This year, I got my first invitation to Christmas drinks on the August bank holiday. By the middle of September, all my weekends in December had been booked up. There’s a get together of old university friends at a house party, a massive pub lunch booked with another group, a date to a carol concert which is usually followed by ‘Christmas cocktails’, then there’s a party for some of my son’s friends at which the parents are expected to stay and mingle. And that’s before we’ve even got to the work parties and, of course, the family gatherings.
Can you tell, from my tone, that I’m less than brimming with Christmas spirit at the thought of all this merriment? Don’t get me wrong, I genuinely like – and in some cases dearly love – the people behind these invitations. But there’s a good reason why I’m not looking forward to seeing them. I am an introvert.
I like going out, but I don’t like staying out. There’s only so much socialising I can take. I once fell asleep in the toilet of a club in Islington, because I’d been hiding out in there for a little too long. (In my defence it was a really nice, exceptionally clean cubicle.) You will always find me in the kitchen at house parties, not just because I’m greedy, but because years of experience have taught me that kitchens are where the quieter people hang out and have conversations. There, or on the stairs.
December just isn’t kind to introverts. It’s the time when social gatherings are at their loudest, drunkest and most emotionally wrought. Even with family, it can be hard, as Charlotte, a banker, recalls: ‘Living in a quiet flat, just my fiancé and me, it was a shock returning to my family home last Christmas. My sister was visiting from New York, which meant lots of visitors. After a few days of entertaining, my energy levels started to crash and burn. I knew I needed to give myself some time alone to recharge when Dad came into the utility room on Christmas Day to find me sitting on the floor. Dad sat down next to me and I realised then who I inherited my introversion from.’
Pick your strategy
Introverts develop all kinds of behaviours under social pressure. ‘In my last job, during December, there would be three or four events a week I had to go to,’ says Carla, a fundraiser. ‘The structured ones were OK, but sometimes you were just expected to mingle – torture. I worked out that if I grabbed two wineglasses, and pretended I was making my way across the room to see someone, I could avoid standing around. I basically did laps of parties carrying two glasses, hoping no-one would notice.’
December can also turn introverts into liars. ‘I’ve often lied about my children being ill as an excuse to leave a party early,’ says Hannah, a teacher. ‘It’s now at a stage where I have to keep a list of the imaginary illnesses they’ve had, so I don’t slip up and tell the same person my oldest has chicken pox again.’
‘My family think I really like cooking Christmas dinner,’ says Norah, a care worker. ‘But the real reason I volunteer is it means I can be left on my own, with the radio, while they play noisy games in the other room. It’s my sanctuary.’
It’s hard to admit you don’t feel like going out when the whole world seems to be having fun. Our world is geared towards extroverts, says psychologist Dr Laurie Helgoe, author of Introvert Power (Sourcebooks, £9.99), which may be why there’s still so much misunderstanding around being an introvert. It doesn’t necessarily mean someone who’s shy, or hates socialising.
‘What defines introverts is that we’re internally oriented,’ says Helgoe. ‘Too much external stimulation can be overwhelming so we’re more likely to pull back, to allow space.’
The need for space
But how can you get space when you feel under pressure to socialise? In part, it’s about knowing your limits, and accepting that these are different for everyone. Introverts need to pace themselves and be realistic about how many invitations to accept.
Life coach and founder of Life Clubs, Nina Grunfeld, suggests building in time for reflection ahead of a busy period. This is not just about giving yourself valuable quiet time; it’s about defining priorities and redrawing boundaries. Most of us feel we need an excuse to turn down an invitation. ‘What helped me was realising when I said “yes” to everyone else, I was saying “no” to myself,’ says Grunfeld. ‘You have a right to put “time alone” in your diary, if that’s what you need.’
Studies show introverts find it harder to carry out simple cognitive tasks after too much social stimulus. But there are techniques that can reduce the draining effect. Small talk can be particularly tiresome. ‘I find it easier to ask questions than try to talk about myself – I find it less draining to listen,’ says Lisa, an accountant. Having some sort of organising role can also be a good way to avoid small talk. You’ll often spot the introverts handing out drinks, or tidying up in the nice quiet kitchen.
Helgoe, an introvert, is married to an extrovert. In her book, she writes about going to parties but taking two cars, so she doesn’t have to wait for her husband when she’s had her fill of socialising. ‘Instead of slithering away, I can be more explicit about what my needs are and what I’m doing,’ she says.
It can be especially hard to be explicit about your needs at Christmas when you’re challenging traditions: ‘but we always have the neighbours round on Boxing Day, we’ve done it since 1986!’
‘Christmas is often a compromise and full of misunderstandings,’ says Grunfeld. ‘It’s worth checking in and asking “is this what we want to do this year?”’
Grunfeld’s family have started a new tradition recently. ‘Everyone gets an hour that is just theirs. Someone might want to play games, someone else might choose an hour of silence apart from carols on the radio.’
In larger groups, it might be possible to arrange that mornings are for children, and afternoons for grown-ups, or devise a rota so adults each get an hour of quiet time away. The key is acknowledging everyone – not just the most vocal in the group.
Once we feel comfortable saying: ‘I’m an introvert, I need down time,’ then we can start finding ways to get it. We can look out for the physical and emotional signs that tell us when we need to retreat. We can start to spot patterns so we can pre-empt ourselves. And we can start to feel proud of our introvert tendencies.
We might even discover we weren’t the only one longing for escape. There are more introverts out there than you think.
How to survive the party season
1. Don’t apologise for needing a break when it all gets too hectic. Your needs are just as valid as the extroverts’.
2. Think about when you feel most stressed and exhausted and work out whether you can build in some alone time, either before or after the most stressful periods.
3. If you’re not sure whether to say yes, ask for more details: ‘How many people do you expect? Who will I know? Is there food/dancing/speeches?’ It helps to know what you’re committing to.
4. Explain your needs to friends and family, so they don’t misread a need for space as a rejection.