By Erin Brandel Dykhuizen
For over a year we’ve been waiting for the day when we can hug our loved ones who don’t live with us, travel, or get together with a friend without worry. As vaccination rates soar, more and more of us are facing the reality that these things are now possible, or at least on the horizon.
But with this impending return to how things were in the pre-pandemic times, we may be feeling other emotions along with the joy and relief: namely anxiety and hesitation about returning to how things used to be. While there are many reasons for this, which I hope to address in upcoming columns, there is one main reason I personally don’t want to go back to normal.
I am an introvert and a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). Introverts recharge by spending time by ourselves, and we tend to spend a lot of time focused on our internal worlds. HSPs, who make up 15-20% of the population, are strongly affected by our environments, easily overwhelmed in chaotic or loud situations and especially attuned to the emotions of others, among other characteristics. (You can learn more about HSPs from the writings of Dr. Elaine Aron, who first identified the trait of high sensitivity and discusses it on her website, https://hsperson.com/.)
As an introvert and HSP, the pre-pandemic world often exhausted me. As disturbing as this pandemic has been–and the human toll has been tragic–one silver lining for me was that our society’s rhythms changed in ways that better matched my temperament. There are some activities of daily life that I didn’t even realize were stressing me out to the extent that they did — until the day when I could no longer do them.
For one, it has been a relief to not have to go to so many social gatherings, especially ones with people I do not feel close to. I actually want to sit here in my yoga pants doing my jigsaw puzzle and listening to my audio book, thank you very much. Get me a cup of tea and a cat, and I will have a perfect day. I was living the pandemic lifestyle before the pandemic, and sometimes I felt ashamed of not spending more time in social settings. Over the past fourteen months, I learned how much of that unnecessary pressure I was choosing to put on myself without even realizing it. While I am willing and eager to get together with friends and go out once it’s safe, I have come to terms with the fact that it is perfectly fine to be more selective about where I spend my energy.
It has also been helpful to have an excuse to order groceries online instead of going into an overcrowded, brightly lit, overstimulating store. In the past I would go to the store instead of ordering online because I couldn’t justify to myself the cost of the tip or increased online prices. Having now gotten the chance to experience the joy of having my favorite Costco products delivered to my door, I do not want to go back, even if it is cheaper to shop myself. By seeing the value of protecting my energy and time, I can now better analyze the costs and benefits before I decide to drive to the store.
Wearing a mask in public has offered the excellent advantage that, when I feel the need to avoid an acquaintance I happen to run into—because fumbling through small talk makes me anxious and sucks the life out of me—I have plausible deniability. I have not had to unexpectedly make small talk when in public for over a year. I really don’t want this part of things to end, and, frankly, I would wear a mask in public even when it’s no longer required if it didn’t have the effect of making me more identifiable.
Of course, you don’t have to be an introvert and/or HSP to identify things about the pre-pandemic world that stressed you out. Many people are noticing that they are reconsidering aspects of their lives that they felt were non-negotiable before the pandemic upended them. As you consider the things you are looking forward to in the post-pandemic world, be sure to consider the parts of your life now that are working better for you than “normal” life was. Know that while most of us are thrilled to turn the corner and restore some of the human interactions we lost, you don’t have to go back to normal in every way if you don’t want to.
Erin Brandel Dykhuizen, MA, MSW, LICSW is a psychotherapist living and working in the West Seventh neighborhood. You can learn more about her work at www.erinbdlicsw.com.