Social Energy: A Marathon, not a Sprint

by Jill Wilbur Smith

I’m in a book club with a group of women with whom I might not otherwise socialize. It makes for interesting conversation about the books we read, and I’m grateful that I’ve gotten to know them all so well over the past few years. I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.

But, because these women aren’t my close friends, and because I only see most of them once every 6 to 8 weeks, it takes extra energy to attend the meetings. We meet on Friday night, not always my most vibrant time of the week.

The morning of the last time we met, I was having coffee with Emily and bemoaning the fact that I had book club that evening. It had been a long, trying week at work and I was psyching myself up for the night. I didn’t want to go. It felt like an obligation, not something fun.

“I like these women a lot,” I told Emily, “but I have to prepare myself to meet with them. It takes extra social energy to go to these meetings.”

Emily’s expression changed and she nodded her head. It hit me.

“I’ve just described every one of your social interactions, haven’t I?”

“Pretty much,” she said.

I’ve lived with Emily for 22 years, and this was the first time I really sensed what it must feel like for her to have Asperger’s.

I’ve been in other situations that require extra social energy: going to a party where there are people I’ve never met, teaching a workshop for the first time, interviewing someone about a difficult life experience. But these circumstances don’t occur every day.

For Emily, every day requires the type of stamina most of us only need occasionally. Even interacting with people she knows well can zap her social energy.

I’ve always known that Emily needs extra time alone to “decompress” as we call it. But now I have a little better understanding of why. Now I understand how exhausting it must be for her to go to work, meet with friends, take part in conversation around the dinner table.

When I’m faced with a difficult social interaction, I can usually take a deep breath, fix my resolve and sprint through the encounter. Emily, on the other hand, is running a social marathon. It requires constant training and conditioning.  And the resolve to just keep running, even when the finish line is nowhere in sight.