How to Handle the Highly Sensitive

They tear up at phone commercials. They brood for days over a gentle ribbing. They know what you're feeling before you do. Oh, the highly sensitive. Homepage image: Shutterstock

Understanding the Highly Sensitive Person

Extraverted HSPs face unique challenges.

Puppies Socializing
iStockphoto - Jens Trübiger
After reading Sense and Sensitivity in the July/August Psychology Today, an article about highly sensitive people (HSPs), Ron wrote, "I quickly identified with being highly sensitive. I won't bother covering ... why... let's just say reading the article was enough to make me cry. When I read that one in five HSPs were actually extraverts and that their exhaustion from social interaction often inaccurately labeled them as introverts ... I froze. I'm not a social introvert, I'm a sensitive extravert! The realization opened up a whole world of answers to questions I've had that were never answered by always approaching my personality from the perspective of being an introvert."

If you read some descriptions of introversion, they can sound very much like high sensitivity: Both introverts and HSPs reflect deeply, like meaningful conversations, and need lots of down time. Thus it is not surprising that 70% of HSPs are introverts. But that means 30% are extraverts—why is that? Clearing up the introversion-sensitivity distinction is something I am trying to do all the time, because people like Ron are left out and confused when we equate these two terms.

Why the confusion? Most people equate introversion and extraversion with sociability—that is, to what extent you have a large circle of friends and can enjoy meeting strangers and socializing in large groups. This has little to do with high sensitivity, in that high sensitivity lies deeper. It is an innate trait. Degree of sociability or extraversion (in this sense) is highly heritable, but sociability is not itself the trait that is inherited. Wearing skirts is highly heritable, too, but there is no gene for it. It's highly heritable because gender is, and most skirts are worn by women. Likewise, low sociability is strongly associated with sensitivity because many HSPs become introverted to avoid the overstimulation that can go with social interactions, especially if they fear social judgment due to past bad experiences. But there is considerable research to show that sensitivity is the more basic trait.

Some sensitive people, however, adopt a different strategy early on. For them, being around people is not so arousing, and sometimes even soothing, although ultimately every sensitive person who is an extravert still needs some down time. From my interviews, I found that sensitive extraverts often grew up in a small community or neighborhood where people knew each other. One I know was the daughter of a minister; another was raised on a commune. Many had good childhoods and were secure within their families, making them more secure socially.

When I say that introversion and extraversion (degree of sociability) are not in themselves innate, I will be stepping on some toes. The fact is that our names for traits have been determined up to now by our descriptions of how people act and probably always will be. "He's so sociable" or "quick tempered." "She's so funny" or "very shy." Now we are just beginning to find out more about the genes behind the behaviors we observe. The genetic variations behind extraversion probably do not govern social behavior so much as the general tendency to seek new stimulation in search of rewarding experiences, people being one of the best sources of rewards. Hence this trait is often called high sensation seeking. High sensation seeking and high sensitivity are a new generation of trait terms, based less on observable behaviors and more on evolution and genetics.

Back to extraverted HSPs: You can inherit the genetic variations that lead both to being highly sensitive and a high sensation seeker, so this may be another way, besides being raised to be social, that you can be both highly sensitive and extraverted, but it may be more accurate in this case to call it highly sensitive and high sensation seeking. This combo, as one person put it, "is like driving with one foot on the gas, the other on the brake."

Being extraverted or a high sensation seeker and being highly sensitive is a great blend to be. You can be a natural leader, once you learn how to express yourself to non-HSPs, who can find your insights amazing, but also strange or difficult to accept. For example, when you see injustices or hurtful behaviors, like all HSPs, your strong emotional reactions kick in. But you are more likely than other HSPs to find yourself standing on a soap box trying to get others to understand the consequences of their harmful behavior. Then maybe someone says you are overreacting or being an oddball. You may retreat, feeling embarrassed, angry, or just overexposed. Similarly, HSPs are often able to see problems in others' plans. If they stay quiet they often see things turn out badly, but if they speak up they are seen as pessimists, naysayers, or too critical. You, the extraverted HSP, are likely to speak up.

With practice, however, all HSPs can learn to use their sensitivity to know just what to say, with just the right finesse to ensure that their voice and perceptions will be heard. We can have an enormously good impact on causes we deem worthy of our time and energy. But remember, we all still need extra down time: I recommend eight hours of sleep or at least in bed, per day, and another two hours of additional down time, preferably meditating, but walking in nature alone or doing routine tasks quietly, while letting your mind rest or wander, are also good. You can take down time even stuck in traffic if you turn off your audio inputs for once! The point is, in particular if you are a sensitive extravert, you need to pay special attention to taking care of yourself because life is so rich and exciting. You are a special breed.

How to Handle the Highly Sensitive