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I am an introvert. I am one of those weird introverts where if you get me in the right crowd size, I become an extrovert. But it has to be the right size with people I know. Get me in a huge party where I only know one person, I retreat to the kitchen or corner.
Chronic illness can make an introvert retreat even more. For some introverts, this is ideal. For those of us who have a streak of extroversion, it can be nightmarish. I want to go out and interact with the friends I have, not sit on the couch and feel sorry it’s another weekend night wasted because my energy levels are so low.
And yet, there are days where I do not want to be social. When an event comes up that I don’t want to go to, but I am afraid of hurting someone’s feelings, I might say that my MS is acting up to avoid going to it. I feel bad because while it is the truth, I am stretching it at the moment sometimes. Sometimes I am not able to make it, but often I am. I just don’t want to go.
So there are advantages to chronic illness with introversion. It’s a quick pass for getting out of social engagements, but use it too much, and you’ll inadvertently isolate yourself.
And that’s not healthy either.
Isolation & Chronic Illness
Fatigue makes it difficult to get out of the house. Often we’re told by other people who have chronic illnesses that we should listen to what our bodies are saying to prevent exacerbation. This is excellent advice, but depressing when you cannot remember the last time you did something social in nature.
It’s even more depressing when you realize you’ve fallen into an introversion/chronic illness feedback loop. “I cannot go out because I am too fatigued, and I am too fatigued because I am thinking about going out.”
Introversion and chronic illness can become a chicken and the egg scenario. Am I too tired to go out because of my MS? or is it the idea of getting ready, traveling there, and then spending hours being “on,” before having to go home and unwinding? Sometimes it is just easier to stay home and not even answer the questions.
Thus we become isolated.
Isolation is not good for humans, chronically ill or not. It can exacerbate your symptoms and can lead to a whole host of other health concerns. I am sharing this information not to shame but raising awareness. As tempting as it is to stay within our introverted bubbles, it isn’t helpful to our overall health.
The Struggle to Stay Social
Telling an introvert to become more extroverted is not the solution. Some introverts can become more extroverted with practice, but it’s not possible for everyone. Yet, introverts must take steps to fight social isolation while coping with their chronic illness.
This means overcoming the general struggle with social situations and finding ways to manage your social time around your illness. The ultimate goal of a person with a chronic disease is to live the best life possible to control the illness. Pushing oneself to be social “because we have to” can increase stress, which is not ideal.
Additionally, if we give in to the isolating nature of the illness, we run the risk of making the situation worse for us. That’s why we must create a social support network that works best for us.
Create a Network that Works
The key is to create a social/support network that works for you. If you find that the only way to stay social is via an online presence, then do so.
Make sure you aren’t using online to avoid in-person human contact. It’s easy to justify isolating decisions if we blame our illness. An online presence cannot function as a replacement for in-person interaction. It’s meant as “a form” of social interaction, not “instead of.”
You may find that spending more time online will help make it easier to spend time with others offline. I find that when I allow myself to be more chatty with friends online, I am open to making and keeping plans with them in the real world. The hope is that online communities will help push you to seek offline communities as well.
The other key thing to creating a network that works is figuring out the social situations you enjoy the most. If you feel energized after a one-on-one coffee/tea meetup, consider incorporating more into your social calendar. If you find having small gatherings in your house leave you less drained than going out to eat for dinner, consider setting up monthly dinner potlucks.
Finally, accept your introversion as who you are. We have a tendency to view it as problematic when it’s not. Society puts pressure on introverts to change, but you don’t have to listen. If you find peace in your introversion and that peace helps you manage your illness, embrace it. Just make sure you don’t isolate yourself in the process.
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