Why It’s Hard to be a Highly Sensitive (HSP) Introvert
Highly sensitive (HSP) introverts—misperceived by a noisy extraverted world.
Posted August 23, 2010
A handful of years ago, I was so relieved to discover that there's a name (Highly Sensitive Person, aka HSP) for what I thought were uniquely weird sensitivities. I also finally understand and now even celebrate the fact that I'm highly introverted. Thanks to these new insights into my personality, I've come to appreciate that the traits that make me seem "strange" are also the reasons that I'm an effective coach and writer.
Most of my life I felt that if people knew what I was really like, they'd write me off as strange or different. What a thrill to discover I'm not alone: 15-20% of the population are thought to be highly sensitive (according to HSP expert Dr. Elaine Aron), and around 20% of all people tend towards introversion. Of the 15-20% who are HSPs, 70% are introverts.
I've been enjoying fellow PT blogger Sophia Dembling's blog about introverts, and it got me thinking about how difficult it can be to live in a world of extroverts. Add being highly sensitive to the mixture and you may feel like you want to hide from everything and everybody (partially to avoid trying to explain yourself to others). I've found that understanding why I am who I am has helped so much, and has helped me stop trying to fit in.
Here are some of the more challenging aspects I've experienced living a highly sensitive introverted life:
1) I'd prefer not to share a hotel room with you
A few years ago, a well-meaning acquaintance suggested we rent a one-room apartment while we were both studying flamenco in Spain. At the time I was already happily ensconced in a cheap but cute hotel.
"We'll save so much money," she urged me, "and it'll be so much fun!"
At first, I said no. I tried to explain that when I don't have my own space, I get really stressed out.
She laughed and told me I was being ridiculous. We got along so well and had so much in common, how could this not work? She was so convincing, optimistic and insistent that I caved in. After a few days I started to get less friendly.
As a highly sensitive person who needs to minimize auditory stimuli, I don't do well when another person likes having TV or loud music on all the time as background noise. I'm extremely sensitive to other people's moods; when someone is angry, judgmental or irritated, those emotions make me even more uncomfortable. If I don't have my own space to retreat to and recharge, I'll eventually have a meltdown.
As an introvert, being around other people drains me (as opposed to extroverts, who gain energy being around other people). That doesn't mean I don't like being with others, in fact I love it - but I can only do it for so long before I have to go into my cave and refuel.
Sadly, after that ill-fated stay together our friendship ended. I was particularly sad about it because I had warned her that I didn't do well sharing a small space, but she had talked me into it (sometimes it's just wisest to have healthy boundaries in place, even if they disappoint someone in the short term).
2) Just because I don't call doesn't mean I don't care
Reading Sophia Dembling's blog, I was thrilled to discover that introverts almost universally don't like the phone. All my life people have been complaining that I don't call them, perceiving my behavior as evidence of lack of affection.
I used to feel guilty, but finally realized (with Dembling's help) that it's simply that I don't like being on the phone. I dislike awkward silences or pressure to come up with fascinating conversation topics, even with people I know well.
Some people complain that I don't call them enough, and take it as a sign that I love them less. What they don't realize is that I really don't call almost anyone "just to chat" (other than those I'm closest to), unless I have a specific reason that I need to to talk to them - it's not personal. Email and Facebook are completely different, I love to communicate that way - another characteristic, according to Dembling, which is typical of introverts.
(I've come to appreciate since, though, that just because I don't like something doesn't mean I can freely avoid it; I've trained myself to call people more often as my priority on relationships trumps my own comfort level)
As an HSP, I also pick up all kinds of subtleties in people's voices or comments that make me uncomfortable if they have personal (negative) significance. This intuitive sensitivity works really well when I work as a personal coach over the phone, as I'm able to pick up what's behind a client's words and use it to unblock them or help them move forward, but in personal conversations it can be too much information.
3) I'd prefer not to go to a crowded concert with you, but would love to hang out in a restaurant where we can hear each other speak and can talk about life and other meaningful things
One of my worst memories in recent years was going to a concert in a large plaza when I was living in Cabo. I avoid spending long hours at public events, which often causes problems as many of my friends could happily hang out in a big noisy crowd for days. I agreed to go in order to please them and to avoid my usual role of party-pooper.
That said, if I'm somewhere that really interests me, e.g. a salsa club where there's great music and lots of room to dance, or a party filled with friends and people I find highly amusing and interesting, I'll often be the last person to leave. If we're just going to an event for the sake of going and there will be tons of strangers and noise, I'd rather stay home and watch Netflix.
As our group pushed through the sardine-packed throng to get near the stage, I decided to stay by myself near the periphery. I was still surrounded and pushed against by people I couldn't see over, and felt overwhelmed by smells of beer and smoke (that's an HSP thing) as unfamiliar eardrum-shattering country music assaulted me. Too much noise, too many smells, too many people. I was on the verge of tears and if I could have walked home, I would have.
I'm a fun person, really I am (just ask my salsa dance buddies from years back) - if I have space, can hear myself talk, and have reasonably fresh air to breathe. People like me don't want to leave a party because we want to wreck your fun, we're just overwhelmed. My sister's the same, and she and her husband have learned to go to parties in separate cars.
Let's go out for a lovely dinner instead - introverts prefer meaningful one on one conversations to large group experiences, and HSPs yearn to connect deeply, discussing rich complex topics.
If any of this reminds you of you, google the words highly sensitive person (HSP) and introvert. You'll be reassured by what you read, and can finally explain to the world that you're not weird, you're just like a significant proportion of the rest of the population - so there!