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It’s been a few weeks since I moved into a new house. Being a highly sensitive and introverted person, I had a hard time making it through the changes in my domicile, my outdoor spaces, the people around me in my new house, and letting go of so much I loved. Things I felt necessary for my happiness. An HSP is another way of saying someone who feels things in his or her environment that others don’t. When a small child cries at McDonald’s, for instance, I feel like crying, fully knowing it’s not my sad, but the little child’s. When a friend tells me she has cancer and doesn’t know how long she’ll live but dismisses it as, ‘Everyone is dying,’ I feel a tsunami of sorrow plow over me.
But not only do I feel things that are mine and things that belong to others, I feel things very deeply. When I learned about the puppy who’d been killed in a hot oven when the owner’s ex-girlfriend hut him in the oven, my heart broke into a million pieces. I cried about it for days. I have to have my reaction, as Cameron on Modern Family is famous for. The move prompted big reactions, too.
But I’ve learned some things in the process of moving. I had thought I was in a place of getting rid of the old life and eagerly welcoming the new. Imagine how surprised to learn that I had strong attachments still to all sorts of things. I actually watched my poor sons carry a heavy, heavy desk into my new house because I loved the desk. I’d had it for years. It had been a part of the beginning of things I wanted in my life, and I demanded the desk stay with me. Then I felt disgusted by my demand and sorry I’d put my sons through that painful process, hoping they wouldn’t break their backs or their hands in the process.
I know when I move again I won’t be taking any where near the amount of stuff with me. My attachment has weakened, transformed, and my outlook is clearer about what really matters.
Right now it’s still hard to deal with my present environment, but I’m grateful I have a home with my husband. It’s spacious and comfortable. And one of the things I was most worried about, my cat making the transition, has gone well.
Changes are typically difficult, even ones you welcome. Why is it so hard? That’s a topic for another post.
If there were one word to describe my state of mind right now it would be Holy Shit! I know, that’s two words, but they run together as I sit in the chaos of my life today.
To put it nicely, I’m in a learning phase. My husband and I just moved from our home of 30 years out in the country to a duplex in town. To say this has been hard would be the ultimate understatement. We moved from the home where we were a family. The home where my little children ran up and down the stairs in their exuberance about everything. Where basketball was played in the driveway with plenty of spontaneous yells and exclamations of oh!, and over the years, with growing skill. The home where posters of sports figures and boy bands hung on bedroom walls. Where friends spent sleep-overs that lingered into weekends. So many memories and mementoes to leave behind.
I’m a believer in letting go of stuff. But when it came to letting go of baseball trophies and letter jackets that still hung in the closet and shelves of Nancy Drew books, it turned out to be like cutting off my arms and legs. Moving was something I’d wanted for a long time. Doing it was far different than the jubilation I had envisioned as we moved into a different phase of life.
When first the crying set in, a voice inside my head stated, “You’re over-reacting! Get a grip.” But the thing is, for those of us who are highly sensitive, there is no such thing. We naturally experience things intensely. The worst thing I could do for my state of mind would be to try to ignore the whole-body experience of loss and grief.
But at first I tried to. I quickly went numb, very flat. All I wanted was to burrow under the covers and stay there. My sensitive voice inside proclaimed, “I’m never coming out, I’m never talking to anyone every again, and I’m never going to do anything.”
Then some very good friends shared their stories of similar moves and encouraged me that I had every right to have strong feelings about such an upheaval. Acknowledgement is an amazing thing. Yes, my tears poured, even more so after the supportive words were offered and I stopped trying for a stiff upper lip. But crying and succumbing to my complete shutdown was what I needed to do. Just until I didn’t need to do it anymore. However long that may take.
Meanwhile, I’m grateful for the words my sons wrote in a Mother’s Day card the weekend my husband and I began moving out from the life we’d known. The card read: “There’s no place like home. Mom, no matter where I go or how grown-up I get, ‘Home’ will always be wherever you are.”
How did they know the perfect words to gift me with on that weekend? They’re sensitive, too.
As I walked through the grade school halls on my way to deliver materials to a classroom, I heard a child’s sobbing. My heart clenched. I looked around and saw a young child, tears streaming, standing alone with a teacher. I couldn’t make out what the teacher was saying to the child, but the scene and all that it emoted brought a lump to my throat and I wanted desperately to get out of there fast.
Back at my office in another school building, I relayed the scene to my coworkers. I had no way to hide the distraught I felt. I didn’t know any details but I felt intense sorrow that I couldn’t contain. Of course, my coworkers tried to console me, and probably passed eye-rolls amongst each other, telling me the child was probably fine by now.
This is my life as a highly sensitive person. I feel things that are out there in the invisible ethers, things that are not mine. When I enter a crowded big-box toy store at Christmas time, I find myself swept up in internal chaos and a strong desire to beat every other shopper to the dolls and bikes and train sets, even if it means ramming my shopping cart through aisles, disregarding other people. Yes, I have feelings of the “hunt” that belong solely to me, but those personal feelings are amplified by the level of feelings circulating the environment. Moments like these can be disturbing, very disturbing, until insight filters into my brain. Ah, I’m picking up environmental stuff, I remind myself, and am able to relax.
For the introvert, life is rich. Add to it the trait of high sensitivity, the ability to pick up and have awareness of input of all sorts, and it becomes a highly stimulating environment that, yes, is rich, but also somewhat of a challenge to function in effectively. Thank goodness for researchers and writers who have elevated the status of the highly sensitive person above the labels of “too sensitive,” “a crier,” and “an over-reacter.”
According to Elaine N. Aron, Ph.D, author of The Highly Sensitive Person , though people who have the highly sensitive trait have historically been dismissed as flawed or odd, even unstable, the trait is not imaginary or defective. In her book Aron affirms for the highly sensitive person (HSPs, she calls them) that they are not crazy.
“Having a sensitive nervous system is normal, a basic neutral trait. You probably inherited it. It occurs in about 15-20 percent of the population. It means you are aware of subtleties in your surroundings, a great advantage in many situations.”
Aron goes on to confirm that HSPs can easily be overwhelmed. No kidding. The world is a very loud place filled with scents and sights and activity and emotions. All that input is useful, but also highly stimulating. And highly stimulated is a state that can lead to exciting revelations and insights as well as agitation and exhaustion.
High sensitivity can make an HSP an interesting person to be around. Life for us is very intense. Lots of things just make sense, as we use influx of input. Life also can be a challenge for the non-HSP because they’re not bothered by the noise of a nearby barking dog or the scent of the perfume of a passing woman. But the HSP is bothered. A lot. Just ask my husband. I’m apt to complain to him soon after being seated in a restaurant. The music is blaring or the people at the next table have an odd smell or the lobster tank in my line of sight is makes me sad and angry. Walking through the grocery store I can hardly think because the “background” music is so loud for me. It’s terribly distracting and need I say, annoying? This is not simply me hearing well. It is a heightened awareness of sound. As author Andrea Bartz pointed out in her article for Psychology Today, “Sense and Sensitivity,” the HSP’s low tolerance for environmental stimuli can make him or her seem like a complainer to the non-HSP.
“HSPs often have a heightened sense of smell or touch and, say, zero tolerance for itchy fabrics or sudden sounds—reflecting their low threshold for sensory input. They complain about things no one else notices; a colleague’s deodorant or a scented candle gives them headaches. And there’s that damn light buzzing in the otherwise quiet office. An hour or two into a party or other sensory-rich event and they’ve withdrawn to a corner, a prelude to announcing they need to go home.”
But as Aron and others point out, while for HSPs the experience of living can be intensely emotional and anxiety-producing, it also is an intensely interesting and pleasing experience. Note Bartz’ observations.
“The proverbial thin skin of HSPs covers a highly permeable nervous system. Gentle ribbing or an offhand jab can leave them brooding for days. But just as likely, an unexpected compliment or kind exchange can send their mood soaring, while the sight of a dad playing adoringly with his child can bring on tears fueled by a rush of warmth.”
Exploring Is Beautiful
High sensitivity is not limited to introverts. It is not gender-specific, either. According to Bartz, research reports that about one in five HSPs are extroverts, and if it appears that women more than men exhibit the trait, that’s socialization of boys having an impact. But whatever the personality base, male or female, an HSP needs to appreciate what is going on for him or her, and time to process the ever-ongoing stream of input. In our world that’s not an easy task. Pause? Process? That’s allowed, you ask? As one introverted HSP to anyone, I suggest not only pausing for processing and sorting out what’s “mine,” “yours” or free-floating, but tolerance for all the various types of people who populate the world. And if you suspect you or someone you care about is an HSP, take time to check out available information and explore the possibility that high sensitivity is at work. Take Aron’s test. Read the tips in her book suggested for helping HSPs navigate life. As she writes, what you don’t realize (about yourself or a familiar HSP) will hurt you. Better to knowledge up and welcome the many facets of being human.
The United States might be known as the melting pot of the world in terms of culture and ethnicity, but families put together different types of people in close quarters. Just because we’re born with similar genes and grow up in the same environment doesn’t mean all family members are alike.Take my family, for instance. My dad loved salad dressing and my mom preferred mayonnaise. My dad ate sandwiches on white bread, while my mother frowned at him and ate hers on wheat bread. The only good pickle for my dad was a sweet one and for my mom, you guessed it, only dill would do.
Enough about food choices because I could go on and on and that would be boring.
While it may be that some of the kids in my family preferred dill pickles to sweet, or wheat bread to white, that did not mean we aligned in personality traits with our father or mother. In all families, there is variety, as not everyone will be born an introvert or an extrovert. And yes, we’ve already established that introversion or extroversion is a personality expression children are born with. Environment and experiences shape children but his or her approach to the world from a holding back and processing or going gang-busters full steam ahead without much thinking is a natural tendency. Though in our culture it seems that people, parents included, want children to be outgoing and vivacious, if they are supported in whatever expression is in their nature, children don’t succeed or fail based on introversion or extroversion. Both expressions of personality have attributes and challenges, as Marti Olsen Laney, author of The Introvert Advantage, suggests.
“As parents we constantly shape the interplay between nature and nurture. The better you know how to read your children’s physical and emotional signals, the more you can help them cope with their own temperament, and the more they will be able to use their temperament for fulfilling and valuable lives.”
I was lucky, as early in my life my mom recognized my natural tendency to observe and reflect. I remember she asked me once when I was very young and we were riding in the car, “Why are you so quiet?” I heard her later tell one of her friends my answer, “She said she was just looking.” I picked up at my young age that she didn’t care that I wasn’t rattling on and on, that it was OK to be content just taking in the scenery. I doubt back then that my mom had any thought about my natural personality and how to best allow me to be myself. She was too busy making sure all her children behaved, did their chores, contributed to society. Socializing children is an important job for parents. But in that socializing, it’s important to be sensitive to a child’s personality in order to prevent him or her from feeling stigmatized as “shy” or “too quiet,” writes Laney.
“Remember, because of our strong cultural bias, many children feel pressured to be extroverted. We can all use our nondominate side, but by doing so we deplete our energy and end up twice as exhausted.”
Exhausted and unsupported can be the normal experience for a child who is pushed to talk more, jump into playing in unfamiliar settings, or perform on stage. Better parents recognize and acknowledge their child’s natural personality tendency and be fascinated by how he or she expresses it, suggests Irene Daria in an article for Parents magazine.
“Recognizing your child’s type will not only help you understand her behavior but also make you less likely to worry. For instance, if your child holds back at first … you’ll know that it’s simply her nature to observe initially and that she’ll join in when she’s ready. Because you can’t change your child’s personality, the best way to help her develop lasting self-esteem is to accept who she is.”
Remember that if a child is an introvert she is not incapable of socializing, it is more about how he or she gets energized and processes things. A good place to start understanding how to nurture a child’s personality is to understand your own and how it may influence your relationship with the child. Whether a child or an adult, we’re all people – complex human beings with many facets to learn about and appreciate and enjoy, mostly.
Be true to yourself. Define yourself.
Pretty straightforward advice from common, simple phrases that suggest how to live a satisfying life. But they’re not so simple to follow. You have to first know yourself, and pretty well, and accept yourself, and appreciate yourself before you can be true to yourself and not give others the authority to tell you you’re OK.
So what does all that have to do with being an introvert? In my experience, plenty.
We tend to define ourselves by our stories. We’re members of a family who are all musicians. We’re a member of a community in which we always go to the farmer’s market on Saturday morning. We socialize at a certain bar or church. Our experiences throughout our lives make up our stories. But sometimes the stories are confusing because our experiences growing up are uninformed. A child who is active may have the experience that tells him he is bad or he is likable. A child who doesn’t contribute much to a classroom discussion may have the experience that her quietness is appreciated or wrong. These are uninformed messages.
In our society, if you are born an extrovert your story will likely involve fitting the ideal. You are naturally how a person is “supposed” to be. You personify the attributes our society values: active in the outer world and interacting in groups. You get praised for your gregariousness. It may be an outright positive message that you’re fun, the person others want to be around. But it’s also simply prevalent in popular culture that being outgoing is the way to be happy.
Among the traits that differentiate extroversion from introversion is one that usually resonates with both types, and that is how each is energized. An extrovert gets energy by being out and about and is drained from solitude. An introvert gets drained from social activities and refuels with solitary pursuits.
Many people take the Myers and Briggs Type Indicator, a well-known personality type instrument based on concepts of Carl Jung, to help them gain understanding about themselves. The Myers and Briggs Foundation gives an example of ways an extrovert would describe him or herself.
“I like getting my energy from active involvement in events and having a lot of different activities. I’m excited when I’m around people and I like to energize other people. I like moving into action and making things happen. I generally feel at home in the world. I often understand a problem better when I can talk out loud about it and hear what others have to say.”
On the same website, the statements given as examples of how an introvert might describe him or herself are interesting.
“I like getting my energy from dealing with the ideas, pictures, memories, and reactions that are inside my head, in my inner world. I often prefer doing things alone or with one or two people I feel comfortable with. I take time to reflect so that I have a clear idea of what I’ll be doing when I decide to act. Ideas are almost solid things for me. Sometimes I like the idea of something better than the real thing.”
Whether the statements are fully reflective of the personality type, they do offer a look at beliefs, at least, and of course, this type of person is possibly more difficult to get to know and does not necessarily fit comfortably in the various activities that are group oriented. They’re not dancing on tables at parties or drawing attention at a dinner party entertaining with a colorful story. So it’s understandable that if you are an introvert, your story is different from that of a typical extrovert. So different, in fact, that you may not feel like a person of value. It’s not an uncommon feeling for introverts, writes Dr. Marti Olsen Laney in her illuminating book, The Introvert Advantage.
“It’s no wonder people are defensive about introversion. We live in a culture that has a negative attitude about reflection and solitude. ‘Getting out there’ and ‘just doing it’ are the ideals.”
Like many introverts, I learned on my own, completely by happenstance, that not only am I an introvert, there is nothing wrong with me. I don’t need to try to be an extrovert in order to thrive in the world. That revelation did not come in one grand “Aha!” moment. After living a life of trying to do all the things “everyone” does and “enjoys” doing – going out and mingling with crowds of loud, happy people; participating in networking activities; going to parties – and not succeeding at it in a natural, organic way, it took time to unlearn beliefs that did me no good. But I had input from helpful reading and helpful people on my way to understanding and acceptance of who I am.
The Quiet Minority
If you’ve ever felt like you’re too quiet, people are expecting you to do things you can’t do without a lot of effort and no one understand your reluctance to go out in to the world, you are not the sole person to feel so. If upon reflection and sharing something that truly interests you, you are once again told to get over yourself, you are my people. It is reported that we, the introverted ones, make up from 25% to 40 % of the population (which seems very unspecific. In article for The Atlantic, Jonathan Rauch wrote, “How many people are introverts? I performed exhaustive research on this question, in the form of a quick Google search. The answer: About 25 percent. Or: Just under half. Or—my favorite—”a minority in the regular population but a majority in the gifted population.” Maybe some days people feel introverted and some days they don’t??) We contribute much to society and we like people, extroverts included. We must like ourselves, as we are, and make choices that support our nature. Be true to yourself. Define yourself.
I started this post with the question in the title, Why Blog About Being an Introvert? Well, I’m an introvert and I like to reflect on almost anything. One day recently I had the desire to be out in the world, but I sort of cringed at the idea of participating in conversation that would turn out to be boring and getting overloaded with sounds. I had the thought; I should start a networking group for introverts. I chuckled. No one would come. Introverts don’t want to gather. We do, though, when we can be comfortable, and no one wants to be uncomfortable. We have a lot to say and we’re interested in sharing. Hence the blog. Let’s share.
I’m not a doctor, a psychiatrist, psychologist or doctor…in fact I’m not a professional expert of any sort. But I am an expert on my personal experience of “discovering” I’m an introvert and then learning how to go on from there. That sounds dramatic, but it was.
No matter if you’re an extrovert, an introvert or in the well-balanced middle, we’re all people who are going through life in our own way. Let’s share our experiences. Maybe in doing so we’ll help make the world a better place, or at least richer for you and me.