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Are You an Introvert, a Highly Sensitive Person, or Both?

A Personal Perspective: Both are introspective, but only one craves solitude.

Key points

  • Introverts are primarily fatigued by socializing, while sensitive people are fatigued by any kind of stimulation, in addition to socializing.
  • Introspection can sometimes make one feel anxious or self-critical, perhaps overthinking a decision or overanalyzing a past conversation.
  • For introverts and sensitive people, downtime is particularly important because they become overstimulated more easily than others.
Anastasiya Lobanovskaya/Pexels
Source: Anastasiya Lobanovskaya/Pexels

Introverts and highly sensitive people (HSPs) are often thought of as being one and the same. However, while there is certainly some overlap between these two traits, there are also some key differences that set them apart.

As I explain in my book, Sensitive, which I co-authored with Andre Sólo, introversion describes a social orientation: a person who prefers the company of small groups and enjoys spending time alone. Sensitivity, on the other hand, describes an orientation toward one’s environment. Therefore, we could say that introverts are primarily fatigued by socializing, while sensitive people are fatigued by any kind of stimulation, in addition to socializing.

So, which are you? Actually, you can be both an introvert and a sensitive person, just like you can be both tall and left-handed. Let’s explore some of the similarities and differences.

Similarities Between Introverts and Highly Sensitive People

1. Both are introspective and reflective.

Compared to their extroverted and less sensitive counterparts, they tend to be more attuned to their own thoughts and emotions. This tendency shows up in a variety of ways. They are more likely to engage in mindfulness practices like meditation and journaling, or creative activities like writing, painting, or music, as a way of exploring and expressing their vast inner world. They may create art that reflects their emotions or write stories or poems that allow them to delve deeper into their thoughts and experiences. They may constantly be asking themselves deep questions about life and their identity, like, “What are my values?” and “What do I want out of life?”

If you’re an introvert and/or a sensitive person, then you know that this focus on introspection can be both a benefit and a challenge. On the one hand, it gives you a deeper understanding of yourself and the world around you. On the other hand, it can sometimes make you feel anxious or self-critical—for example, when you overthink a decision or overanalyze a past conversation.

2. Both need plenty of downtime.

Because the introverted and sensitive brain is wired to go deep, it’s also more easily overstimulated. This means that introverts and sensitive people can become stressed, overwhelmed, or tired when there’s too much going on, like a lot of noise and social interaction, or a busy schedule. For introverts and sensitive people, a “normal” day at the office or in the classroom can feel like too much. After work or school, instead of running an errand or meeting coworkers for happy hour, all they may want to do is go home, relax, and decompress!

For introverts, downtime is particularly important because they find social interaction—like attending a party or making small talk with coworkers—to be draining. Sensitive people, on the other hand, need downtime to recover from the intense emotional and sensory experiences that they encounter throughout the day. For example, a sensitive person may become drained by loud music or bright overhead lights. Or, because they are so attuned to people, simply the act of existing alongside others can be draining, as they feel their emotions and read and respond to their cues and perceived needs. In both cases, downtime—like reading, watching a show, taking a long bath, or simply spending time in nature or in a peaceful space—allows introverts and sensitive people to recharge their energy.

It’s important to note that introverts and sensitive people aren’t the only ones who benefit from downtime. Everyone needs time to recover from the demands of daily life. However, for introverts and sensitive people, downtime is particularly important because they become overstimulated more easily than others.

3. Both may struggle with anxiety or feeling overwhelmed.

Both introverts and sensitive people may feel overwhelmed or anxious in certain situations. For example, they may be anxious about attending a large social event because they know that the need to engage in constant conversation will drain them. Or they may feel overstimulated by the fast pace of their job or the demands of being a parent. Both introverts and sensitive people may struggle with conflict or confrontation, as the emotional intensity of these situations can feel overwhelming and trigger overthinking. Basically, any situation that is loud, highly stimulating, or intense can feel like “too much” for the gentle, peace-loving introvert or sensitive person.

However, the good news is, they may be able to manage these feelings more effectively than others, once they become aware of them. After all, they have a greater understanding of their own needs and abilities—remember, they are very introspective!

4. Both may feel out of place in society.

Introverts make up 30 to 50 percent of the population, while sensitive people make up 15 to 30 percent. So, if you are an introverted or sensitive person, many of the people who you encounter in life will not be like you. They will not experience life in the same “turned up” way that you do, nor will they be able to relate to your need for solitude or downtime.

And, as I explain in my book, our loud and often rushed world is not always friendly to introverts and sensitive people. In many cultures, especially Western ones, extroverted and aggressive behavior is highly valued, while reflective or introspective behavior is seen as a weakness or a failing. Emotions—which sensitive people experience intensely—may also be seen as a weakness (“Stop crying!” or “Toughen up!” or “It’s not that bad!”). This can lead introverts and sensitive people to feel pressure to be something they are not, or to feel like they are somehow not measuring up to societal expectations.

Differences Between Introverts and Highly Sensitive People

1. Sensitive people can be introverted or extroverted.

It’s estimated that about 70 percent of sensitive people are introverts, while 30 percent are extraverts. In other words, you might be an introverted sensitive person who cherishes solitude and quiet, or you might be an extroverted sensitive person who is outwardly expressive and thrives on relationships.

An extraverted sensitive person may appear quite different from an introverted sensitive person. While an introverted sensitive person may be quiet and reserved, an extraverted sensitive person may be outgoing and sociable. Unlike introverted sensitive people, extraverted sensitive people may enjoy meeting new people, trying new things, and maintaining a wide social network. In terms of their verbal and nonverbal communication, they may be highly expressive, using gestures, facial expressions, and tone of voice to convey their emotions and ideas. Although extroverted sensitive people feel energized by socializing, they still need downtime to calm their senses and process their experiences.

2. Sensitive people and introverts experience emotions differently.

Sensitive people experience emotions deeply and with greater complexity than others do. Called depth of emotion—one of the gifts of sensitivity—they may feel more moved, touched, or deeply impacted by their experiences, and they may need more time to process their emotions afterward. They may also experience a particularly emotional event, such as a sad movie, a break up, a loss, or a personal tragedy, with greater intensity than someone who is less sensitive. Their depth of emotion springs from the fact that they process all stimulation deeply—including internal stimulation. This emotional depth can make sensitive people particularly empathetic and compassionate, but it can also make them more susceptible to anxiety, trauma, and depression.

Introverts, on the other hand, do not necessarily feel emotions in a stronger or more intense way than others do. In fact, introverts may be more reserved or guarded with their emotions. They may prefer to keep their feelings to themselves.

3. Sensitive people and introverts react to stimulation differently.

While both introverts and sensitive people may be more sensitive to external stimuli, sensitive people tend to have a more intense and visceral reaction to it. Certain smells, sounds, or rough textures may trigger a physical sensation in their body, an emotional reaction, or a feeling of discomfort or unease. (For example, as a sensitive person, I can’t wear leggings or pants that have a tight waistband.) For introverts, the primary source of feeling drained and overwhelmed is socializing, while for sensitive people, it is more about sensory input.

Of course, if you are both an introvert and a sensitive person, you may feel drained and overwhelmed by many things at once. I remember attending a “speed friending” event where I sat in a circle and had to talk to a new person every five minutes. The sensitive person in me was drained by the noise and activity level in the room, while the introvert in me was exhausted by making small talk with so many people!

4. Introverts crave solitude while sensitive people don’t.

Introversion is characterized by a preference for solitude, which has to do with how we “quiet ones” process rewards. For example, introverts might skip a party and instead opt for a solo activity like reading or gaming because they love spending time alone. As Susan Cain writes of introverts in Quiet, “Solitude matters, and for some people, it’s the air they breathe.”

Being sensitive, on the other hand, is about how a person experiences the world around them. Sensitive people do not necessarily crave solitude in the same way that introverts do—they may have no desire to spend an entire night (or weekend!) alone. Rather, sensitive people may find themselves needing downtime only when they feel tired or overwhelmed. They may step out of a loud room for a few moments to calm their senses or spend the morning journaling to sort out their thoughts.

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