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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.

Perceiving More

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.

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English: Morning mist on Lake Mapourika, New Z...

English: Morning mist on Lake Mapourika, New Zealand. Français : Brume du matin sur le lac Mapourika, en Nouvelle-Zélande. Deutsch: Nebel bei Lake Mapourika in Neuseeland. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, I’m in introvert. So what? Is that a big deal?To me it’s not a bid deal that I’m an introvert. It has felt like it’s a big deal to our society, the society that claims to value individuality and yet seeks to define normal for us all.

Different but Wrong

Just take a look at the subheading of a book about being an introvert, “How to Thrive in an Extrovert Society.” The implication is that it takes a handbook for an introvert to “thrive” in our society. (The main title, by the way, is “The Introvert Advantage” by Marti Olsen Laney, Psy. D.) So, as I said, to be in an introvert is not in itself remarkable. But in our society, it’s important, a Big Deal, to first know if you’re an introvert and then to know that you are not a freak – but you may be one of only a few to appreciate your innate attributes. A society where being an extrovert is considered the norm will not necessarily understand that introverts have attributes, much less appreciate them and seek them out as valuable.

That has been my experience, as I wrote in a previous post. But life is a trip, and it’s been interesting to go through the process of learning about myself from a standpoint of, “Hey, I have qualities yet to be appreciated?” and then learning how to let them out into the world. As a Psychology Today article by Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D, points out, it’s very typical to internalize beliefs about introversion, but those beliefs are often damaging and not fact-based.

“Unfortunately, most of what you read about in the popular press portrays the negative qualities of introversion. Some people incorrectly compare introversion to social anxiety disorder (social phobia). They are not the same.”

Letting Me Out

One common belief about introverts is that we don’t like to socialize. Well, I do. But it took some self-discovery reflection to appreciate that just because I don’t want to walk into a crowd of strangers and be expected to be gregarious doesn’t mean I want to sit home alone all the time. There are ways in which I prefer to be in the world. There’s no getting around it, the self-discover step was key to being able to feel good about letting “me” out, the real me, and refraining from presenting what I believed others wanted to see. In other words, to express those positive attributes in the world in a comfortable and fun way I had to learn a few things and try on things to see how they fit. Here’s a list of some things I learned:

-Not every day and not every encounter is the same. I have to stay in touch with what’s going on inside me to see what I’m up for.

-Overall, I prefer small groups of people or one-on-one get-togethers over large groups of people milling around.

-I can do large groups, I can even speak in front of large groups, but I need prepping and comfortable clothes. I have to acknowledge that the experience is going to be a tiring one from which I need to factor in recuperation with some solitude later.

-I may not find it enjoyable to cliff dive or ride rollercoasters, but that’s OK. In the same Psychology Today article, the author addresses the different needs for excitement in introverts.

“Psychologists have long known that people vary in the need to be stimulated as well as the desire to take risks. If you’re low on the excitement seeking facet, you’ll probably never go bungee jumping or become a race car driver. You seek peace and quiet and are perfectly happy with keeping to your daily routines.”

I’m still developing my list of pleasure-seeking activities, but it includes lovely things I can immerse my senses in and savor with intensity. That’s this introvert’s way of feeling alive, and it’s delicious.

Self-Acceptance

For me, it hasn’t been nearly as important, if it’s important at all, to convince the world that some commonly held, negative beliefs about introverts aren’t true. It’s ecstatically important that I understand that I’m not boring, I’m not too difficult to be around and I’m not inept. These are just misconceptions and they are among the misconceptions many introverts have internalized. Author Brian Kim lists a few misconceptions on his website and suggests that introverts, and extroverts, take a look at personality through a different lens.

“The qualities and characteristics of introverts are often held in a negative light in today’s world, so it’s only natural that the majority of people seem to think that there’s something wrong with them. The reason why the majority of people think that there’s something wrong with introverts is because the majority of people aren’t very knowledgeable when it comes to introverts, in terms of why they are the way they are and why they do the things they do.”

It’s natural to care what people think, but for living as an introvert who is mostly content and not tortured, the challenge is self-acceptance first. That’s a big deal.