Spend your free time the way you like not the way you think you're supposed to Susan Cain

There are countless duties and to-do lists that we must fulfill daily.  Some commitments enrich our life and bring us closer to our goals. Some push us inches away from overload.

For introverts, it’s all too easy to become overwhelmed by too many obligations. This is especially true if our commitments involve a lot of socializing and going out.  We are overstimulated more easily than extroverts and can burn out more quickly as well.

The big “O” of obligation stirs anxiety within us that often seeps out in unexpected ways. Useless obligations can lead to exhaustion, oversleeping, overeating and a serious case of I-hate-everything syndrome.

Many extroverts do not understand this aspect of our personality.  Popular sayings like “carpe diem!” and “you only live once!” (or “YOLO” as the kids these days say) imply that seizing the day means saturating every minute with activity.  But this mentality can actually be counterproductive for introverts.


Can you imagine Buddha cheering “YOLO!” as he pranced from one hyped up activity to the next? What about Einstein? Do you think that he spent his days rushing to fulfill countless empty obligations?  Would he have gone to every party he was invited to? Volunteered three nights a week? Joined church groups that ate up all his spare time?  Somehow I doubt it.

Give Yourself A Spacious Rat Park

“To give your sheep or cow a large and spacious meadow is the way to control him.” ~Shunrya Suzuki

We build our own mental prisons by walling ourselves in with obligations.  Highly effective introverts know that busy solitude is the key to our success. Our mind needs space to wander and be free.  Energy-sucking commitments can dramatically decrease our ability to focus, be creative and problem solve.  Sooner or later our mind will try to find ways to break free.  If we don’t pay attention to our mind’s protests, it will adopt unhealthy means of escape.

In the 1970s, Canadian psychology professor Bruce K Alexander conducted a study on the addictiveness of heroin on rats.  Other studies had found that rats encaged with heroin-injecting apparatus quickly became hooked on the drug.

Alexander hypothesized that the rats were driven to heroin because they were living alone in a tiny, empty cage.  He decided to build Rat Park, a paradise for rats that was spacious, with lots of mental stimulation and a few playmates.  Long story short, the rats in Rat Park were more likely to choose plain water over the heroine-laced stuff.

Just like the Rat Park rats, the introverted mind is much happier when given a spacious playground and lots of mental stimulation.  Walling ourselves in with obligations can lead to unhealthy habits, such as overspending, binge eating, alcoholism, caffeine dependency and even drugs. This unhealthy habit can become an addiction that needs to be treated by a professional rehab center for addictions.


The Vicious Cycle of Over-Commitment

Another curious way that we try to fill the void created by over-commitment is through more commitments.  As ridiculous and counterintuitive as it may sound, this is quite common.

We construct our lives by using the lives of those around us as a blueprint.  The life of a happy extrovert might be brimming with obligations that could literally make an introvert sick.  As we try to mirror the images we see of extrovert bliss, our own happiness inevitably suffers.  Not understanding why we feel so empty and unhappy, we take on more external activities to fill the void.

I used to be a chronic over-committer.  I volunteered, took classes, sang in choirs, joined clubs, planned events and everything in between.  I did not enjoy spending time alone because I always felt like I should be going out and “seizing the day”.  I vaguely remembered that I was once very creative and reflective, but I could barely bring myself to focus on reading for five minutes.  I had forced my introvert brain into extrovert mode and I didn’t know how to push the reset button.

So What?

Some people might say, “so what?” You cured yourself of introversion. What’s the problem? Well.

Anytime we suppress our true nature, we essentially lie to ourselves.  It doesn’t feel good to be lied to.  Especially when the culprit is the one person we should be able to trust 100%.  Our true nature will forever be there, telling us that something isn’t right.  Peace and fulfillment will always be out of reach.

If you’re feeling exhausted and overwhelmed by your own life, take a closer look at some of your obligations.  Are they actually necessary or are they just another way that you have been trying to keep up with the Extroverts?  Does your ideal Rat Park really include so many commitments, or does it give you more room to just roam around and be you?

The moral of the story? Build your daily life around the activities that are truly fulfilling to YOU, not the extrovert down the street.

And don’t do drugs.  🙂

funny mouse rat