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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.
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.
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.