If you were to see me lead a group or speak on a topic I feel passionate about, you would probably see a high energy, dynamic — and, on a good day — charismatic speaker. What you probably would not guess is that I am an introvert who also tops the HSP scale. As a person who craves quiet — and functions at her best there — it is a balancing act to live in this loud world.
So what does it mean to be a highly sensitive person (HSP)?
The sensory-processing sensitivity (SPS) trait discovered by Elaine Aron, PhD, has been widely accepted into mainstream psychology and is now more commonly referred to as the HSP personality trait. One out of every five people processes information differently, more deeply, and with more awareness of subtleties. It’s actually a natural, innate trait that all humans (and animals) have. In an HSP brain, it’s just magnified.
Think of the animal kingdom. Animals, particularly prey, must be extremely sensitive to the nuances of the environment, the subtle changes in sounds and smells, the almost-imperceptible shifts that signal that something is out of place so as not to become someone else’s lunch.
As in the animal kingdom, some humans simply have a more highly developed version of this trait than others. So while there is nothing wrong with having a brain wired to be sensitive to stimulus — in the caveman days, it would be what kept us alive — we live in a loud world that can make this difficult at times.
So does our modern culture value the quiet, introspective thinker or the highly sensitive person who needs to pull into her- or himself to find quiet?
According to Susan Cain’s bestselling book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, the answer would be “no.” The author’s research showed that current society favors extroverts, calling it the rise of the ‘Extrovert Ideal’ in the 20th century.
What is wrong with that? Extroverted people are fun to be around – of course they are – but in our usual black and white way, when society favors one, it tends to devalue and subvert the other.
There are, however, ways for the quiet, introspective thinker and the stimulus-sensitive person to survive in the loud world we live in.
- Know what level of quiet you need. Are you introverted, a highly sensitive person, or both? Not all introverts are HSPs and not all HSPs are introverts (according to research, 30 percent actually are extroverts). If you are not sure, you can take psychologist Elaine Aron’s HSP self-test or Susan Cain’s introvert/extrovert test.
- Since the needs of introverts and HSPs are often misunderstood and judged by our extrovert-loving society, you may be carrying around self-talk and beliefs that are not helping you. Take the time to understand how your brain works. There is absolutely nothing wrong with it. You may want to read Elaine Aron’s book Highly Sensitive Person or Susan Cain’s Quiet.
- Reflect on the types of environments, people and situations that have drained you. Answer this for all sensory stimuli: sight, smell, sound, taste, touch. Now think of the environments, peoples and situations where you feel most invigorated and energized. Again, think of all types of sensory stimuli. The world is loud and you cannot stop the loudness, but you can choose when and how you will be around it.
- Learn to respect and value the way your body communicates with itself and with the energy of others. Once you learn to listen to your body, if the stimulus coming at you is too much, you can choose how to respond: you work in a quieter place; you recognize high-stimulus environments and limit your exposure to them; and you learn how to restabilize yourself afterward. You try to match the pace that your brain processes information with the pace of your world.
- Honor who you are. Recognize that an extrovert is a person who is energized by being around other people, while an introvert is energized by being alone. Despite what society says, one is not better than the other, they are just different. The extrovert needs someone to play in the sandbox with them; the introvert wants to check out the sand first. One does not need to sacrifice for the other, we just need to respect the timing of each other’s needs.
- Because as an introvert, you need time to yourself first, it is up to you to set the boundary with the extroverted person who is happily dragging you into the sandbox. There is nothing to apologize for. You might need to educate or remind the other person of what works best for you – but you never need to apologize.
- Once you have met your own needs for quiet, processing time, see if you can stretch to meet the extrovert’s needs. You may gravitate to quiet, but the world is a social place and extroverted people enjoy being around others. Check in with yourself and see if you want to play in the sandbox. It’s not a bad place to be, once you know how to take care of yourself.
You need to listen to yourself, know how various stimuli affect you, know what environments are challenging, respect your own needs, set boundaries, and stand up for yourself – no apologizing necessary.
Aron, Elaine N. (1997). Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You. New York: Broadway Books.
Cain, Susan. (2012). Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. New York: Crown Publishing Group.