An Introvert’s Journey through Post-COVID Socialization: From Fake Smiles to Genuine Happiness

Picture of By Quynh (Stephanie) Bui

By Quynh (Stephanie) Bui

The world is starting to open up again, and so are people. However, this does not seem to apply to introverts, who thoroughly enjoyed the solitude and silence during the pandemic. As I slowly re-integrate into a sociable society and talk to more people, I find myself sometimes fake smiling and keeping on a happy face, despite everything happening in the world. Since I have struggled these past few months to socialize properly, I can’t help but wonder what has made me so avoidant and drained and what action I can take to tackle this fear.

Fake Smiles

As an introvert who recently entered the adult working life as an intern, it was a challenging transition where one went from not meeting anyone for days on end to seeing many people every day. And don’t get me wrong, I enjoy accompanying my new colleagues and am excited about reuniting with my friends and classmates. However, these constant encounters where I have to put my best self forward slowly become more cumbersome. And soon enough, I found myself fake smiling a lot. Since I have to create a good impression, my personal issues and emotions are locked away, and I can’t help but laugh along with inside jokes I have yet to understand. While I have mastered the art of awkwardness, I still sometimes feel displaced and drained at the end of the day. 

We often feel compelled to maintain a front where we cannot show our vulnerabilities and let our guards down.

The burden and pressure to present oneself in the most favorable light is not an unfounded phenomenon, as the concept of “face” suggests. Every time we interact with another human being, we put our “face” on the line, where we want to show the other our best attributes and uphold a particular image of ourselves. In my case, I exist in our society through the persona of an energetic, humorous, and happy-go-lucky person. Simply put, we often feel compelled to maintain a front where we cannot show our vulnerabilities and let our guards down. Instead, we choose to play by the rules, often putting on a mask (physically and mentally) and adhering to socially desirable behavior, especially when the interpersonal impacts are on high stakes.

Keeping this image was relatively effortless in COVID times, where I only met my classmates a few times a week, and I could quickly retreat to my hermit self. However, since I need to meet people more frequently and have limited time to recharge my social battery, it takes me strenuous efforts to replenish my extrovert fuel. Furthermore, according to the BBC, being alone has become the norm throughout the pandemic, and thus, reintroducing socializing can stress us out. As suggested by PsychCentral, introverts like myself tend to invest energy to navigate socially demanding environments. Furthermore, research has shown that one’s engagement in social interactions that cross the 3-hour threshold can suffer from post-socializing fatigue, or “social exhaustion,” also humorously known as “introvert burnout” or “introvert hangover.” And as an introvert who is socially taxed, burned out, and sometimes hungover, I have never felt more exposed. 

Putting on happy facades seems too inauthentic

“How are you?”

However, this answer, unfortunately, did not bring too much closure on my end. Putting on happy facades seems too inauthentic as my outward expressions do not match what I experience internally. Even the simplest thing you say every morning – “How are you?” – became a complicated question. While I rarely say “I’m great,” I still feel the burden to provide an answer: while I do not want to lie, I do not wish to dampen the mood, either. Think about this for a second – when was the last time you openly admitted to someone that you were not feeling your best? It’s hard to feel great right now, considering how the world faces one of the most dangerous threats in modern history. But yet, we need to push forward, collect our fragmented selves, and hold onto these socially acceptable, adult-proven ways of life amid chaos.

Fake It Till You Make It

Regardless, some studies demonstrated that a fake smile could bring about genuine happiness: elevated mood, reduced stress levels, lowered heart rate and blood pressure, and even extended life. Moreover, acting extroverted (for instance, being confident and outgoing in social situations) has been shown to boost one’s happiness. After all, a frowner is not happy, and it almost seems intuitive that a smile on your face keeps the doctor away. But is a fake smile truly that magical? And is forcing a genuine smile that simple? I do not feel uncomfortable per se when I have to fake a smile, but I do feel very dishonest with myself and with whom I interact. I sometimes just want to sit in a corner alone and deal with my emotions – on Zoom, this was only a click away from “Mute” and “Camera,” but it is virtually impossible to disappear or hide in real life. So I started to question what could make me genuinely smile again? What could make me completely, perfectly, incandescently happy?

Real Smiles, Real Happiness

I have made a big mistake – I have been looking at the problem from the wrong angle. This whole time, I tried too hard to stop fake smiling and feeling so overwhelmed. Unfortunately, things that induce my anxious tendencies are not going anywhere, and I still need to put on my fake happy cap navigating through my daily life. Yet, I realize that I have the choice to partake in activities that genuinely bring me happiness actively. Yes, I know it sounds cliche, and I am preaching like those self-help gurus that I detest with my whole existence. However, as tested by myself, having a purpose and intrinsic motivations has helped me overcome one of the most stress-ridden periods of my life (so far). 

This happiness can come in the form of hedonic enjoyment: talking to my family and friends, having a tasty meal, or just indulging in some alone time, where this process has allowed me to reconnect with myself. Writing this very article also feels extremely rewarding and cathartic – after all, writing is one of my hobbies that have survived puberty. Furthermore, by engaging in eudaimonia and acting on intrinsic motivations, daily activities could help us achieve a balance of challenges and skills, self-realization values, and efforts. While socializing is not my strong suit, I have caught myself smiling while working or when my suggestions are chosen and acknowledged. I recently joined a course called Big History, where I’m force-feeding my brain with scientific facts about the Universe. As my curious brain becomes increasingly immersed and enlightened, I just let out a smile. I cannot help but smile – a genuine, unfiltered, and unintentional smile. It turns out happiness is not directing one’s ultra wealth towards space travel; it’s learning about it. 

Say Cheese!

If you have reached this section of the article, thank you for listening to my internal publicized monologue. You might wonder how one can transform this one simple topic into this lengthy piece, but fake smiles are a big deal for an overthinker like me. Yes, there will always be situations where we cannot be 100% ourselves. The problem only arises when we experience a disconnect with how we feel and how we act to the point of inauthenticity where we lose touch with ourselves. I genuinely hope that this article has put a real smile on your face and given you a sunnier disposition and outlook on life, even when we are prone to make fake ones.

Cover: Photo by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash

Edited by Alexa Ciociu

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