the right direction.
My first piece of advice would be to remember the words of Dr. Seuss:
“Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” — Dr. Seuss
However, for those of you who, like me, sometimes find it difficult to apply this in practice, consider distancing yourself for a little while. I don’t mean ‘become a complete social recluse’; that’s not fair on your relationships and probably not great for your mental health and wellbeing. I mean do some work behind the scenes — find some time for you, to do what you want to do — show the world what you’ve been working on in your own time. You do you.
3) I Improved My Relationships.
We all recognize that networking and making strong business connections can help us succeed. Yet, we shouldn’t underestimate the power of our social connections in determining our success; our family and our friends.
Humans are social creatures. It is commonly believed that we have big brains to help us navigate the complex social environment in which we live; we create hierarchies in our social circles, our work, our communities, and this is why we’re raised by our parents for years until we reach adulthood (sometimes even longer).
A great book by Michael Hunt, titled “Evidence-Based Strategies for Success”, points to numerous studies that show that happiness and positivity are key for success, and, that the happiest individuals are those with the strongest social relationships.
Michael explains that happier people also have a tendency to be more flexible, more creative, better negotiators, and perceived to be more likable. So investing in your social relationships won’t only make you happier, it’s a direct way to self-improve in other areas; it can improve your performance and therefore your chances of success.
Plus, failing isn’t as daunting when you have strong social support. A strong social network provides a safety net; our friends and family are there to celebrate our victories and help us overcome our defeats. Our social network provides the foundation we need to embrace failure, not fear it; and acknowledge that:
“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” — Robert F. Kennedy
During this pandemic, I’ve realized how much I take out my emotions on those closest to me, when it’s precisely those people that I should cherish the most. Feeling lonely and isolated, I made a daily effort to speak to my family and reach out to friends that I hadn’t spoken to in a while. Not only did it comfort me at the time, it definitely contributed to me finding the courage I needed to take that leap of faith towards my new adventure. Because, even if I fail, I know I’ll always have them.
Take this opportunity now that people are working from home, and pick up the phone — call a friend; call your family! Now’s the time to invest in your relationships.
4. I Learned the Importance of Self-Compassion.
Weirdly, feeling alone gave me a sense of wanting to nurture myself. (This began with chocolate and red wine until I accepted it was unsustainable).
I’ve realized that, often, when I’m surrounded by people, I’m more attentive of them than I am of myself — what are they saying? What do they think? What do they want? I do it subconsciously; as we all do, I read the room and adapt to my social interactions.
But, when I’m alone, it’s all about me. How am I feeling? What am I thinking? What do I want? And, I’ve realized that think this is great!
I’m not saying don’t think of other people (obviously), what I mean is, it’s important to find time to invest in yourself!
“Your soul needs time for solitude and self-reflection. In order to love, lead, heal and create, you must nourish yourself first” — Linda Joy.
Since the pandemic hit and I’ve had more time to do things for me, I’ve added yoga to my exercise routine, I practice meditation, I’ve found more time to read and listen to podcasts (which I LOVE). I’ve adopted an “I deserve it” mentality.
“I consider it a compliment that I am full of myself…I’m full, I’m overflowing. I have so much to offer, and so much to give.” — Oprah.
Invest in being the best version of yourself. The fuller you are, the happier, wiser, and stronger you’ll be, and the more you’ll be able to bring to your relationships with others.
May 2020 — To compound my solitude, my phone breaks.
That’s it. That’s where I’m at; ignoring the fact that I can only communicate via my laptop and embracing all the things this newly developed ability to maximize being alone has taught me.
I hope this will help you embrace this situation too.
Stay strong folks!
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