Introverts: you probably aren’t crazy (but you might be highly sensitive)
Susan Cain’s “Quiet” educated people about the introvert’s social interaction patterns, specifically our need to balance social time with time alone to recharge. While accurate, this is a narrow perspective that ignores the role of what Dr. Elaine N. Aron describes as the “highly sensitive person”.
Paraphrasing from Wikipedia:
A highly sensitive person (HSP) is a person having the innate trait of high sensory processing sensitivity. HSPs comprise about a fifth of the population (equal numbers in men and women) and may process sensory data much more deeply and thoroughly due to a biological difference in their nervous systems. This is a specific trait, with key consequences for how we view people, that in the past has often been confused with innate shyness, social anxiety problems, inhibitedness, social phobia and innate fearfulness, and introversion. Although the term is primarily used to describe humans, something similar to the trait is present in over 100 other species.
The attributes of HSPs can be remembered as DOES:
- Depth of processing
- Over aroused (easily compared to others)
- Emotional reactivity and high empathy
- Sensitivity to subtle stimuli
Aesthetic Sensitivity, Low Sensory Threshold, and Ease of Excitation
Or in my case: YES, YES and YES.
A fortuitous conversation with a woman named Ginger at #xoxo in Portland opened my eyes to the bigger picture. See, while I’ve always been pretty outspoken about about my introvert status, it wasn’t until I started reading about HSPs that a lot of frustrating things in my life seemed to fall right into place: my (relative) inability to be productive around other people, the complex furor I feel when people invade my space at concerts or talk loudly while following me on the street, how laughably easy it is to startle me.
No, really: you can make me jump if you’re standing beside me, don’t talk for a while and then start talking again.
Here’s my adaptation of the short HSP test. I’ve tweaked and/or removed a few of the questions from the original because they seem redundant or unclear. Just think about how each statement makes you feel, and unless your brain says YES then you’re probably a NO for that question. We’ll discuss your score below.
- I am easily overwhelmed by strong sensory input
- I seem to be aware of subtleties in my environment
- Other people’s moods affect me
- I tend to be very sensitive to pain
- I find myself needing to withdraw during busy days; into bed or into a darkened room or any place where I can have some privacy and relief from stimulation
- I am particularly sensitive to the effects of caffeine
- I am easily overwhelmed by things like bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics, or sirens close by
- I have a rich, complex inner life
- I am made uncomfortable by loud noises
- I am deeply moved emotionally by the arts or music
- My nervous system sometimes feels so frazzled that I just have to stay home
- I am conscientious
- I startle easily
- I get rattled when I have a lot to do in a short amount of time
- When people are uncomfortable in a physical environment I tend to know what needs to be done to make it more comfortable (like changing the lighting or the seating)
- I am annoyed when people try to get me to juggle too many tasks at once
- I try hard to avoid making mistakes or forgetting things
- I make a point to avoid violent movies and TV shows
- I become unpleasantly sensitive when a lot is going on around me
- Being very hungry creates a strong reaction in me, disrupting my concentration or mood
- Changes in my life shake me up
- I notice and enjoy beautiful things others walk past
- I find it unpleasant to have a lot going on in my life at once
- I make it a high priority to arrange my life to avoid upsetting or overwhelming situations
- I am bothered by intense stimuli such as strobing or bright lights at concerts, perfumes, having something sticky on your face
- When I must compete or be observed while performing a task, I become so nervous or shaky that I do much worse than I would otherwise
- When I was a child, my parents or teachers seemed to see me as sensitive or shy
Did you agree with 14 or more of these statements? Congratulations, you might be an HSP.
I’m excited to know that the things I experience don’t make me a freak, but the reality is that they can still make me very annoying if I’m not careful.
Ultimately this is all just theory and it’s not like I can explain to strangers why their probably-normal-to-them behaviour is driving me into a panic attack without sounding like I’m mad. My nervous system is wired in a unique way, but I can’t use that as a crutch to excuse my occasional rudeness, terse conversational manner or outrageous demands on the people I share space with. Sometimes I’m just being an asshole. It’s usually because I haven’t eaten lunch yet, and I’m grumpy. I can’t blame genetics for being a dumb ass.
That all said, thinking about my HSP tendencies has given me a new empathy for people who are struggling — especially because it’s likely that they don’t understand why they’re having troubles not shared by their friends.
Like mental health, I hope people talk more about this. It’s not restricted to introverts, either; apparently 30% of HSPs are extroverts. Hopefully the terms and test I’ve presented here give you new tools to understand yourself and the people you share your life with a bit better.