When I was around eight or nine years old, I was riding my 1980s “Blue Angel” bicycle on a rocky trail near my home in the country. Going down a steep hill, my feet slipped off the pedals and I lost control of my bike. I could not back-pedal to brake. Hurtling down at a high speed, my front wheel hit a large rock and I flew high over the handlebars, landing headfirst on the gravel and dirt (no helmet of course, it was the 80s). My father, who was behind me and witnessed my crash, probably thought I was dead. I’ve never seen him so upset, with tears in his eyes as he picked me up and held me, my face bloody from the impact.
In the following weeks, as my cuts and bruises healed, I was too afraid to get back on that bike. I left it in the garage, avoiding it. Then those weeks turned into months and those months into years. I grew accustomed to the idea of never getting on a bicycle again. And to this day I haven’t.
Fast-forward to March of 2020.
When the pandemic hit, it was a scary time. Like most people, I was worried for the health of my loved ones, but also, I was concerned about the uncertainty surrounding the length of the lock-down, the effect it would have on my young children, and the economic impact on my business and law practice.
But a part of me, the introvert part of me, finally felt at ease. Being forced to stay home, was, in fact, liberating.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy being social and interacting with other human beings. Like most introverts, though, social gatherings drain me, and I have to “psych” myself up and put on my “extrovert” face before I go out. Then, after the event, dinner, or party, I need to be alone to recharge my batteries before I do it all again. It can be exhausting.
Pre-pandemic, I would attend several client meetings, business coffees, and networking events during the week and several personal social events on the weekends. In the first few weeks of the pandemic, when these events were cancelled (or moved online), I was in heaven. For the first time in what felt like forever I didn’t have to leave my house! It was amazing.
But then those weeks turned into months, and the months turned into years of being able to avoid social gatherings without judgement. And just like I grew comfortable with the idea of never riding a bike again, I have grown comfortable with the idea of never leaving my house again.
This is not good.
Introverts may dread social situations, but as human beings, we need them.
While avoiding in-person social gatherings has given me short-term relief, it also seems to have reinforced my discomfort and trepidation. I feel like this prolonged avoidance has made things harder for me to return to a “normal” life.
Fortunately, unlike the little girl avoiding her bike, I have every intention of attending social gatherings again. But, as I return, I will do so at my own pace (one step is publishing this blog post, as I re-emerge into the online social world, something else I have been avoiding since I paused my blog in 2021).
It was only a few weeks ago that I had my first in-person business coffee since March of 2020. I left the meeting feeling energized (how I imagine extroverts feel when they leave parties) confirming for me that while I may think that I would prefer to hide at home forever, I need to get back out there. Slowly. I will dip my toes in and get used to the water. No headfirst dives for me.
Luckily, I have my own business, so no one is mandating that I return to the office full-time. I hope law firms or legal departments that have asked their employees to return in-person are being mindful of this adjustment period for some of us. And it’s not just returning to the office, it’s returning to in-person client meetings, CPD events, and court appearances, too. While Zoom court has its downsides, I am sure many anxious lawyers enjoyed not having to worry about finding the robing rooms, or courtroom number, or arriving late, or remembering what table to sit at, etc.
Those of you who are extroverts, or even ambiverts, may not be able to relate to anything that I’ve written. You may be like many people I know who have been eager to re-enter the world and have been attending in-person events for some time. I’m writing this post to remind people that as the world is re-opening (or has already re-opened for many of you) there may be a steep readjustment period for some of us.
To those of you reading this who are dreading returning to the office, remember that it is good for us to leave our house and get back out there. However, be kind to yourself – take breaks from the busy office, take some alone time at lunch, maybe ask for a hybrid working model, etc. It may be hard at first, but it will get better.
As for me, as I summon the courage to start attending more in-person social gatherings, maybe this summer, 35 years later, I will finally find the strength to borrow someone’s bicycle and truly test the old saying, “It’s like riding a bike.”
Erin C. Cowling is a freelance lawyer, entrepreneur, legal career consultant researcher & writer, and President and Founder of Flex Legal Network Inc., a network of freelance lawyers.